Deviant Opera: Sex, Power, And Perversion On Stage

Author: Axel Englund
Publisher: Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2020. 255p.
Reviewer: Lars Ole Sauerberg | August 2021

The MeToo dynamic, which really got under way from the mid-2010s, addressed, in principle, all relationships involving power and gender/sex. But whereas MeToo-incidents have occurred in offices, meeting rooms, airplane-crew spaces, teachers’ common rooms, etc., wherever people gather and wield power to various extents, whether in word or deed, the most conspicuous ones have been lent by the performing arts.

In a sweeping purge, film and TV studios, theatres, concert halls, opera houses, and music schools have been shaken by allegations of abuse of power and authority by those in charge of batons, careers, and contracts.

Of all the performing arts, opera in particular has gained notoriety as a nest of sexual-power abuse. Opera is a unique art form in which, performance after performance, dramatic and life-changing situations are acted out by live actor-singers on stage. The stage business during an opera performance requires a tremendous amount of effort prior to and during the performance. The training of musicians and singers has involved both hard physical and intellectual work, and the journeys towards a place on stage or a seat in the orchestra has required, literally speaking, hands-on instruction and competition in which it may sometimes be quite difficult to distinguish between purely professional qualifications and ones of a more generally human kind, including allure and sex appeal.

In comparison with live stage drama, opera requires the extra exertion of physical power that goes into singing. This makes opera a performance-art form with a high degree of visceral quality, and all the participants in a performance — orchestra, conductor, singers, choir, backstage personnel, and audience — are deeply aware, from the high c of the coloratura soprano, to an almost smothered intake of breath after that high c, of the presence of live bodies.

No wonder then, that opera directors in recent years have grabbed hold of this particular visceral quality of opera to create performances that put on display the centrality of the body.

Opera, at the time of its inception in the seventeenth century, used stories and plots based on erotic exchange, and used singers of either gender and also introduced castrated singers. In other words, both story/plot and performance were deeply steeped in body issues, and did not stop short of actually exploiting sexual and erotic issues to achieve effects.

Axel Englund takes his point of departure partly in the tradition of opera for general visceral prominence, partly in the innovative renditions of a number of operas in recent years which underscore that viscerality in terms of what many opera directors have seen as predilection, both implicit but very often also very explicit, for sado-masochistic emphasis.

Basic to Englund’s study is the paradoxical circumstance that we – the audience – take pleasure from watching pain, suffering, and humiliation on the opera stage. There seem to be three elements that contribute to the focus of the study on SM (sado-masochistic)and BDSM (bondage/discipline, domination/submission, sado-masochism) practices: one is the traditional merging in opera of giving expression to suffering through the pleasure of music, another is the focus on the interrelationship of power, gender, and desire – with representations of sexuality increasingly in the public space – over the last half century, and a third is the way that certain opera directors have taken productions towards gendered and sexually explicit stagings.

This particular branch of “director’s opera” highlights the potential in various operas for up-staging – literally speaking – practices related to sado-masochistic culture, practices either explicitly present already, or latently implicit, awaiting, as it were, liberation by director and cast.

Central to opera is pleasure bordering on erotic experience by mechanisms that consciously and purposefully negotiate, like SM and BDSM, erotic power exchange, or, in Englund’s words, the “genre’s relentless preoccupation with the nexus of sensuality and power, with violence and eroticism” (p. 21).

SM and BDSM are related to opera in terms of analogy. Such representations or enactments, always of course, fall short of the real thing. In other words, the dynamic engaged in is one of suggestion, but a kind and degree of suggestion which, by way of opera’s employment of acting and the further body exertions of the singing voice and what music subliminally does to the listener, gives the analogy substantial support.

For the border dynamics of reality – audience, singing – facing reality representation – staging – Englund uses the notion of “actuality effect.” This is a notion well known in literature and the theatre, about “tricks” serving to short-circuit the illusions of reality in favour of reality itself, while being just another layer of illusion. This could be a fictitious character reading a literary work by a “real” author, or the many kinds of frames offered in literature and drama.

According to Englund, there are three levels of actuality effect relating to the operatic diegesis, i.e., the fictional universe of specific operas. The first level is where a metaphor is stripped of its figurative meaning and is made literal, as when the pain of love is rendered into actual pain. The next level is where two fictional universes clash or merge, so that the characters are made to step into a new reality. The third level is where the fiction on stage is transferred into the reality affecting the character, so that the audience encounters a character directly, without a filter, as it were. Englund examines a number of director’s operas from the last thirty years, which all display an engagement with the potential for the linking of pain and pleasure in terms of SM/BDSM.

Not only does the baroque epoch mark the beginning of modern opera, it also furnishes opera with a kind of blueprint for the flexibility of the art form. “Baroque” is used both as an epochal reference and as a reference to a representation practice allowing for the free play of invention. In the latter sense, baroque applies not only to opera of the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, but also to their later re-staging, and to opera in general.

In connection with baroque opera, Englund introduces hyperbole and metalepsis as the two mechanisms that prove especially efficacious for director’s opera. Exaggeration and boundary-breaking are not limited to baroque-epoch opera, but are a legacy for later periods, including, and not least, re-productions of baroque opera from around the turn of the twentieth into the twenty-first centuries.

Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito’s direction of Handel’s Alcina (Stuttgart, 1998) and Robert Carsen’s direction of the same composer’s Rinaldo (Glyndebourne, 2011) both make heavy use of sexual fetishism, and also make a point of overstepping boundaries on stage, suggesting the precarious nature of boundaries in that area generally.

