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Debate: Is there too much sex and violence in modern opera productions?

Does adult content in in many productions of dramatic works such as Elektra or Wozzeck heighten the theatrical experience, or diminish the art form?

By Chris Shipman (Content Producer (Social Media and News))

11 October 2013 at 1.21pm | 21 Comments

Over the past few decades, opera has reinvented itself, emphasizing the theatrical side of the art form where previously the music was perhaps the main focus. Increasingly, many directors have reinterpreted classic works in highly dramatic, sometimes explicit terms, leading some audience members to complain of shock tactics  such as an emphasis on themes of sex and violence.

Such themes have in fact long featured in opera narratives as well as productions. Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea (1643), one of the earliest operatic masterpieces, tells the story of the tyrannical and passionate Roman emperor Nero and his corrupt mistress Poppea who seduces her way to power with deadly consequences for those who cross her.

But have directors overstepped the mark in portraying such narratives with an explicit focus on their sexual or violent content? Ahead of Royal Opera productions of Wozzeck and Les Vêpres siciliennes, and following recent stagings of Written on Skin, The Wasp Factory and Elektra, let us know what you think using the comment field below:

Do you think that modern opera productions rely too much on sex and violence, or are such themes an inherent part of the art form, key to the theatrical experience?

A selection of your comments from Twitter:

By Chris Shipman (Content Producer (Social Media and News))

11 October 2013 at 1.21pm

This article has been categorised Opera and tagged by Charles Edwards, by Stefan Herheim, Elektra, Les Vêpres siciliennes, Production, regietheater, sex, violence

This article has 21 comments

  1. Kenneth Guimond responded on 11 October 2013 at 4:15pm Reply

    Drama and comedy base the themes of any opus. In opera, it is the enactment of the human condition in a specific genre. The emphasis is on the extents of the human condition and warrant the inclusion of the visual manifestation. However, it must be presented in good taste. The inclusion of the topics is paramount, yet the style is the decisive factor. I know of no opera that is not delivering a significant message of the reality of life, in one form or another, and does it in an unacceptable way. Opera is life.......the more vivid and expressive the better.......

  2. Irina responded on 12 October 2013 at 6:12am Reply

    Yes! Operas are about strong passions, love and hatred, but we're not listening & watching them for gratification, but for reflection upon humanity and beatiful music. Why turn an opera into Hollywood mindless movie or porn flick? Hollywood does guns better and porn does the nudity better, if you really need triviality in your life.

  3. Yes, I do think there is too much overt sexual depiction in modern opera productions, which can be said about productions of opera houses other than Covent Garden. I found especially disturbing the first act of Rigoletto at the Royal Opera when they did the stripping on stage. (I had half a mind leave half way through the performance.) Those things are extremely discourteous and will damage the cultural reputation of the operatic genre.

    • Anne Prevost responded on 30 October 2013 at 7:42am

      I agree wholeheartedly with your view that there is far too much sex and violence in the opera productions today. Like you, I was shocked and repulsed by David McVicar's puerile and grotesque production of RIGOLETTO, and after innocently taking my grandchildren to his production of HANSEL AND GRETEL (which was advertised as a family production) which showcased a hideous, TOPLESS WITCH and the mother and father of Hansel and Gretel rolling around GROPING each other on a bed, I refuse to support any production that carries McVicar's name and research the staging of every ROH production before buying tickets.
      No such research is needed for La Scala and The Metropolitan Opera productions... they have higher standards. So do most educated and sophisticated opera patrons.

  4. Sahlen responded on 12 October 2013 at 5:03pm Reply

    I dislike many modern productions, but it's not the sex or violence which puts me off. I'm just really tired of the many productions where the staging bears absolutely no relation to the libretto.

  5. Sally Gibbons responded on 17 October 2013 at 9:35am Reply

    There are times when sex and violence are called for within the context of the work, but even then they are often better done, and with more impact, by implication than overtly. Sex on stage is rarely convincing and usually slightly ridiculous. Opera is about beautiful music, if I want to see sex and blood on stage there are other places I can go. Concentrate on the important things, guys - like the music and the singing.

  6. Sarah Daniel responded on 17 October 2013 at 5:36pm Reply

    Although I normally love Aida and made a special trip to London to see it in April 2011, I fled at the first interval because of the gruesome, gratuitously corrupt sexual antics on stage. If I want porn I'll find it elsewhere. I felt dirtied by the whole experience.

  7. When we get the compulsory sex and violence bits our reaction is boring boring. It really has become a tedious cliché rather like the bowler hats and suitcases so often used. In our let it all hang out in general media and entertainment it is no longer needed everywhere. Moreover it is rarely actually well done, too often verging on the hilarious. For those of us that have seen some real violence it is usually risible. As others have said, we know, we know, just get on with the music and the voice.

