Contemporary Opera Amelia Challenges Cultural Birth Norms

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Guest post by Kathryn T.


I attended the premiere of “Amelia,” a contemporary opera commissioned by the Seattle Opera, last Saturday.  One of the central sources of tension within the production is that the main character is heavily pregnant with her first child, having lost her father to the Vietnam War at a very early age, and is scared of childbirth and parenting.  In the second act, she loses her mind with worry and collapses, going into the coma state that is so unlikely in real life and so beloved as a dramatic principle.  After three days in a coma, her OB (she is at term) urges her husband to consent to a C-section, but he refuses, saying that she is stable and the baby is stable and so there’s no reason to.  Her labor starts, which wakes her up, and she firmly insists “No C-section! It’s natural childbirth, or I’m getting another doctor!!!”

Outside the delivery room, the OB is now arguing with her aunt, who is a midwife.  “Can’t you say something?” he asks her. “She’s been in labor for ten hours already!” “Ten hours is nothing,” says her aunt, “and besides, she’s tolerating it very well.” “But with her health — we don’t know the risks!” says the OB.  “The risks are hers to take,” says her aunt. “It is her body, it is her birth, it is her choice.  Sometimes, the love is worth the risk.”  The lights come up on Amelia, who is up on her knees in the bed pushing and vocalizing (operatically, of course!), and finally, with an ecstatic chord that bursts from the throats of every singer on stage, she delivers a healthy baby girl.  Amelia unhooks the shoulder of her gown, mimes latching the baby on (her back is to the audience), and sings the finale while nursing her baby.

The classical stage was the last place I expected to see birth advocacy being given such appropriate and heroic treatment.  But how wonderful!