The Breasts of Tirésias
UNC Opera
Hill Hall Auditorium
Nov. 21-22

A poet, art critic, playwright, essayist and anonymous author of erotica, Guillaume Apollinaire was a key figure in the emerging modernist art of the early 20th century. His essays were instrumental in defining cubism, and he’s often credited with coining the phrase surrealism. Because surrealism laid the groundwork for almost every avant-garde art movement of the 20th century, Apollinaire’s influence still resounds today.

Surrealism is notoriously difficult to codify, but it’s safe to say that the panoramic, senseless slaughter of World War I played a large role in its inclination toward absurdity, in the same way that postmodernism can be said to emanate from the ungraspable horror of the second World War’s atrocities.

It’s appropriate, then, that Apollinaire wrote The Breasts of Tirésias after receiving a shrapnel wound to the head: The play is both suffused with war and somewhat deranged. This is typical of surrealist work, and there are other ways in which the play seems like a digest of the movement’s tropes. Authority is impotent, gender is mercurial, the supernatural is prosaic, the bourgeoisie is buffoonish, and psychosexual tropes abound (the action begins when the titular character’s breasts turn into balloons and float away).

Francis Poulenc adapted the play into an opera in 1944, when another war renewed its relevance. Last weekend, UNC Opera mounted two performances of Poulenc’s opera at Hill Hall Auditorium. They had plenty to work with, as the briskly-paced story is rich with lively music and amusing incident.

After Thérèse’s breasts abscond and she becomes the male Tirésias, she dresses her husband as a woman, ties him to a chair, and strikes out to wage a campaign against childbirth in France. A local gendarme who believes the husband to be female frees him, and, to counteract his wife’s efforts, the husband fathers 40,049 children in one day.

From here, things get really wild: The gendarme reports that the citizens of Zanzibar (the imaginary city in which the action unfolds) are starving to death due to overpopulation; an unlikely fortune teller manifests; Tirésias returns just in time for the happy ending. If the underlying moral (“Frenchmen, make babies!”) seems oddly bourgeois for a surrealist work, it’s undercut with a strong ironyin The Breasts of Tirésias, the practical need to repopulate society after a war and the ideological need to promote the sovereignty of women are at stark odds.

UNC Opera tackled the play with the appropriate gusto, underscoring its gaudiness and slapstick. Three strong performers in key roles held it all together. A violently rouged Phil Denny played the gendarme with blowsy abandon, hamming it up with a magnifying glass. The title character actually doesn’t have a lot to do as far as acting is concerned, but has many demanding songs, which Clare FitzGerald handled with remarkable confidence, her soprano both bell-clear and rafter-shaking.

And Zachary Ballard stole the show as the husband. His repertoire of gestures was as strong and subtle as his tenor. Adroitly changing the tone of his body language between unearned bravado and flustered incapacity, handling comedy and pathos with the same languid grace, he conveyed the impression of someone for whom the stage is a natural fit.

I have a few quibbles. The minimal stage (appointed with a grand piano, a few lamps and chairs, and not much else) could have been more intriguingly appointed and lit. A couple of times, the piano swallowed the words. One singer, who thankfully had a small role, was drastically weaker than the rest of the group. But this was a tightly budgeted student production, not the Met, and for a student production it was quite strong. After you see it, you’re guaranteed to never look at a balloon in quite the same way again.