Librettist’s Log: Writing Irene Curie

Hello everyone–

This week I’m taking over the Composer’s Log entry and making it a Librettist’s Log so that I can share a little bit of my process on working on the opera!

In writing the libretto for Marie Curie Learns to Swim, one of my goals was to create new materials for women singers. At one time, the libretto had two Maries–and older Marie and a younger Marie–and for a long time I wasn’t sure if Pierre Curie would have a singing part or even appear at all. And so while Marie is clearly the star of the piece, when Jessica asked me to write more for Irene to sing, I agreed right away.

Marie Curie Learns to Swim is based on a real-life episode in which Curie and her two daughters, Irene and Eve, went to the beach on holiday, where Curie asked Irene and Eve to teach her to swim. I knew early on that I would combine the two Curie daughters into the single character of Irene, who worked with her mother in her research from the time Irene was about 15. Irene’s role in the libretto was to provide context for Marie’s memories and flashbacks, and to counter her mother’s belief that, despite growing evidence to the contrary, radium and polonium and other radioactive elements and isotopes were miracle cure-alls. It seemed appropriate to give Irene more to sing about this near the end of the libretto, where she already had a little bit of text about her fears about radium and where it could serve as a balancing point against Pierre Curie’s used-car-salesman-like pitch about the wonders and benefits of radium that comes earlier in the libretto (“Drink it in your water!/Smooth it on your face!/Add it to your butter,/add it to your paint,/bathe in salts that gently glow…”).

I knew that I wanted to be able to include a reference in Irene’s new material to the Monument to the X-ray and Radium Martyrs of All Nations in Hamburg, Germany. I had come across this memorial when I was doing research for the libretto, but hadn’t found a good way to include it. I had to have Irene refer to it obliquely, because it wasn’t unveiled until 1936, two years after Marie Curie died and eleven years after the libretto is set. Irene Joliot-Curie’s name was added to the monument after her death in 1956. So that gave me the lines “I do not want/to become/a martyr to radium.”

At first I tried having Irene sing very directly about being scared, but the first result, “I fear that my career/will not be long-lived,” was too rhyme-y. I experimented with having Irene see her future before her, and explain that she was frightened of not achieving what she saw: “I can see myself/discovering new particles./I can see myself/determining their masses. [etc.] I can see myself/winning my own Nobel Prize.” But this seemed too technical to me, too much about the future, too much of a repetitive list. There had to be balance with Pierre’s aria, and Irene’s aria had to communicate fear, but it had to do so in the context of the rest of the libretto, so I needed to include references to the systems and methods of science, but at the same time not to make the material obscure. I wanted to frame Irene’s worries amid her dedication to science. In considering this devotion, I was reminded of a statement Irene Curie had made to the French newspaper Le Quotidien: “For my part, I consider science to be the paramount interest of my life.” This was the way into Irene’s aria that I needed.

Irene already had some text about her fears:

It’s radium I fear

that might be making us ill.

I’ve seen how it can burn.

I’ve seen blisters on your hands.

My own skin sometimes peels.

My headaches come on quickly.

Too many of my assistants

have strangely broken teeth.

We are often nauseated.

[IC goes to her mother, leans down and touches MC’s shoulder]

Look, how your hair

simply falls away

like my own…

I worry that our beautiful

shimmering radium

is somehow hurting us.

This is her emotional plea to Marie, and I placed Irene’s own words between this initial outpouring of her fear and text in which she would frame it more scientifically to try to convince her mother that these concerns were real. My own favorite part of the libretto is Marie’s aria, “I take my life in measurements/obscure to other women,” so I had Irene echo that, but with additional language that would speak even further to Marie’s desire for objectivity in the lab. The result is Irene confirming that she loves her work and recognizes its importance, but also stating that she is increasingly conscious of its effects on the human body and her responsibility to make this known:

[pauses, then emphatically]

I consider science to be

the paramount interest

of my life.

And science is a place where

you must observe



Like you, I take my life

in measurements

not known to other women.

But I must count

not just atoms and roentgens,

but very instance of

nausea and fever,

every case of

seizures and tremors.

I have to log what I observe in

human lives

alongside atomic


every strand of hair lost;

every headache and

scar and infection;

every time hours are lost

to weakness and wounds.


[takes deep breath]


I am giving my life

to science,

but I do not want

to become

a martyr to radium.


I do not want

any of us to become

martyrs to radium.


And I am afraid—truly afraid!—

that is what I will be,

that our beautiful

shimmering radium

is hurting us.

I’m certain this isn’t the final version of Irene’s new aria, but it is a start, and it offers Jessica opportunities to connect Irene’s work musically with her mother’s, and offers the artist singing Irene more time and material to give the character additional depth.