Tag Archives: Tosca

too much sex? I know it when I see it

Anna Nicole Smith, 2004 (AP file photo)

The Internet has been buzzing with columns and posts about whether opera is becoming too sexy. Some of this has been triggered by a raft of advance coverage about Anna Nicole, the opera based on the life of Playboy model Anna Nicole Smith, which is premiering this month at the Royal Opera House. 

But not all.   

Anna Nicole’s premiere has brought a simmering issue to the forefront of public discussion so that it can no longer be ignored. While sitting in the audience at the Met, I’ve heard people rail against the sexed-up operas being sprung on them.  While scrolling through my Twitter feed, I observed others  making  statements to the effect, “The more sex the better.” 

My take on the issue is this. Does the sex serve the story? As someone who is always seeking a well-rounded, integrated theatrical experience, I have a problem with any device or technique that’s been incorporated into a production for reasons besides serving the story–that includes sexy characters, sexy costumes, and of course, sex acts. 

If sex helps us understand characters, setting, or conflict, then keep it in. If it’s just window dressing believed to somehow make 19th century opera more relevant, more contemporary by throwing a few scantily clad women onto the stage to show off their exceptionally proportioned body parts, then it’s detracting from the story. 

How much is too much sex? Like pornography, I know it when I see it. 

Dancers in the Met's new Hoffmann

Let’s examine two recent productions at the Met. This past fall I caught their new Tales of Hoffmann, which premiered the previous January.  From the opening scene in the tavern at Nuremburg, we are treated to a cadre of prostitutes clad in nothing but pasties and g-strings lounging around the tavern. These women are not the only patrons in the tavern. They take part in the company numbers. No one else in the tavern really takes notice of them besides themselves. They are as much a part of the tavern culture as burgermeisters–and it works. 

These nearly naked dancers reappear in selected scenes, most noticeably in the courtesan scene, during which they rhythmically writhe to gentle roll of “The Barcarolle.”  If one of Hoffmann’s loves is a courtesan, and it’s perfectly believable that there ‘s another brand of courtesan in 19th century Venice (besides the virginal Violetta), than having writhing, scantily-clad bodies helps set the scene–there too, the sex advances the story. Important also to remember  that Hoffmann was written by Offenbach, composer of numerous “scandalous” operettas and of course, the famous can-can from Orpheus of the Underworld. It doesn’t take much imagination for the mind to travel from can-can girls to harlots baring their fleshy assets. 

Met Tosca prostitutes with Scarpia

By contrast, in the most recent Met production I attended, Tosca (read my official review here),  a few blowsy prostitutes had been tossed into the scene in Scarpia’s den. In the version that opened in January of 2010, the whores looked more like they slipped into leftover Hoffmann G-strings than the dressing gowns shown at left. These ladies of the evening were hanging all over Scarpia and each other, and at one (low) point, even simulate fillating Scarpia while he was singing. Throwing a few whores into the second act of Tosca  seemed completely gratuitous–incongrous–to me and derivative of their Hoffmann more than anything else. Scarpia has always been played as a buttoned-up type whose tragic human failing is his desire for Tosca. In this new Met version, since Scarpia can and does get his sexual favors elsewhere, this directorial choice actually made the scene less powerful. It makes Tosca just another conquest–not the conquest that Scarpia must have and that he dies for. This directorial choice actually lowers the stakes and diminishes the drama, and I was left asking why. Why didn’t the director first consider whether the sex he was injecting into the scene served the story? 

In the case of the soon-to-be-opening Anna Nicole opera, since she was both a stripper and a Playboy centerfold, this story better have sex in it or it won’t have much veracity to it. Sex was central to Anna Nicole Smith’s existence. She lived in a decadent sex-driven sector of American society, and to portray anything else would be false. 

More sex isn’t necessarily better. As in the case of Anna Nicole less sex might not be the better choice either. To my mind, the question to ask is, “Does the sex serve the story?” If it doesn’t, than the artistic director, however tempted, needs to grow up. His or her job is to tell a story and not indulge idling fantasies just because they can.

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Filed under 21st Century Opera, Op-Ed

trivia and a treat for Tosca’s 111th anniversary

On this date, January 14, in 1900, Tosca premiered in Rome, Italy at the Teatro Costanzi. To mark the 111th anniversary of much admired opera, here’s a little Tosca trivia (and a Tosca treat). 
  • Tosca is considered to be Puccini’s  first foray into verismo, the realistic depiction of many facets of real life including violence.
  • Puccini wrote Tosca right in the middle of his career, with four operas preceding and five following.
  •  Tosca is unique in that all of the four main characters die violently.
  • For the “Te Deum,” Puccini exhaustively researched the liturgical practices at Rome .
  • The morning bells of Act 3 required a list of all the churches surrounding Castel Sant’Angelo and their bells, including the respective pitches.
  • 1928 marked the first and most notable Traviata-Tosca mashup in Milan. Apparently, the soprano singing Violetta drank too much champagne and made a mess of the first act of La Traviata. After a long intermission, the curtains opened on the second act . . . of Tosca! 

