Anthony Tommasini’s article in the 9/17/08 edition of the New York Times on the increase of nudity in opera productions got me thinking. Nudity in opera is nothing new, especially in Europe, so why Americans are making such a big deal about it is just another testament to contemporary American cultural values and why are so many singers leaping onto the nudity bandwagon…
For instance, the big example everyone seems to mention is the Dance of The Seven Veils from Strauss’ Salome. That particular opera was performed here in Chicago by the Lyric Opera of Chicago which featured Deborah Voight (in flagrante ballare as it were) and I never got hooked into why anyone cared whether or not she went with the Full Monty. Frankly, if I went to the opera it would have been to hear her sing, not dance. Furthermore, since that particular dance doesn’t feature any singing, why not use a body double (I can think of more than a few likely candidates)? Film makers figured this out a long time ago and if there is no need to have nudity in tandem with singing, the logistical should be evident.
Is there a place for nudity in opera? Of course, why not? However, I hope the business isn’t going to be in some sort of rush to invent places for on-stage nudity; after all, how many one-second “surprise!” scenes and barely relevant topless dancing (no pun intended) can we take before it gets old anyway? Instead, I hope the business moves more toward creative uses of adult oriented themes and staging that directly support the artistic message.
I like what Tommasini wrote about the increase of on-stage nudity, “…if opera ventures increasingly down this path, it will have to grapple with the same questions of relevance, gimmickiness and sensationalism that have dogged theater, film and dance.” Amen to that and as with all things artistic, the path of least resistance is rarely the road you want to travel.
Tommasini’s point that what transpires on-stage should always enhance the profound nature of the subject material is spot-on. Case in point, the Chicago Opera Theater’s 2008 production of Don Giovanni which effectively used contemporary American standards for lasciviousness (but no actual nudity) to underscore the libretto’s point that the main characters were not really making the most of their lives. Would the opera have had the same impact with traditional staging? I doubt it.
At the same time, I won’t be the least bit surprised if opera companies find themselves in a rush to one-up each other on adult oriented staging and it is doubtful that we’ll have long to wait before the NC-17 rating for an opera simulcast. After all, this is America.