The erotic opera par excellence in late eighteenth-century opera is Mozart’s Don Giovanni, but also Le nozze di Figaro and Cosí fan tutte provide evidence of firmer gender roles than in the previous baroque period. This is the time when “love affairs between tenor and soprano voices would become a normative core” (p. 85).

In the productions directed by Calixto Bieito in 2001 (London) and by Claus Guth in 2008 (Salzburg), the renditions in Don Giovanni of traditional roles seem to boil down to the way that Mozart’s famous opera negotiates thinly veiled partitions between acceptance and disruption of accepted norms, leaving the audience uneasy and upset by having been invited to a very close encounter with clashes and complicity between violence and desire.

Both Bieito and Guth chose to highlight the violence/desire potential in the opera towards interpretations taking that potential beyond traditional readings into realms much more pronouncedly radical in relation to erotic power games.

Englund confines this part of his study to mainly Zerlina, whose “fascination with the dynamics of power and powerlessness” (p. 90) lends a much more complex rendition of her role in the productions of the two directors, with Bieito being inspired by de Sade and Guth exploring “light bondage” (p. 109) as a function of Zerlina’s wavering behaviour between submissive and dominant inclinations.

Both productions, by hyperbolically bidding for actuality effects that question the conventional borderline between performance and the reality of the audience in a manner analogous to the – safely conducted – conventions of SM and BDSM practices, take the opera well out of any habitual comfort zones, but at the same time set new standards in need of future questioning.

In the nineteenth century, Wagner and Puccini both offer lots of violence and desire, and for Romeo Castellucci’s Parsifal (Brussels 2011) and Puccini’s Tosca by Nikolaus Lehnhoff (Amsterdam, 1998) and Robert Carsen (Zürich 2009), Englund suggests that a context of sadomasochistic practice is particularly appropriate.

The domination and submission complex in the case of Wagner is put on display by the director, by taking the actual performance machinery, famously hidden by the composer in the Bayreuth theatre, to the stage in the form of Klingsor as the mock conductor. In that manifestation, the power pyramid of an opera production is clearly indicated, with the musical power hierarchy balancing the eroticism of the music.

The sadomasochistic domination-submission implication of the Castelluci production may be seen in the severed co-conducting arm visible at the rear of the stage, signifying a phallic lack that echoes through the performance, suggesting the undermining of authority throughout.

By displaying authority structures concretely on the stage, and simultaneously suggesting a SM context, this version of Parsifal at one and the same time subjects the opera to a laying bare of its authority –bestowing elements of the opera as a complete production, and to redemptive potential achieved through the same production.

With Puccini, opera enters its “verismo” stage, and with Tosca there is, in the triangle of Scarpia, Cavaradossi, and Tosca a situation very similar to a classic SM scene.

The Lehnhoff production highlights the fetish potential of such a situation, whereas the Carsen production, like Castellucci’s Parsifal, re-enacts the production, in this case as Scarpia directing Tosca, on the stage, playing through the catalogue of domination and submission.

In both versions of Puccini’s opera, the action in these ways is taken closer to the audience’s sensibility than the conventional stage spectacle, creating a more than usually stirring actuality effect.

From the early twentieth century Englund has chosen two operas by Alban Berg, Lulu (premiered 1937) and Wozzeck (premiered 1925). These operas do not have to be subjected to any interpretation, since they already make use of elements known to SM and BDSM.

Englund first zooms in on the 2010 staging by Dmitri Tcherniakov at the Bolshoi, with Wozzeck presented as a male prostitute. For the discussion of Lulu, Englund has selected various productions, all of them showcasing the “will to restrict, control, and shape Lulu to fit their sexual wishes” (p. 168).

A variation of the domination urge is to turn Lulu into something de-humanised, an inanimate object, like a work of art or a mannequin, the most radical version of which is the dismemberment of the Eric Bechtolf’s 2002 (Zurich) production.

Englund ends his discussion of the Berg operas with some considerations on the singer-conductor Barbara Hannigan’s whole attitude to Lulu. Englund sums up the Hannigan performance as the arguably most radical rendition of the actuality effect by suggesting that if one “pursues the analogy between operatic performance and SM play, Hannigan’s passage between various operatic “roles” would appear as the equivalent of the idealized idea of free negotiation of identity and polymorphous pleasure” (p. 192).

Englund’s suggestion of the “uncomfortable fact that opera habitually eroticizes pain and humiliation, that the audience is expected to come to the opera house to take sensual pleasure in hearing and seeing the intense suffering of others” (p. xvi) is the basis of the present study of opera, but may well be applied to other kinds of “entertainment” that cultivate the clash between the pleasure derived from the pain described, such as, for instance, crime fiction. More broadly still, it may help to elucidate the notoriously slippery field of what takes place in the border area between the real presence of an audience and the re-presentation of real-life action on the stage, a dynamic pointed to already 2500 years ago by Aristotle on catharsis in his treatise on poetics.

Alex Englund’s study of deviant opera is penetrating and extremely thoroughly researched, persuasively argued, abundantly documented, and well written. It is a welcome help for clarifying directions in contemporary opera productions, which may appear confusing especially to those with somewhat conservative tastes. No doubt provocative, indeed to some offensive, directors’ initiatives by SM implications, both the obvious power structures of operatic production and the emotional impact of music, not least of the vocal variety, work on the assumption of what goes beyond the official or individual censor’s stamp.

Lars Ole Sauerberg, Prof. (emer.), dr.phil., University of Southern Denmark, Denmark

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