About Marie Curie and this opera

Irene Curie and Marie Curie at work.

While many people are familiar with Curie’s name, few know very much about the woman herself, her work, or her life. Marie Curie is an important historical figure who was passionate about her scientific explorations and a humanitarian who actively campaigned and worked to make the world better through her both her research and her hands-on application of her discoveries. At the same time, she was devoted to her close-knit family and had deep and meaningful relationships with those who understood the challenges she faced–which included virulent sexism and national prejudice–and supported her in her endeavors. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and the first and, to date, the only woman to win two Nobels, each in a different area of science. Her discoveries of polonium and radium led to the use of mobile x-ray units–which Curie herself developed–in the First World War, where they saved hundreds of thousands of lives, and to the development of radiotherapy as a treatment for cancer. This new opera celebrates her tenacity while acknowledging that her obsession with her research that led to her early death.

Although there are a number of operatic works that center around influential men in history (Doctor Atomic, Galileo Galilei, Harvey Milk, Lord Byron, Nixon in China, The Reverend Jim Jones), far fewer have focused on the lives of real women. Marie Curie Learns to Swim will help fill this void and create a character who is neither a simple archetype nor the subject of vilification, as so many women in opera are. Marie Curie Learns to Swim is not only a work about an important female historical figure and the issues she faced as a female scientist in the first half of the twentieth century, but is also the creation of two women who are committed to amplifying the voices and stories of women in history and in the present day.


Irene Curie (Claudia Rosenthal) and Old Marie Curie (Susan Yankee). Photo by Kim Bova.

Marie Curie Learns to Swim takes place c. 1926, just after Irène Curie has completed her doctorate and married fellow scientist Frédéric Joliot. Irène has persuaded her mother to spend a few days at the seashore to rest, and tells Marie Curie that she, Irène, will teach her to swim. Marie reminisces about the holidays of her youth, and tries to convince Irène to return to Paris for work. Irène argues that their work is damaging their health, and begins the swimming lesson by teaching her mother the “dead man’s float.” This term brings up memories of Pierre Curie and his death: Marie recounts their courtship, early work and family life, and the joys of discovering some of the properties of radium. It ends with Marie’s account of Pierre’s accidental death, and she connects learning to float in the ocean with resistance to drowning in her grief. Marie observes that her life is unlike that of other women: that she lives to conduct experiments and put her knowledge to good use. After a short rest, Irène teaches her mother the crawl stroke: again Marie pleads to return to Paris and their work while Irène pleads for them to take this respite. Irène offers her mother advice about how to swim safely through a big wave in the ocean, and Marie is transported back to the scandal that surrounded her nomination to the French Academy of Sciences, wherein right-wing politicians and scientists blocked her election by slandering her and revealing her affair with a married colleague. She then relives her feelings of triumph over petty French politics when she won her second Nobel prize. She remembers that she was ill when it was awarded, and says that she has never fully recovered. Irène tries to communicate her concerns that the radium with which they work is what is making them sick, but Marie refuses to listen. Irène tries to continue the swimming lesson, and Marie says that she will also continue, but her meaning refers to her work and belief in radium’s benefits.

Performing Forces

Marie Curie Learns to Swim employs four singers: a soprano (Irène Curie), two mezzo-sopranos (Old Marie Curie and Young Marie Curie), and a baritone (Pierre Curie), and is available in piano-vocal and chamber ensemble versions.

Performing Rights

If you are interested in performing Marie Curie Learns to Swim, please email contact@mariecurieopera.com.