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Photograph: William Struhs

Kaija Saariaho’s operatic heroines are not your everyday girls next door—unless you happen to live next to a brilliant polymath suffering under the weight of an existential dilemma. Such is the case with Émilie, which has its New York premiere on Thursday 19 as part of the Lincoln Center Festival. Based on the life of marquise Émilie du Châtelet, the 80-minute monodrama focuses on the titular figure’s final days, as she rushes to finish her French translation of and commentary on Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica. Four days after the events recounted, she will give birth to her fourth child, fathered out of wedlock by French poet Jean François de Saint-Lambert. In nine days, she’ll die.

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In the course of its nine-part, one-act duration, Émilie recounts a life full of passion, both for du Châtelet’s most famous lover (Voltaire) and for her intellectual pursuits in physics and mathematics. Like her heroine, Saariaho was a rare female voice in a male-dominated field when she was studying at electronic-music think tank IRCAM during the early ’80s. The Finnish composer shows off her technical wizardry with sections in which du Châtelet harmonizes with herself, creating dense textures that have become a Saariaho trademark.

The team that produced the work’s American premiere at last summer’s Spoleto Festival USA—director Marianne Weems and conductor John Kennedy—helms the Lincoln Center production. Elizabeth Futral reprises the lead role between turns as another well-read lady, Marian Paroo, in Glimmerglass Opera’s current production of The Music Man. Jacob Greenberg, pianist for the International Contemporary Ensemble, is featured on Châtelet’s own instrument, the harpsichord.—Amanda Angel

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