And now, the treat!  Here is  the complete second act of Franco Zeferelli’s (traditional)  Tosca filmed in 1962 at London’s Covent Garden with Maria Callas as Tosca and Tito Gobbi as Scarpia.


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Filed under 20th Century Opera, Classic Opera, Classical Composers, Premieres, Video

an opera, a composer, a style

poster from the 1900 Paris premiere

My classmate Ginger found a great book on opera at a thrift shop somewhere in the lower forty-eight (she’s always flitting about the country) called The Standard Opera and Concert Guide and mailed it to me. It’s a wonderful near-tome with detailed information about popular and not-so-popular operas. I thought I’d talk about an opera, a composer, and a term I learned from this book: Louise (first produced in Paris in 1900), Gustave Charpentier, and verismo.    

Verismo is Italian for realism and Louise is a French example of the verismo style of opera, the most notable verismo operas being works such as the better-known Cavalleria rusticana,  Pagliacci, and Tosca. Louise  tells the story of the love between Louise, a seamstress living with her parents in Paris, and Julien, a Bohemian poet. It is the story of Louise’s desire for freedom (associated in her mind with her lover and the city of Paris). According to Standard Opera and Concert Guide, it is like La Bohème in that it is “first and last a story of Paris life.”    

The plot turns upon Louise breaking her home ties in a tragic way, with the accompaniments of the Paris street life and the revels of Montmartre, her hometown.    

The kernel of the story resonates for me. My daughter moved to Vermont to go to college and was exposed to a much different, more Bohemian way of life than she was exposed to in little old Lancaster County. It is sometimes hard and heart-breaking to watch your children break away, struggling to find themselves, but very necessary to their maturity.    

Not that anything tragic has befallen our family as a result of my daughter’s finding a new home in Brattleboro, but the angst between Louise and her father, in particular, certainly hits home for me. Her dying father rages that Louise does not love him as she used to. Louise responds by saying all she wants in Julien and Paris. The her father then bids Louise never return.  When he realizes the error of his actions, Louise is long gone.    

Who among us hasn’t felt pushed out of our children’s lives by friends and other circumstances?    

The  music is purportedly wonderfully expressive of the traits and character of Parisian street life. I haven’t found any US opera companies that have produced it lately. Louise is, however, available on many recordings.


Filed under 20th Century Opera, Classic Opera, Classical Composers

grand opera a real-life backdrop for murder–oddly, not fiction



Only months ago, I finished my first novel with classic opera as a backdrop. It is a comedy of (bad) manners and though murder’s committed, the murder has comical overtones, being committed in self-defense. Weapon of choice–pickle fork.                

The murderess is a ketchup heiress. I ask you, what better weapon could a ketchup heiress use to pierce someone’s jugular vein than a pickle fork?                

Days ago, a Texas man was executed for the 1988 murder of two members of the Houston Grand Opera chorus. According to news reports, the men were targeted not because of their involvement with opera–that was incidental–but because allegedly, they were thought to be in a gay relationship.                

Then of course there’s the case of the 55-year-old soprano, suspected of murdering her wealthy husband, then using a double to assume his identity to claim his £5 million estate in a case detectives claim is “straight out of a Hitchcock film.”                

Wouldn’t either be great fodder for a ripped-from-the headlines, fictionalized account of the crime, though I’m partial to the second featuring the opera-singing murderess?                

While writing my opera novel, as dutiful writing students are wont to do, I read every piece of fiction I could find with opera as a backdrop. Besides Bel Canto by Ann Patchett (which was extraordinary), there just aren’t that many fictional books worth reading. I did read Murder at the Opera by Margaret Truman, which started off well but fizzled to a wet whimper three-quarters of the way through–in my humble opinion.                

Of course, there’s the murder mystery Cosi Fan Tutti by the late, great crime novelist Michael Dibdin.                

And that’s about it for mainstream contemporary fiction infused with operatic themes or set in opera houses, etc.                

Original poster for Puccini's Tosca


Considering how many people are murdered in opera storylines, it seems strange that so few opera-inspired fictionalized accounts have been penned.                

Consider also, there must be a gazillion literary spinoffs from but a handful of Jane Austen novels. Not that they involve murder, mind you. But if you quickly calculation public fascination with murder mystery and suspense, opera-themed crime fiction seems conspicuously absent from the body of contemporary  literature.                

Besides Tosca, Rigoletto, Don Giovanni, Medea, and Pagliacci have murder as inciting or central plot elements, not to mention all the operas derived from Shakespearean tragedies such as Otello and Macbeth that contain murders.                

Don Giovanni, murder of the Commendatore


I think it might be time for a new murder mystery with classic opera as the major setting or theme.                

And I may know just the person to write it.

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Filed under Classic Opera, Don Giovanni

don’t quote me…


Noble tenor, villainous baritone


Tenors are noble, pure and heroic, and get the soprano, if she has not tragically expired before the final curtain. But baritones are born villains in opera. Always the heavy and never the hero.”
—Leonard Warren  

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Filed under Classic Opera, opera quotes