The Bad Sex Guide to Opera

The Bad Sex Guide to Opera


norman lebrecht

July 12, 2015

A member of the music profession wondered aloud the other day why opera directors keep trying to have sex on stage when online porn does it so much better.

She has a point. Sex is only ever simulated on the opera stage and never with total conviction. So why bother? Get back to the singing.

Here’s a Slipped Disc list of the ten least essential sex scenes of recent times (in no particular order). Do add some of your own. We might even offer an award for the worst sex on stage.

1 Bavarian State Opera, Munich . Eugene Onegin by Krzysztof Warlikowski.

Onegin and Lenski are gay. Lenski is killed in bed after a failed blow job. Semi-naked cowboys are fellated.

2. Statsoper Berlin. Parsifal by Dmitri Tcherniakov.

The opera ends with Good Friday miracle. It involves Amfortas having sex with Kundry who is stabbed to death in the act.

3. Deutsche Oper Berlin. Samson and Dalila by Patrick Kinmonth – explicit sexual scenes

4. Komische Oper Berlin. Double bill of Gianni Schicchi and Bluebeard Castle: sex, oral sex, other varieties.

bluebeard berlin


5 Munich. Tcherniakov’s Lulu.

tcherniakov lulu

6 Dresden, Stefan Herheim’s Lulu


7 ROH Covent Garden William Tell

An unscripted rape to ballet music.

8 Deutsche Oper Berlin. Lady Macbeth of Mzensk – simulated sex with gigantic fish


9 Powder Her Face – the show that shut New York City Opera

powder her face
photo by Pavel Antonov

10 The one that simulated an Irish airline


Villazon, Netrebko, Salzburg Festival press photo/dpa


  • Lloyd Arriola says:

    An Irish airline. Ær Lingus, eh? Amusing, Norman!

  • James says:

    I wouldn’t say the sex in Powder Her Face is inessential – it’s utterly at the centre of the entire plot. So I don’t think that should be tarred with the same brush as all the rest. I only saw the London production though, where the depiction of the sex act in question was rather striking and beautiful. Maybe in New York it was a different story?

  • Fergus Johnston says:

    Ah! enough with the lingus thing. Aer lingus is an anglicised form of Aer Loingeas, from “long”, meaning “ship” in Irish, extrapolated to loingeas “fleet”,in the genitive case, which in the 1950’s they thought no Anglophones would be able to pronounce, so they naively made it easy for you all and spelt it how it sounds, Lingus, but that was before the whole sexual revolution thing, and what do we get? Abuse!

  • Max Grimm says:

    While I have endured some positively abhorrent productions (the name Krzysztof Warlikowski frequently makes me break out in hives), Jonathan Kent’s production of Purcell’s The Fairy Queen for Glyndebourne contains a brief sex-scene, which, compared to the productions listed above, is rather tastefully executed. (briefly shown at 0:22)

  • Petros LInardos says:

    Parents of young children should be extra careful before taking them to an opera house. Children are at some risk of being exposed to inappropriate material and at high risk of developing misconceptions about libretti in general.

  • 110 says:

    People, sex is attractive to the public.
    It is only important to be presented in good taste.
    No abuse!!!

  • william osborne says:

    Better yet, create a new kind of music theater that does not need such gimmicks to deeply engage a wide spectrum of the modern public. That’s the true and challenge and will require fundamental change to the entire form.

  • Una says:

    What ever happened to people using their imaginations? Is it really necessary to have it always in your face? As a singer, I’m glad I don’t have to take part in such productions, whatever about going to see them. Although I’ve always been a fit person, even younger I wouldn’t be physically fit to do some of these productions and then be expected to sing well. If there’s over the top sex and violence on television you can turn it off, but it’s a bit harder in an opera house if you’ve paid £200 at the Royal Opera House, London, and with other people too! Balance is the essence in all of this, but something subtle can very often have a much bigger impact on people than, as I said, everything in your face all of the time. But I’m sure many of you will just disagree with me or call me old-fashioned!!

  • Una says:

    By the way, have I missed any mention of dear Jon Vickers on this site who died on Friday?

  • M2N2K says:

    If there is any justice in this world, this post will soon be followed by another entitled “THE GOOD SEX GUIDE TO OPERA”. Looking forward to it!

  • herrera says:

    Dear Ms Manners,

    Is it proper etiquette to use one’s opera glasses during such scenes? And if your partner is hogging the lorgnette, is it polite to elbow him or her in the rib to signal you’d like to share the binoculars before the scene ends?

