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.
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.
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.