This is what it means to perform opera naked

This is what it means to perform opera naked


norman lebrecht

October 24, 2018

From the Irish mezzo-soprano Gráinne Gillis. Special to Slipped Disc:


I’ve been thinking about the production of Don Giovanni in Australia, where the director looked for 200 naked women (or women that are suddenly inspired to throw their clothes off in the name of ’empowerment’).

I believe the show has got great reviews, mainly on its Don G, Duncan Rock (so great job on that) but there are a couple of things about this that really, really irk me.

First caveat: I’ve been naked on stage. It was part of a contract for a job that I had, as an actress. I’m very comfortable with just getting on with things in mixed dressing rooms etc and have few issues with my meat-suit beyond wanting to shift some extra poundage at the moment. However, my experience of being naked on stage, because it was badly handled by the company, left me feeling uncomfortable and exploited and vulnerable. I can honestly say that it was in no way ’empowering’. It didn’t leave me with hang-ups about my body or anything else – I just understood at that time and since that being naked onstage is a vulnerable position to put yourself in, and you can’t control the reactions of other people, however many promises of respect in the workplace are made by the company etc. You can’t control the reaction of your colleagues or indeed the audience.

Second caveat: I have no issue with updating opera, as long as it works and is faithful to the core story. In fact, to object to updating opera would be pretty hypocritical on my part, given that the current production I’m in (at the King’s Head Theatre in London) sets La Traviata in a pole-dancing club. However, it retains the major plot elements of the story, and in my opinion, it works. Others may not agree with this – and that’s absolutely fine too.

So, apparently this mass shedding of clothes happens when Don G descends into hell. Now, I’ve only seen this opera a couple of times, but riddle me this: isn’t that Don G’s idea of a good time? Surely it would be more radical for Don G to be stripped by 200 women and then for them to laugh at him – isn’t that what his idea of hell would be? Or beat him up, or something?

Moreover, if we’re looking at nudity as a form of ’empowerment’ – how about directors who insist on nudity directing the show in the nip? I mean, it’s so powerful, right? I remember the first opera I did where a director was looking for a fall from a singer and explaining it to her, and she very calmly insisted that he show her first before she attempted it. Her point was that it wasn’t a particularly safe fall as it stood and that he should lead by example. I do think that directors should be prepared to demonstrate – it’s a basic requirement of the job, to be a leader. It may have been taken out of context, but the director of the show was quoted as saying she ‘might’, if the notion took her, take off her clothes in solidarity with these women. ‘MIGHT?!!’ Hmmm. I call ’empowerment’ BS.

There is a bit of distraction element as well in play when directors go down the gratuitous nudity route. I was at a production recently of an opera that had the most magical opening, playing with the element of light in the overture. I was transported, magically in those few minutes – until the director had some singers do some movements which were writ large on a screen behind, still playing with light, but with what looked very much like their labia on display. Nothing against the labia – I’m very fond of mine – but it jerked me out of that magical feeling to wondering ‘Am I really seeing this? Not sure if I’m seeing this – why not use flesh-coloured pants in that? Etc’ and down a rabbit-hole of musings which really just worked against the magical set-up. It took me away from the story and the magic of the theatre, which, given the auspicious beginning, was a shame.On the other hand, I went to a phenomenal performance of Tannhauser last year at Deustche Oper which used nudity profusely (both male and female) and which was perfectly in harmony with the plot – no points to be made, just to serve and enhance the story-telling.

Not to mention, with these 200 volunteers that may or may not fling their clothes off in a moment of ecstasy, the fact that these are volunteers indicates that it puts a lot of actors out of work for that period. Side issue, but part of the conversation, nonetheless, given cutbacks in the arts.

I’m happy, as a performer, to push boundaries. As long as it fits in with the story, and I’m able to make sense of my character, I don’t mind too much. And of course, you just get on with whatever job and contract you’re doing, that goes without saying. But saying that you’re asking 200 women to volunteer to get naked, in a scene from Don G set in hell, to make a point about #MeToo – please. The ‘leaks’ to the press about it felt opportunistic and ill-judged. I’ve been told by a few people that what the director said might have been sensationalized, and having read a few of the reviews, I understand the link with the 1003 women Don Juan raped and seduced. I’m still not convinced that as a character it would be ‘hell’ for him.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for experimentation. Experiments in theatre and opera are important and it is important people are allowed to try, to succeed and to fail. No issues there. The director is female, by all accounts a feminist – and hooray, let’s have more directors like this telling stories in theatres and opera houses worldwide. However, in an age of #MeToo, where survivors are only just relatively recently telling their stories, then having to listen to the rantings of a Brett Kavanaugh, the apologies to him from the POTUS, and are marching and protesting – funnily enough, WITH THEIR CLOTHES ON – I’m slightly skeptical about anything that doesn’t empower women, and renders them as faceless, nameless meat-sacks en masse on a stage. Again, I’m sure that wasn’t the intention – but part of the process of #MeToo is humanizing women, so that they’re not just merely someone’s daughter, mother, sister: but so we start see women (as a society) as individual human beings, with (in the case of #MeToo survivors) individual stories of trauma endured by the prevalence of a system of patriarchy, the key purpose of which is to diminish women’s humanity and render us as mere objects, to be taken by any man with notions of droit de seigneur. That’s the key political point of #MeToo which I feel is often missed.

