Stripping and shaming on the opera stage

Stripping and shaming on the opera stage


norman lebrecht

February 02, 2019

The British soprano Rachel Nicholls has written a frank, intelligent, essential piece about preparing to play Salome in her forties when it suits her voice better than the composer’s teenaged fantasy. A brilliant piece of writing.

….  Looming over the whole (mainly joyous) preparation process, is a quote from Strauss himself, namely that he wanted his Salome to have the voice of Isolde, but in the body of a sixteen year old girl. The opera opens with the line “Wie schön ist die Prinzessin Salome heute nacht!” and the norm is that Salome gets her kit off in return for a snog with the severed head of John the Baptist. No pressure then!

I’ve got my kit off on stage before. I’ve been a topless Tatyana at Scottish Opera, as well as doing the traditional breasts-out bit in The Knot Garden. I’ve got down to my underwear doing a sex scene with Alan Opie in For You (he managed to get away with only removing his shoes). Most outrageously, on arriving to do a late jump-in in Kurt Weill’s Mahagonny Songspiel in Montepulciano, I was met by the director who greeted me effusively with “Hello Rachel, now we will go to ze sex shop!”, where he proceeded to watch me parade around in a variety of ever increasingly pervy outfits until he was satisfied that what he wanted for ze concept was me in a pair of white PVC hot pants, 4 inch perspex mules and nothing else. However all of this was an increasingly alarming number of years ago when I was jung und schön. I’m very much afraid that I’m now just und. I don’t have a problem with nudity on stage at all… as long as it’s justified by the piece and by the production, but I have to admit to being a bit apprehensive about the prospect of baring all in my mid-forties.

It’s not just women who feel the pressure – a baritone friend of mine who was double cast in a shirtless role with a notable barihunk tells me that he’d spent weeks psyching himself up to go on stage topless for the first time. The director took one look at him and said “We will find you a shirt”. Ouch!…

Read on right here.

And when you’ve read that, read also: What it means to perform opera naked by mezzo-soprano Gráinne Gillis


  • V.Lind says:

    Well, when Jane Fonda was faced with appearing in a bikini at around 40 in On Golden Pond, she embarked on a course of exercise to ensure she looked good on screen. You could try that, ladies and gents, if you intend to disrobe. Kinder to audiences, too.

    That exercise caper worked out rather well for Ms. Fonda. Aside from making her a gazillionnaire, have you taken a look at her at 80 or whatever she is?

    • Petros Linardos says:

      Jane Fonda has always looked great and still does. But she is not an opera singer. Moreover, many actors and actresses resort to medicine to maintain a good jawline, and Jane Fonda is probably no exception.

      For an onstage Salome, I’d take the best voice any day. Some things can be left to the imagination.
      Don’t we all have some, especially when it comes to sex?

  • anon says:

    So after a career of being treated like a piece of meat on the opera stage by sexist male directors (and composers!), her grand reflection at this stage in her career is that, alas in her forties, she fears being too old and ugly to continue being treated like a piece of meat on the opera stage…

    • Bruce says:

      She does a good job, IMHO, of addressing this dichotomy in her essay: on the one hand, this is stupid and unfair, and always has been; on the other hand, she needs to work.

  • I am certain there are hundreds of millions of men on this planet (and quite a few women too) who would find Ms. Nicholls totally alluring whether her physique is a bit Wagnerian or not. She’s a beauty. Take a look for yourself:

    Quite a few years ago I saw a Salome in Santa Fe that also had a beautiful woman playing her, but who obviously didn’t look 16. Thinking about it all led me to write a short article which amplifies some of Ms. Nicholls’ overly modest thoughts. My focus was on the overly masculinist nature of opera—most everything written from a male perspective–though at times my comments and humor were decidedly un-PC and iconoclastic. Here it is for the few music theater geeks who might be interested. I post it out of a sense of solidarity with Ms. Nicholls:


    The problems with opera are too numerous to count. It is, of course, a good idea to try to find lost works of opera by women composers. At the same time, it is impossible to overlook that oppression kept the vast majority of interested women from writing opera in the first place. It’s is a little like looking for great novels written by African-American slaves. It would be an extreme understatement to say that there are conditions of life not conducive to the creation of art. The evil of human brutality knows almost no end.

    The portrayal of women in opera is thus created from an almost exclusively masculinist perspective. And it is unquestionably a demeaning portrayal. Women characters in opera tend to be abused and fallen, or simpletons who make their living by embroidering, or heroines sacrificing themselves for the well-being of a heroic man. Their identity is often determined by a degrading relationship to men who are portrayed as superior and in command. It would seem that from any self-respecting woman’s perspective, an entirely new kind of music theater needs to be created.

    The examples of misogyny in opera are so extensive it is impossible to detail all of them, but this summer I saw “Salome” in Santa Fe . The work is strange, not because of the supposed perversion, which is actually rather staid and Victorian, but because it has so many odd idiosyncrasies. There is almost no character portrayal at all. Even by the standards of opera, there are no real humans, just one-dimensional, quasi-Biblical figures. Theatrically speaking, we don’t see too much more than caricatures in Roman costumes chromatically bellowing over the Alpine Symphony.

