Parthenogenesis, Royal Opera House, Linbury Studio, June 2009


When the curtain fell the audience waited for a scene change that never came. Eventually someone applauded and when this was taken up, the curtain lifted so the cast could take bows — it was the end of the opera.

The inspiration for this opera was far more striking than the result. In 1944 in Hanover a young woman was thrown to the pavement by a bomb blast nearby, suffered minor injuries, and nine months later gave birth to a daughter. The girl was said to have identical fingerprints, and other genetic indicators, to her mother, who insisted that she had never had sex with anyone. Doctors confirmed this seemed to be the case, and conjectured that the shock of the bomb may have triggered parthenogenesis — non-sexual reproduction — a word derived from the Greek parthenon meaning a young maiden.

On this unlikely theme the composer James MacMillan has created a 50-minute opera in which an adult clone named Anna lies in hospital in the last stages of ovarian cancer. In her sleep she recalls her mother’s meeting a fallen angel who visits her bedroom to inform her she will give birth without first having sex. The mother and the angel are singing roles, performed by Amy Freston and Stephan Loges, while Charlotte Roach took the spoken role of Anna. The text was by Michael Symmonds Roberts, and while James MacMillan is a composer inspired by intellectual and religious themes, he seems to be no man of the stage. As a piece of theatre this simply didn’t work.

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