Thoughts on the Sex Worker’s Opera, Arcola Theatre, London, January 26-30, 2015 by Mark Bridle
Challenging assumptions about both prostitution and opera, the Sex Worker’s Opera is a polemical union of art form and real life. It’s perhaps closer to anti-opera than High Art, though anyone familiar with the stagings of Calixto Bieito’s work as a director, which mashes-up Mozart into a psychedelic vision of semi-pornography and violence, would have recognized a similarity in how opera can be deconstructed. Largely using sprechgesang as its expressionist medium, and eschewing lyricism as voices teeter on the edges of a tonal super-structure, the model is operatic Weill or Berg.
Weill’s Die Dreigroschenoper isn’t a peripheral influence, though. That opera’s Socialist critique of a capitalist world could be said to infiltrate the libretto and narrative of the Sex Worker’s Opera. Each and every story, including those which are related on walls via projectors from global chatrooms, tell a universal tale of exploitation, of relationships between the oppressed and the oppressors and of that ultimate capitalist transaction: the exchange of money. The amoral, anti-heroic, unsentimental diaphragm of Weill’s opera coalesces neatly with the human bondage, real and implied, of the Sex Worker’s Opera so the work becomes part comedy, part satire, part political commentary, part moral outrage and part aesthetic entertainment.
Opera, of course, is an almost ideal medium to expose the hidden underbelly of prostitution. Almost as long as opera as an art form has existed, composers have drawn on its victims and anti-heroines. Verdi’s La Traviata, from 1853, scandalized audiences, less from its subject matter rather than the sympathetic portrayal of Violetta - and the fact audiences identified with her. Condemned largely by the Catholic Church (which in its hypocrisy both condemns prostitution as well as using it for its own ends) offers a neat contrast to the over-sentimentalized glitzy portrayal of prostitution in the 1990s that so drew the ire of feminists - Pretty Women. Puccini turned to prostitution twice in his operas - firstly in Manon Lescaut (1893) and finally in La Rondine (1917). Magda, the heroine of La Rondine, is in many ways the antithesis of Verdi’s Violetta: Magda relinquishes love in order to return to the profiteering of other relationships. The choices she makes are much closer to the narratives of the Sex Worker’s Opera than the dewy-eyed sentimentality that brings salvation to Violetta. Tortured, damaged bodies, unwanted pregnancies, broken relationships, fantasies and fetishes, miscommunicated dialogues - these are the everyday realities of Sex Worker’s Opera and they bring us closer to our final composer, and one of the most tragic figures in all opera - Berg’s Lulu.
Lulu is the antithesis of every other prostitute in opera - she marries multiple times, never finds true love, assumes a number of identities, murders her second husband (but escapes imprisonment with the help of her lesbian companion, Countess Geschwitz). In Berg’s (incomplete) third act Lulu becomes a streetwalker and picks up a serial killer, Jack the Ripper. There are no happy endings for her - not even death by grief. Berg’s opera is the closest we get to Victorian Whitechapel (though it applies equally to modern day Santiago, or any other city), the existential hell of society’s hypocrisy towards the capitalist bargain, and the sexual predator and oppressor as murderer. In one narrative from the Sex Worker’s Opera a statement is read out listing the number of victims of prostitution during 2014 - just under 150 globally underlining the murderous endgame that is often the mass grave of its victims. The political polemic of the opera may skew towards a feminist critique, despite the fact that today prostitution is a universally genderless profession, but that doesn’t expiate the message of the opera that prostitution can be violent and has its own holocaust of victims. The fictional Lulu has never seemed more real when seen within the context of what the Sex Worker’s Opera challenges us to see with open eyes rather than defined prejudices. There is no room for sentimentality or passiveness in this staging (that act of passiveness challenged from the very opening with a call to riot and protest against the staging of the opera itself by the ‘mother’ of one of the sex workers.)
The astringency of both the singing and the orchestral accompaniment works mostly to the opera’s advantage. Whilst there are conventional operatic set-pieces, such as a duet and a trio, and the sex workers themselves act as a kind of chorus, they lack conventional meaning in an operatic sense. The duet, between a client and sex worker, and which utilizes the only male singer in the cast, is distinguished by some genuinely lyrical singing - but how much better it would have been to have challenged the stereotype of the male/female client relationship if the male had been the sex worker. A trio, at the opera’s close, is accompanied by ever more violent whipping, linking bondage and vibrato in an uncommonly imaginative way.
The orchestration itself, scored for clarinet, violin, cello and piano, recalls in its instrumentation Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps and it shares with Messiaen’s chamber work a degree of vulnerability and emotional engagement. Messiaen’s piece was written in a concentration camp (and utilized what instruments he had available) and if his work is imbued with a more Catholic, harrowing sense of reflection the Sex Worker’s Opera uses the instrumentation differently. Whilst Messiaen is both more plaintive and more emotional in his use of the clarinet, for example, here it is used more as a voice to add depth to the singers’ stories, and it’s often embellished with a cruder (though no less affecting) tonality. Where Messiaen doesn’t use the clarinet for large stretches of Quatuor (the last ten minutes, for example) here it is a central performer in its own right. The orchestration seems just right, it has to be said; anything larger and it would overwhelm many of the voices. There’s a pungent resonance to much of the orchestration and one gets the impression improvisation is a key element of it.
The Sex Worker’s Opera is engaging, often funny, and raises a fundamental question about how we treat sex workers in society. I doubt it claims to scale the artistic heights of works by Verdi, Puccini and Berg but on its own terms it is a challenging and provocative production.