At this stage, being slightly world-weary and jaded, and having experienced/heard every concept directors have come up with (including one in Finland, where apparently the actors threw faeces that had been collected at the audience – ‘It’s a shit production – literally!’), here’s a fricking radical idea:
No less, and no more.

SEE ALSO: Stripping and shaming on the opera stage



  • MWnyc says:

    Would 200 naked women be Don Giovanni’s idea of heaven? Depends on what they were doing to him.

    If they were throwing themselves at him, saying “Take me! Take me!”, then yeah. If they were beating him up and/or pointing and laughing at him, maybe not.

    What, in this staging, are the women doing?
    (I take it Ms. Gillis doesn’t know.)

  • Escamillo says:

    I once saw a chorus of ‘naked’ witches in Macbeth (in body suits, actually) – all sorts of shapes and sizes, with sags here and bulges there. It was the funniest thing I’d ever seen, especially to Verdi’s dance-like rhythms. Not exactly what the composer had in mind. Naked bodies are not flattering or dramatic on stage, just hilarious.

  • An entirely crazy idea to have naked women on stage in Don Giovanni, as if the audience has no clue what it means when it is revealed that the Don had many affairs. Embarrassing, stupid, patronizing, vulgar.

  • Dominic Stafford says:

    Some good points; but the production that prompted this article is misguided for a very clear reason.

    Don Giovanni begins with an attempted rape, and the supposition that women are chattel – Donna Anna of her father, Zerlina of Masetto, Elvira of the lover who has abandoned her. Women are quite literally catalogued.

    Throughout the opera the three heroines bring about Don Giovanni’s ruin through their own agency. They also develop into individual characters with an increased say over their futures.

    This important and enduring message is undermined by inviting 200 naked women on stage.

  • Mike Schachter says:

    All this could have been said in far fewer words?

    • V.Lind says:

      No kidding. When I got to this — TELL THE STORY.
      No less, and no more — I thought, after slogging through the third or fourth retelling of the same point, physician, heal thyself. Weakened a valuable and important argument.

  • Alan says:

    This has nothing to do with POTUS or Kavanaugh. Grow up.

  • Wally Francis says:

    How refreshing to read a sensible, intelligent, well-written response on Slipped Disc, to what will inevitably be a controversial issue. Top marks to Ms. Gillis for such an open and honest perspective.

  • Will Duffay says:

    Very reasonable. My guess is that directors lacking imagination go for the naked approach as a cheap way to shock. It isn’t always necessary to do something new or tiresomely ‘shocking’ to provide a great artistic experience or a profound evening of entertainment. And exploiting the performers (who might be grateful for the work if they are early in their careers, and reluctant to complain) is very wrong. Agents need to stick up for their singers too, and step in when things are getting out of hand.

    • Bruce says:

      … if they have an agent. (See the Barbara Hannigan article where she mentions that many young performers are trying to navigate their early careers without an agent)

  • Alexa says:

    What a brilliantly written article and well-said. Can she be a regular?

    • Stuart says:

      I saw it differently. I went back and read her piece twice, and honestly it rambles and wanders – very much a stream of consciousness piece but it comes across as not having a point. Go back an re-read her “Don’t get me wrong” paragraph. It is all over the map. Is she writing about opera, opera stagings, naked stagings, is it a political piece or a feminist piece – certainly she is smug. Hopefully a better singer than she is a writer.

  • M McAlpine says:

    Unfortunately things like the parade of naked women on stage – which has nothing to do with Mozart’s opera – is a device of directors who haven’t a clue what the opera is about and are willing to use any vulgar device possible to cover their own ineptitude. It does take imagination to direct a much seen opera so as to shed new light upon it. However, these type of directors only shed light on their own cluelessness.

  • Vaquero357 says:

    Nudity on stage….it was a way of stirring things up back the 1960s. Nowadays, c’mon? Is the director SO bankrupt of ideas that that’s the best he can come up with?

    There’s an infinite number of ways to make Don Giovanni more than just a stand-up-and-sing affair…… I recall Jean-Pierre Ponnelle coming up with a whole lot of them. Maybe some of the younger generation could work on stage business that *actually* amplifies and reinforces the drama and the music. “Hey, somebody call security! There’s a guy brandishing common sense up here!”

    I recall a production of Handel’s Alcina at the Lyric Opera in Chicago that got pretty close to nekkid folks on stage – though mostly men as if I remember correctly. But I don’t remember going to a performance with actual nudity on stage. If I did, I’d be pretty uncomfortable. I’m sure many singers feel naked enough on stage, even in costume.

    So let’s leave this form of raciness to the movies and the Internet and let opera be opera.

  • Penelope Thomson says:

    I have attended this Opera here in Brisbane, Australia. Not all performers were naked, they were given the option, so some wore underwear. I initially wondered whether this would be some form of voyeuristic scene but I was pleasantly surprised and it fitted the context.
    It showed the furries, who had been used and abused by Don Giovanni but in the end they had taken ownership of their bodies, their life stories and the action, became powerful woman. The stage was raked, the women strode down the stage, gathered Don Giovanni and took him off. Don Giovanni would not like being called to account by strong, powerful woman

  • Ted says:

    Why only naked OPERA? Why not also naked symphonies, naked string quartets, naked lieder-concerts? Heck, how about all-nude meetings of the companies’ boards of directors from time to time?