Shock And Awe: OPER…AHHHHH!

Do you like opera?


I understand.

Would you like to watch semi-naked women in various stages of dishabille, prancing on the stage, while some of them sing in decent (sometimes fabulous) soprano voices?

Try not to let your gaze slide to the image below – it might impair your impartiality.

All right, since you looked at the picture anyway, your answer might be somewhat affected by it. You might say, I don’t know. Or It depends. Or I’ll be darned.

I understand.

The image accompanies a New Yorker article in the Music Events section by Alex Ross, New Yorker’s music critic. The article, very tellingly, called Shock Tactics: Smaller opera companies break the routine.

“This year, opera on the East Cost has taken a turn toward the lurid, the sordid, the subversive, and the cryptic – in short, toward theatrical values that are more commonly found on European stages than on American ones, where patrons still expect Tosca in a tiara.”

EliogabaloNow, try not to look at the second image and read on. Last February, the New York City Opera staged a production of Thomas Adès’s opera Powder Her Face. The libretto is based on the salacious scandal erupted in 1963 Britain.  As became apparent during the divorce proceedings, Lady Margaret Campbell, the Duchess of Argyll, had a few extramarital affairs… with some eighty-eight men.  Powder Her Face reproduces the Duchess’s extravagances in as many tantalizing details as uncomfortably fit into the show’s run-time.

 Most of the media chatter about the production has reliably focused on the blowjob scene, which comes about halfway through the first act. 25 naked men literally come out of the woodwork for this vignette—out of wardrobes, bathtubs, and any available stage wing—all in an effort satisfy Campbell’s insatiable appetite. The Duchess, played by Allison Cook, heroically sings throughout the entire job.

It’s a great scene, in no small part, because as an audience member, it’s nearly impossible not to ogle over all those dicks in various states of fluffery. You’re implicated in the scale of the media scandal reproduced here, and you feel that immediately. Powder Her Face: An Opera without Empathy or Soul by Paddy Johnson.

Wow, I wanted to chew my fingers off just copy-pasting it.

Now, you may look at the second image. Nothing to it, given what it could’ve been. Either the photographer carefully censored the content, or the magazine editor did.

Powder Her Face

If the only thing you can remember about the opera is that there were 200 topless (or bottomless) extras in it – the production probably sucked. That what you can say to yourself if the only thing… Well, could it have been ALL YOU could see, staring at the screen, petrified with fascination?

In 1987, the Swedish Director Claes Fellborn made film version of Grand Opera Aida. It’s hard to find today, unfortunately. I was lucky enough to have a chance of seeing it. The few reviews were rather dubious. Vehement objections were expressed regarding costuming: Aida (Margareta Ridderstedt) was topless, as well as a number of “Ethiopian slave” extras.

This gimmick designed to increase the audience by combining the appeal of the opera with that of burlesque! Verdi’s opera, performed topless! Skin flick meets Grand Opera! Joe Green (Giuseppe Verdi that is) would’ve turned in his grave…

Well, knowing Joe Green, it’s unlikely he’d have fully approved of the work of Fellborn, or any other film director for that matter. After he achieved success, Verdi became increasingly autocratic and wanted to control every detail of the presentation of his works. Unfortunately for critics, his likes or dislikes of naked bodies are rather poorly documented. Little did those critics know that in some 25 years even Verdi’s bones wouldn’t rattle all that much, settling in a disgusted dust.

It ain’t over till the fat lady sings. 

Russian OperaEnglish speakers know and use this colloquialism. It was coined by Ralph Carpenter, the sports commentator and an opera lover. He said, “The opera ain’t over until the fat lady sings.” The reference is obvious –  the stereotypically corpulent buxom opera diva (think Wagnerian valkyrie Brünnhilde with braids, horned helmet etc.) singing in the opera’s finale.

For the last 10 generations at least, fat lady of the opera was its symbol and its pride. Opulent productions of Grand Operas of the world — Metropolitan and Bolshoi being more conservative than others — had this old-bronse-tarnished-tassled-gilt look, feel and sound.

It isn’t easy bringing opera to new audiences.  It’s boring to cater to the calcified or predictable tastes of “traditional” opera aficionados. This year, Alex Ross says, the Met mounted a Rigoletto in a Rat Pack Las Vegas and a Parsifal set in a blood-drenched wasteland…”

Thus we made a full circle. Next, Mr. Ross would mention the more risqué productions, such as “Eliogabalo” and “Powder Her Face” and admit that having 27 even most glorious penises on the stage at the same time, might be too much even if the aim is to bring a new, lively crowd into the audience.

How many bare breasts and asses would it take to entice people who never spend a night at the opera to buy a ticket? Would people interested in shows featuring blow jobs be looking into the repertoire of the opera houses?

My opinion? There must be a fine line somewhere between a proverbial fat lady singing her aria at the opera finale and, well, you know… 

Note to Self regarding ARS NUDA: Revise your attitudes. Less sensationalism. More subtlety. Ah… maybe not.


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