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World premiere at the Liceu de Barcelona of “Alexina B.”, the seventh opera by the Spanish composer Raquel García-Tomás.

Tomorrow, Saturday 18 March, the world premiere of Alexina B., the seventh chamber opera by the Spanish composer Raquel García-Tomás, winner of the 2020 National Music Prize in the composition category, will take place at the Liceu Theatre in Barcelona. With a libretto by Irène Gayraud and stage direction by Marta Pazos (also director of García-Tomás’ previous opera, Je suis narcissiste), Alexina B. is inspired by the story of Adélaïde Herculine Barbin, also known as Alexina B., an intersex person born in France in 1838. Mezzo-soprano Lidia Vinyes-Curtis gives life to the main character of the work, Alexina B., accompanied by sopranos Alicia Amo, Elena Copons and Mar Esteve and countertenor Xavier Sabata. Ernest Martínez-Izquierdo will conduct the Orquesta Sinfónica del Gran Teatre del Liceu and Cor Vivaldi-Petits Cantors de Catalunya.

García-Tomás (Barcelona, 1984) is the first composer to premiere an opera at the Liceu in the 21st century and the second in absolute terms, after Matilde Salvador (who premiered Vinatea in 1974). The real-life character who inspired the opera, Herculine Barbin, lived in mid-19th century France and committed suicide in 1868, shortly before their 30th birthday, in a Paris attic, in complete solitude. Unable to find a place in the society of their time and unable to understand their own body, they decided to inhale toxic gas and cause their own death by asphyxiation. Before they died, however, they left behind a handwritten autobiography that has been invaluable in telling their story: Barbin, who was born a girl and died a man – a judge allowed her to register civilly as a man and adopt the name Abel – recounts in their memoirs the first documented account of an intersex person, born with sexual characteristics (including genitalia, gonads and chromosomal patterns) that do not conform to the typical binary notions of male or female bodies. Experts estimate that up to 1.7% of the population is born with intersex traits. Raised as a girl, when she reached puberty, Alexina B. discovered that her body did not develop like the rest of her schoolmates. She never menstruated, for example. Her first job was as a governess in a school, where she met Sara, the daughter of Madame P., the headmistress. Alexina, who was attracted to Sara, confirmed, after their first love encounter, that she felt she was a man, and this was the beginning of her journey of self-knowledge in a society that was not yet ready to accept such situations. After several medical examinations and a court ruling, Alexina was able to legally change her sex, but this did not solve anything, because he did not fit into the world of men either. The opera Alexina B. tells this story that the librettist Irène Gayraud came to know after reading the memoirs of Herculine Barbin, rescued in 1868 by the forensic doctor Regnier and published in 1978 by the philosopher Michel Foucault, after locating the text in an archive. Alexina’s case, in addition to having been an important source of study to better understand the experiences of intersex people, is also the story of a personal drama that is the starting point for creating an opera that is significant for our time.

While the libretto remains faithful to the original of Barbin’s memoirs, Raquel García-Tomás has created music that fuses the language of today with that of the 19th century, with quotations from Franz Liszt (Spozalizio and Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude) and the 12th century nun and composer Hildegard von Bingen, whose responsories Favus Distillans and Ave Maria, serve as inspiration for a couple of scenes in this opera, in which the ecclesiastical tradition given to the boarding school is made explicit. In the scenic concept proposed by Marta Pazos – with set design by Max Glaenzel and lighting by Nuno Meira – there are 22 scenes spread over three acts that combine episodes from Alexina’s life with an exploration of her emotions: it is a to-and-fro between plot progress and subjective reflection, between the story and the confused and disordered emotions of the main character.

The main roles are played by mezzo-soprano Lidia Vinyes-Curtis, who will play the title role of Alexina, and soprano Alicia Amo, who will play the role of her friend and lover, Sara. Soprano Elena Copons will play several central figures in the protagonist’s life, such as her mother, the headmistress of the school, Madame P., and the mother superior of the boarding school where Alexina is educated, Sister Marie des Anges, as well as playing the policeman who discovers Abel Barbin’s body. For his part, the countertenor Xavier Sabata will develop a series of characters who, together, symbolise institutional power and patriarchy, such as Doctor Goujon, who will raise the corpse; the doctor who will examine Alexina; the Monsignor, who accepts their confession, and the judge who rules that her sex change in the civil registry is possible. Finally, the mezzo-soprano Mar Esteve plays the young Alexina, her friend Léa, a pupil at the convent where Alexina is educated and a pupil at the boarding school where she will teach.

In this opera there is a sixth central voice: the children’s choir, which brings to life the group of pupils and students who form part of the education and working life of the protagonist, and for which the Cor Vivaldi-Petits Cantores de Cataluña will be in charge. The musical direction is by Ernest Martínez-Izquierdo, who will work with the Orquesta Sinfónica del Gran Teatre del Liceu in sinfonietta version, as Raquel García-Tomás has written a score designed for a reduced ensemble of instruments, consisting of winds, harp, piano, string section and pre-recorded electronics.

© Photograph by Toni Bofill of the dress rehearsal of “Alexina B.”, provided by the press department of the Liceu Theatre in Barcelona.