Powder Her Face

Thomas Adès

Opera in two acts Libretto by Philip Hensher

Premiere 20. October 2023


Since its 1995 premiere in England, the chamber opera »Powder Her Face« has become one of the most performed British operas worldwide. Thomas Adès (*1971) clearly touched a nerve with this early compositional work: the sensual, scandalous life of Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll (1912–1993), is depicted retrospectively through eight pictures, which ingeniously shift between imagination and memory. Scored for 15 instrumentalists and four soloists, some of whom dexterously perform multiple roles, this work pays homage to the popular musical styles of the time, from swing to tango, as well as to the music of Kurt Weill, Alban Berg and Igor Stravinsky.

Note on sensitive content: Opera and libretto contain sexualized violence as well as racist and anti-Semitic statements.


Act 1
1990: A maid and an electrician make fun of the once promiscuous lifestyle of the Duchess. Stranded in a hotel at an advanced age, the former society lady now faces a life of humiliation. At the mercy of her current situation, she loses herself in the limelight of her memory …
1934: Mrs. Freeling, who recently divorced her first husband, is not the only subject of the upper-class gossip; everyone is also talking about an allegedly unscrupulous Duke. Unsuspecting, the woman, who despite her recklessness is habitually bored, feverishly awaits an encounter with this very aristocrat.
1936: The imminent wedding makes her a Duchess. Watching the decadent celebrations, a waitress dreams of a life of luxury. 
1953: On the day of a royal coronation ceremony, the Duchess is staying in a London hotel. She searches in vain for satisfaction and eventually forces a bellboy to engage in paid sex. At the same time, the Duke is enjoying himself with a lover. When the latter gets wrapped up in rumors about his wife's alleged numerous affairs, he loses control and searches for evidence of the Duchess's infidelity.

Act 2
1955: After a scandal, the two divorce, leading to ample gossip in the tabloids and society. In an outraged tirade, the judge strongly condemns the Duchess’s immorality during the trial.
1970: The Duchess gives an interview to a reporter about fashion and beauty care. She also expresses her personal bitterness and contempt for society.
1990: The Duchess can no longer financially sustain her life in the hotel. The hotel manager asks her to vacate her room due to the years of unpaid bills. Her last requests for deferral are in vain.