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The University of Cambridge's "Theology Through the Arts" program commissioned composer James MacMillan, poet Michael Symmons Roberts, and Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Wales, to work together for two years. They produced Parthenogenesis, a scena for soprano, baritone, actress, and chamber ensemble, which received its premiere at the Cambridge Corn Exchange on September 12, 2000.

The starting point for the work was a story Roberts found about a woman who was knocked down by a bomb blast on the streets of Hannover, Germany, in 1944. She recovered from minor injuries, but nine months later gave birth to a daughter who had the same fingerprints, blood type, and other indicators as her mother. The woman claimed she had not had sex, and medical examinations supported her. Doctors theorized that the bomb blast may have jarred a cell within the woman's womb, triggering parthenogenesis - nonsexual reproduction.

"The Hannover story is rich and resonant, poetically and dramatically," Roberts says. "Poetically it is the shadow side of the incarnation: a virgin birth in opposites, with not God but human evil as the 'father' - a sort of negative print of the nativity. Dramatically it has tremendous power and intrigue: a human clone born into a Germany obsessed by genetic experimentation and theory; or a virgin birth in a Germany where so many were praying for divine deliverance."

From this story Roberts created the libretto for an intimate music theater piece. "The soprano voice is that of Kristel - mother-to-be of the clone child. She knows nothing of what is to happen to her," Roberts wrote. "The baritone voice is that of Bruno, a flawed, falling, ambiguous angel; in love with Kristel and with the world. The spoken female voice is that of Anna, the imagined voice of the future clone-child, bitter and torn apart by her origins, by her status as her mother's doppelgänger."

MacMillan's scena is clearly and firmly shaped, by motivic, gestural, and textural markers. Kristel and Bruno sing highly inflected parts, in parallel monologs rather than direct dialog, even when singing at the same time. Anna comments on their statements and her situation, in phrased speeches over a tape accompaniment.

"The slow and steady unfolding of their thoughts is the linchpin of the work, illuminated by a busy and volatile instrumental score," according to the review of the 2001 Edinburgh Festival performance in The Scotsman. "It is vintage MacMillan in that the music shifts between simple and beautiful harmonies and deafening outbursts of flashing anger . . . The craftsmanship, as always, is exemplary."

MacMillan says that the most obvious musical manifestation of the parthenogenesis subject is in the taped accompaniment to Anna's parts. "Her sections of the score are accompanied by material based on the genetic sequencing of Adenine-Cytosine-Thymine-Guanine, currently being mapped in the Human Genome Project, which is providing scientists with a supposed calculation of humanity. A, C, and G are represented by their pitches, while T takes the form of a chord. Anna's static music is also distanced from the more dramatic music for Kristel and Bruno by the use of an electronic soundscape. In terms of instrumentation there are references in the distance to the wartime setting."

-- John Henken is the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Director of Publications.