Les mamelles de Tirésias

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Les mamelles de Tirésias (The Breasts of Tiresias) is a surrealist two-act opéra bouffe by Francis Poulenc, based on the play of the same title by Guillaume Apollinaire, which was written in 1903 but first performed in 1917. The opera premiered at the Opéra-Comique in Paris on 3 June 1947.

Poulenc first thought of setting the opera in the 1930s, and began composition in 1939, finishing in 1944. He altered the setting from the real African island of Zanzibar to an imaginary town called Zanzibar near Monte Carlo (Apollinaire's childhood home) on the French Riviera. This latitude, he said, was "quite tropical enough for the Parisian that I am."[citation needed]

The opera closes with the stern command, "Ô Français, faites des enfants!" ("O Frenchmen, make babies!"), and the success of this is perhaps seen in the fact that the first two sopranos cast in the role of Tiresias had to give it up before the premiere on account of pregnancy.[citation needed]


Role Voice type Premiere Cast, June 3, 1947
(Conductor: Albert Wolff)
Theatre director baritone Robert Jeantet
Thérèse/Tirésias soprano Denise Duval
Her husband baritone martin Paul Payen
Monsieur Lacouf tenor Alban Derroja
Monsieur Presto baritone Marcel Enot
A gendarme baritone Émile Rousseau
A newspaper vendor mezzo-soprano Jane Atty
A reporter from Paris tenor Serge Rallier
The son baritone Jacques Hivert
An elegant lady mezzo-soprano Irène Gromova
A woman mezzo-soprano Yvonne Girard-Ducy
A bearded gentleman bass Gabriel Jullia


Act 1[edit]

Thérèse tires of her life as a submissive woman and becomes the male Tirésias when her breasts turn into balloons and float away. Her husband is not pleased by this, still less so when she ties him up and dresses him as a woman.

Meanwhile, a pair of drunken gamblers called Presto and Lacouf affectionately shoot one another and are mourned by the assembled townspeople. Thérèse marches off to conquer the world as General Tiresias, leaving her captive husband to the attentions of the local gendarme, who is fooled by his female attire.

Off-stage, General Tiresias starts a successful campaign against childbirth and is hailed by the populace. Fearful that France will be left sterile if women give up sex, the husband vows to find a way to bear children without women. Lacouf and Presto return from the dead and express both interest and scepticism.

Act 2[edit]

The curtain rises to cries of "Papa!" The husband's project has been a spectacular success, and he has given birth to 40,049 children in a single day. A visiting Parisian journalist asks how he can afford to feed the brood, but the husband explains that the children have all been very successful in careers in the arts, and have made him a rich man with their earnings. After chasing the journalist off, the husband decides to raise a journalist of his own, but is not completely pleased with the results.

The gendarme now arrives to report that, because of overpopulation, the citizens of Zanzibar are all dying of hunger. The husband suggests getting ration cards printed by a tarot-reading fortune-teller. Just such a fortune-teller immediately appears, looking rather familiar under her mask.

The fortune-teller prophesies that the fertile husband will be a multi-millionaire, but that the sterile gendarme will die in abject poverty. Incensed, the gendarme attempts to arrest her, but she strangles him and reveals herself as none other than Thérèse. The couple reconcile, and the whole cast gathers at the footlights to urge the audience:

Ecoutez, ô Français, les leçons de la guerre
Et faites des enfants, vous qui n'en faisiez guère
Cher public: faites des enfants!
Heed, o Frenchmen, the lessons of the war
And make babies, you who hardly ever make them!
Dear audience: Make babies!


  • Ed Spanjaard conducting the Nieuw Ensemble with Renate Arends, Bernard Loonen, Mattijs Van de Woerd and Opera Trionfo (2003, Brilliant Classics)