Powder Her Face

Powder Her Face
Chamber opera by Thomas Adès

Scene in a production by Pier Luigi Pizzi at the Teatro Comunale Bologna, 2010
Librettist Philip Hensher
Based on life of Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll
Premiere 1 July 1995 (1995-07-01)
Cheltenham Music Festival

Powder Her Face, Op. 14 (1995), is a chamber opera in two acts by the British composer Thomas Adès, with an English libretto by Philip Hensher. The opera is 2 hours 20 minutes long. It was commissioned by the Almeida Opera, a part of London's Almeida Theatre, for performances at the Cheltenham Music Festival.

The subject of the opera is the "Dirty Duchess", Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll, whose sexual exploits were the stuff of scandal and gossip in Britain in 1963 during her divorce proceedings. The opera is explicit in its language and detail.

It was first performed on 1 July 1995 in Cheltenham, with Jill Gómez in the leading role. Reviews were generally good, but the opera became notorious for its musical depiction of fellatio: British radio station Classic FM considered it unsuitable for transmission.


The music of the opera combines influences ranging from Alban Berg, Igor Stravinsky, and Benjamin Britten to Kurt Weill and the tangos of Ástor Piazzolla.

Describing the overall impact of the libretto and the theatricality of the entire production, Alex Ross notes:

"Hensher seized the opportunity to create the first onstage blow job in opera history, but he also twisted the story into something more generalised and expressionistic: Margaret becomes a half-comic, half-tragic figure, a nitwit outlaw. There were clear parallels with Alban Berg’s epic of degradation, Lulu [...] The libretto reads like a nasty farce, but it takes on emotional breadth when the music is added. With a few incredibly seductive stretches of thirties-era popular melody, Adès shows the giddy world that the Duchess lost, and when her bright harmony lurches down to a terrifying B-flat minor he exposes the male cruelty that quickened her fall. Adès's harmonic tricks have a powerful theatrical impact: there’s a repeated sense of a beautiful mirage shattering into cold, alienated fragments".[1]

Performance history

After the premiere there were five London performances at the Almeida Theatre.

On 8 June 2006, there was a concert performance at the Barbican Centre, London, with the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by the composer.

From 11 to 22 June 2008, it was performed at the Linbury Studio Theatre in the Royal Opera House, London, with the Southbank Sinfonia conducted by Timothy Redmond, and Joan Rodgers as the Duchess.

The U.S. premiere was at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on December 10, 1998. The Brooklyn Philharmonic was conducted by Robert Spano with Marie O'Brien as the Duchess, Heather Buck in several parts, and Allen Schrott. Boston first heard the opera, as produced by Opera Boston, on June 6, 2003. The Boston Modern Opera Project was conducted by Gil Rose with Janna Baty as the Duchess; Ms. Buck and Mr. Schrott reassumed their roles.

The New York City Opera performed the opera in February 2013 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in a production by Jay Scheib and starring the soprano Allison Cook as the Duchess of Argyll.[2] The Opera Company of Philadelphia performed the opera in June 2013, with Patricia Schuman in the lead role.[3]

In March 2016 the opera had its Danish premiere at the Royal Danish Opera in Copenhagen, directed by Orpha Phelan with sets/costumes by Madeleine Boyd, conducted by Robert Houssart and with Anne Margarethe Dahl as the Duchess.[4]

Roles and premiere cast

Premiere, 1 July 1995
(Brad Cohen)
Duchess dramatic soprano Jill Gomez
Hotel Manager, also Duke, Laundryman, Other guest bass Roger Bryson
Electrician, also Lounge Lizard, Waiter, Priest, Rubbernecker, Delivery Boy tenor Niall Morris
Maid, also Confidante, Waitress, Mistress, Rubbernecker, Society Journalist high soprano Valdine Anderson

Plot synopsis


The opera is scored for an orchestra of fifteen players, with much doubling, and a large range of percussion instruments. 1. Clarinet 1 in B flat, doubling bass clarinet, soprano saxophone and bass saxophone. 2. Clarinet 2 in A, doubling bass clarinet, alto saxophone and bass saxophone. 3. Clarinet 3 in A, doubling bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet and swanee whistle. 4. Horn in F. 5. Trumpet in C. 6. Tenor trombone. 7. Percussion (one player): two tubular bells, snare drum, flat bass drum, pedal bass drum, small bongo, two timbales, rototom, clash cymbals, two suspended cymbals, sizzle cymbal, hi-hat, three temple blocks, three brake drums, tambourine, triangle, tam-tam, vibraslap, washboard, cabaça, large fishing reel, whip, lion's roar, popgun, scrap metal, electric bell. 8. Harp, doubling electric bell and fishing reel. 9. Button accordion, doubling electric bell and fishing reel. 10. Piano, doubling fishing reel. 11 & 12. Violins 1 & 2. 13. Viola. 14. Cello. 15. Double bass (doubling fishing reel).[5]

Critical responses

Film version

Powder Her Face was made into a motion picture by Britain's Channel 4 and shown on Christmas Day 1999. The film was released on DVD in the UK for Christmas 2005; the DVD includes a documentary film about Adès by Gerald Fox made at around the same time.



  1. Ross, Alex, "Roll Over Beethoven: Thomas Adès", The New Yorker, October 26, 1998
  2. Paddy Johnson, "Powder Her Face: An Opera without Empathy or Soul", Artfcity, February 22, 2013
  3. Marakay Rogers, "POWDER HER FACE Stuns At Opera Philadelphia, June 12, 2013, BWW Reviews
  4. Det Kongelige Opera March 2016, "Powder Her Face production info"
  5. Adès, Thomas. Powder Her Face. Score. (London: Faber Music, 1995), p.5
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