  8. Hilary Scannell responded on 17 October 2013 at 5:45pm Reply

    Doesn't it depend on the opera? Some operas deal in sex and violence - Salome, Lulu, Elektra - while many others are about some form of engagement with 'love' - lost, found, regretted, battled with - where overt sex on stage would merely be a distraction. Is sensitivity to context, to the music and to the subject matter too much to ask for from opera directors?

  9. Ken Worthy responded on 17 October 2013 at 6:04pm Reply

    Far too much sex, violence and sheer stupidity in many modern opera productions. They seem to be trying to show how clever they are, but rarely rise above the level of small boys shouting rude words. They are pygmies standing on the shoulders of giants.

  10. John responded on 17 October 2013 at 8:47pm Reply

    Often art is most powerful when it is not too explicit but merely suggests or presents, without drawing attention to itself, leaving the viewer or reader to discover, or feel in his own terms. What is too explicit is deprived of the richness which imagination can bring. Even in real life the most intense erotic relationships may not be consummated so why should they be on stage ?

  11. andrea hixson responded on 18 October 2013 at 9:13am Reply

    Saw Les Vepres last night which included what I have come to regard as ROH's obligatory rape scene. Enough!

    • Y. Dyer responded on 23 October 2013 at 4:56pm

      in 2006-2007 there were 85000 reported rape case in the UK, which is approximately 230 rape per day...
      I actually applause ROH to address it

  12. Susan responded on 18 October 2013 at 11:15am Reply

    Nowt wrong with sex and violence if they bring out aspects of the work that need bringing out. However, most good operas say all that is needed in the dialogue and the music and don't need overt and explicit visual stuff which is so often rather insulting to the audience. What is unacceptable is visual stuff that is merely a vehicle for the director's ego eg Florestan being shot by Don Fernando in ENO's current Fidelio.

  13. @andrea hixson Yes - saw Les Vepres last night and exactly the same reaction.

    Not the worst recent offender (at least it actually relates to the plot rather like Rigoletto just added in for 'spice') but no need to be so graphic.

    1 in 5 women in the UK has experienced sexual violence. Chances are plenty of those are in the audience. Why rub it in their faces when you can make the plot point (where it is needed) without causing offence and distress?

  14. Tony Baker responded on 18 October 2013 at 2:51pm Reply

    I don't mnd sex or violence, but I want productions that support the music and text. It jars when actions are inconsistent with the text. Too many opera directors - and I fear that the new Director of Music maybe such a one judging from his silly, cluttered production of Eugene Onegin- seem to want to put on productions that get the audience talking at the end about THEIR production rather than the music and the performers.

  15. Charmian responded on 19 October 2013 at 3:30pm Reply

    I'm a big girl now, 81 to be precise. I find the sexualisation of opera pathetic. Opera choruses are not well suited to portraying copulation on stage; the intimacy which gives authenticity to sex between individuals is entirely lacking in such a big arena, and orgies come across as ridiculously amateurish attempts to replicate something of which most of the participants have no practical experience. Sex is one area of human behaviour which requires to seem real in a way than is impossible in opera or else it becomes laughable or distasteful. Let the music and the imagination tell the story please and stop trying to replicate this most spontaneous - for good or evil - aspect of human life. (And please don't point out to me that we have to make extended use of our imaginations in most other aspects of operatic story lines. My point is that sex is uniquely different to battles or murders or suicides or any other such and we should respect it for this reason).

  16. Nita Hamer responded on 20 October 2013 at 1:02pm Reply

    Will anyone do anything about all the opinions above.I don't think so.
    The last time we saw Faust it was nothing like the composer intended, so much so, even though it is one of our favourites we cannot bring ourselves to consider the coming McVicar production.This upset me so much I couldn't bring myself to attend Covent Garden for two years.

  17. Y. Dyer responded on 23 October 2013 at 5:36pm Reply

    maybe the bottom line is that opera has to be relevant to today in order to honour their greatness... we have no idea what kind of visuals Verdi's nor Mozart's genius would have wanted today, or 10 - 20 - 50 years ago. The staging that you have seen when you watched Tosca for the first time does only makes it classic for you... I believe opera houses has a duty to search and allow creativity... you can not get it right every time... (as in all art forms) and when you do there is nothing more spectacular! that is what makes it so exciting to everybody involved and to audiences and thats why we turn up in numbers to every new production although we have seen that opera many many times

  18. Les Smith responded on 23 October 2013 at 6:46pm Reply

    NO! Depending on the opera's "story", sex and violence may well be appropriate. I think "realistic" productions are OK as long as audiences are warned in advance.

  19. It's not sex and violence. The problem with many modern opera productions is that there is not much production and hardly any opera in them.

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