Poulenc's opera is an absurdist romp through the turbulent relationship between Therese and her husband. It began with a feminist revolt in which Therese changes herself to a man and changes her husband into a woman and ending with a poignant message of peace to a country ravaged by war.
Act 1 opens with a prologue in which the Theatre Director addresses the audience in an extended aria. The act continues with Therese (a feminist with military ambitions), who is sick of being cast aside due to her gender, so she decides to make a change. Her breasts, represented by balloons, escape from her blouse and float upwards and she starts to grow a beard.
Her husband thinks that the stranger he sees killed his wife and donned her clothes until she explains to him that she is no longer Therese, but now Tiresias.
The play continues with the husband being forced to take up childbirth, achieving remarkable success, with 40,000 babies in a day, and is interviewed by a journalist. The Gendarme complains about the sudden increase in population needing to be fed, so the husband suggests taking ration cards from a fortune teller.
Les Mamelles de Tiresias was composed in 1945 and is based on the play by Guillaume Apollinaire. Poulenc tuned the play for an operatic subject towards the close of World War II, when its surrealists/ dada aesthetic masked the tragic realities of the Nazi occupation in France.
The absurd scene from the second half of the Opera, where the seemingly outrageous situation of dozens and dozens were born, took on another overtone in the context of the harsh reality of the severely diminished population post-war Europe.