Rhinegold Photo credit: Monika Rittershaus
Calixto Bieito's controversial SM extravaganza in Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail at the Komische Oper Berlin

Benjamin Ivry

Exploring the kinky side of opera

4:00, 5th October 2020

Axel Englund, a literature professor at Stockholm University who has, among other accomplishments, translated Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner into Swedish, has produced an erudite analysis of sadomasochism (SM) in opera. In Deviant Opera: Sex, Power & Perversion, he not only explores the fashion for SM in productions by trendy directors of recent times, but also inquires whether something inherent in opera lends itself to an SM sensibility.

Englund cites as an ‘uncomfortable fact’ the allegation that opera ‘habitually eroticises 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.’

Tragic characters typically suffer so that audiences may achieve catharsis; yet does this reduce operagoers to a cohort of sadists? If so, why is there not a dry eye in the house at Mimì’s demise in La bohème?

Among productions discussed here, Romeo Castellucci’s staging of Wagner’s Parsifal at  La Monnaie in Brussels in 2011 offers the most coherent multi-layered argument for including SM imagery onstage in opera houses.

As playwright, artist and designer as well as director, Castellucci conceived of the magician Klingsor as a wannabe conductor on a podium, overseeing flower girls who are restrained in a traditional style of Japanese bondage, in which Kinbaku-bi means the ‘beauty of tight binding.’

By identifying Klingsor as a maestro who dominates flower girls, Castellucci ‘suggests an affiliation between practices of sexual domination and the Wagnerian art. Ultimately, it is Wagner who is aspiring to complete control over the bodies in the opera house: the ones that are seen and heard, as well as those that look and listen.’

In turn, Englund adds, allusions to recent opera world scandals, with accusations of abuse against conductors by advocates of the MeToo movement, are also echoed.

When an intelligent theatrical mind is at work, such metaphorical resonance justifies considerable leeway in stage imagery.

Spain’s Calixto Bieito, in a Don Giovanni first seen at the London Coliseum in 2001, followed by the ENO in 2004, redefined Zerlina from innocent victim to active participant ‘irresistibly drawn to Giovanni’s violence and authority’.

Worse than blaming Zerlina for her treatment by Mozart’s seductor was Bieito’s Abduction from the Seraglio at the Komische Oper Berlin in 2004. The coloratura showpiece ‘Martern aller Arten’ (tortures of all kinds) in Seraglio became an occasion for enacting gory violence against women onstage, much to audiences’ dismay.

Deviant Opera: Sex, Power, and Perversion on Stage

by Axel Englund

University of California Press, 277 pages, £28

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