    Opera BUFF (ha ha)

    • Emily Post says:

      Dear Opera Buff,

      First of all, a gentleman does not put “ha ha” after a pun, he will simply let his wit, if there be any, rise to the consciousness of the cognoscenti.

      Now, opera glasses are meant to focus on the head of the singer to study vocal technique, so a gentleman would train his glasses on the singer’s face and throat, but no lower. Ever. Not even when the singer is fully clothed.

      While one’s date is occupied with the lorgnette, a gentleman would take the opportunity to examine her hair and attire for any defects that she may remedy during intermission in the powder room.

      Yours truly,
      Emily Post

  • Antony says:

    Tcherniakov’s Parsifal ending? Did you see it; Norman? Some passionate kissing no doubt, which the Gurnemanz could not tolerate as it broke the moral code of the grail knights – again in Amfortas’ case – and so he knifed her in the back to keep the sect pure and as revenge for Kundry causing the rot in the first place. Controversial and perhaps wrong. But not gratuitous either physically or dramaturgically in any way. Shocking on top of the heavenly music of the last 2 pages of the score but not gratuitous!

  • John says:

    One forgotten argument: you can watch as much sex scenes on the internet and it entirely FREE. Some scenes are made by professional, some (a growing number in fact) are made by amateurs feeling that it’s more interesting to watch a “true” sex scene than a more or less “fake” one (just listen to some of those scenes and you’ll be able to make the difference…). On stage you just have “fake” ones and what’s even more disturbing is that you have to pay bad actors acting badly in badly thought sex scenes… I mean, please, does anyone do any of the sex acts the stage director are coming up with!

  • RW2013 says:

    Does spitting out sperm count?
    (Le Grand Macabre at the Komische Oper Berlin)

  • La Donna del Largo says:

    “A member of the music profession wondered aloud the other day…”

    Did she wonder aloud on condition of anonymity? I think people who make fatuous statements like “why [do] opera directors keep trying to have sex on stage when online porn does it so much better” should be held to account.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      Does that include people who post comments here under pseudonyms?

      • La Donna del Largo says:

        You’re the one who allows pseudonymous commenting on your site, so why not ask yourself that question?

        The “professional” you quote as an authority said something trivial and silly, so I don’t think it’s out of line to ask who she is and what her credentials are — other than that her prejudices happen to coincide with your own.

        There are lots of human activities depicted in opera that are much better suited for film treatment: sword fights with dragons, for instance, or prima donnas leaping from castle battlements, or statues coming to life and inviting themselves to supper. Shakespeare’s plays include numerous scenes of combat and other violence that cannot feasibly be put on stage with anything approaching the realism attainable in a film studio. So should all these scenes be cut? Do you propose to put on stage a “Lulu” from which any suggestion of sex has been excised?

        Really, your Luddism (or, rather, your pandering to a cabal of Luddite readers) would be disgusting if it were not so pathetic.

  • El Grillo says:

    In response to whether certain things aren’t better on film, not that that’s necessarily the case, but film can work too. Even for Opera.

    The relationship with sex here would be human trafficking.

    By sheer chance, just today, I happened to get a DVD of Zaide made into a movie by Peter Sellars.

    I guess I never heard this fragment of an opera never finished before, and it’s heart breaking. I can’t romantically but wonder what prevented Wolfgang from finishing it, or was it just too much, too intense and destiny left it the way it is, after his highly exploited youth.

    And Sellars’ setting is in modern times, but it works. It’s quite amazing. Somehow the blossoming of human interaction, even in the most oppressive setting, is made divine. And I find myself thinking about all the insecurities I’ve had in my life only to see it’s only something music (art) can heal rather than society, which has no such ability. To be the lowest gives you something society doesn’t have. It could have been set in so many different places, a sweat shop, a refuge camp, a concentration camp, in the occupied territory, a first nation’s reservation or an asylum.

    How could this have been left unfinished when all anyone had to do is give Wolfgang the opportunity to have it performed?

    And why are they mangling classics in the manner of “updating” them rather than commissioning someone to write an opera that has these elements?

    Or are dead composers just easier to deal with, like with Hollywood and the “characters” they exploit. Making a movie like Pretty Woman is just easier than seeing what the life of a prostitute really is like?

  • Arto says:

    There was a very long and heavy rape scene in Jan Fabres Tragedy of a friendship. A new opera about wagner and nietsche.
    Lots of people left the theatre in shock.