    Perhaps the lack of theatrical depth evolved because Strauss focused too strongly on a calculated, pseudo-scandalous effect. Oscar Wilde, whose play forms the basis of the libretto, had very good reasons for studying what he referred to as “poison,” his term for unaccepted forms of erotic temptation in Victorian England. He even went to prison for it. Strauss simply did not have such sincere motivations. The Germans, to their credit, have never been particularly puritanical, and even during Strauss’s life, most didn’t really give a damn about what consenting adults did in their own privacy. Without Wilde’s “poison,” Salome is empty, an operatic gesture in the worst sense of the word. There is indeed a kind of sado-anal necrophilia in the darker regions of German culture, and it was very much alive in Strauss’s time, but Salome doesn’t capture it. The work was, and is, a superficially calculated gesture that could only exist in the utterly stodgy world of opera.

    I also wonder if it isn’t time we begin to think of at least some classical music as actually a form of ethnic music. Why do we think of the Germanic character of classical music as some sort of neutral norm? The score for Salome is so utterly Austro-Bavarian that the piece could only be plausible if Salome were wearing a Dirndl, though I suspect a clever director like Sellers could figure out some nifty way of not having Herod in Lederhosen. Especially in the climatic (sic) sections, I had no sense of sexuality, but rather programmatic Alpine tableaus: glaciers, raging streams, a stag in a meadow, timber houses with geranium flower boxes, et al. At one point, even an embarrassed Till seems to stumble onto the wrong set. Even allowing for theatrical conventions, Strauss’s Salome is far, far too beery for either ancient Israel or conflicts with British Puritanism.

    The poor direction in Santa Fe only served to stress the ridiculousness of Salome and opera in general. In his review in the San Francisco Chronicle [“Santa Fe Opera loyal to vision that’s lasted 5 decades” (Aug. 7, 2006)], Joshua Kosman described Santa Fe ‘s “Dance of the Seven Veils” as the “dreariest in recent memory.”

    I couldn’t agree more. Forms of transgressive sexuality can be very interesting, and authors such as Artaud gave them a valuable tradition in theater. But how could Strauss’s ridiculously calculated spectacle be anything but dreary? And why would any self-respecting woman want to portray such a silly, one-dimensional role? Opera being opera, Salome is almost bound to sound and look like she is 16 going on 38. In many productions of Salome, it is difficult to determine which is more matronly, the singer’s voice or her solidly endowed middle-aged body. And this is by no means a one-sided standard exacted only upon women. The pudgy, pasty-white Roman soldiers — who looked like they had seen neither exercise nor sunshine for at least fifteen years — seemed like something out of a small church’s Easter Pageant in Amarillo, Texas .

    The saving grace was that the velcro problems in the veils scene were hilarious. Things just didn’t want to come off. Herod literally had a small tug-of-war to get one veil off. When it suddenly popped loose, Salome almost fell over backwards.

    After the last veil we saw a brief flash of a more middle-aged body in a body sock. Poor thing. I don’t mean to be mean-spirited. It’s just that sooner or later we might consider music theater that works theatrically. To belt something out over a hundred piece orchestra you generally need some meat on your bones. So why don’t we create opera for the beauty, strength, and dignity of those kind of women (and men.) At least to my eyes, the singer who performed Salome in Santa Fe could be very alluring if she had the right role and direction. Enough with psuedo-skinny bimbos and seamstresses with tuberculosis.

    Anyway, I know these words will infuriate some, but if we are going to create a new kind of music theater that truly portrays the dignity of women, we are going to have to start almost from scratch.

    • Herodias says:

      So “Salome”, the opera, is a “ridiculously calculated spectacle” made by Richard Strauss while Salome, the character, is a “silly, one-dimensional role”????? And not only opera is the same thing as music theater but also has to be destroyed, exterminated as we know it because of the “dignity of women”????? Good gracious, you really don’t have a clue of anything…

      • It is stasis and maintaining the status quo that will destroy opera which has been dying for a long time. It must evolve or die. It’s antiquated views of women is only one of the problems.

        Even in Germany, opera is on a very expensive, complex life support system called Staatstheater. As noble as that enterprise is, it is no substitute for the changes needed to bring opera back to being a genuinely modern, living art form rather than a look to the past.

        Some of the major issues:
        + the art of the librettist is all but lost. Most operas fail due to bad librettos rather than bad music.
        + Composers must realize that opera is a specialized art form. History shows that its greatest composers specialized in opera. The only notable exceptions are Mozart and Strauss.
        + There is no place in the world where composers can get the long apprenticeship necessary to learn how to write opera. And there are no schools that specialize in the training of opera composers and librettists.
        + We have to stop thinking of opera being almost exclusively about the voice. This concept has crushed its evolution because the other theatrical elements have become so subservient. (That’s also why writers abandoned the field of libretto writing, which is all but demeaning.)
        + We must realize that Regietheater will not make opera modern or more relevant. It is mostly an attempt to circumvent the problem that opera is all but a dead art form, an attempt to revive a corpse as it were.
        + We must realize that in the modern world people expect genuine theater in opera. and Hokey, melodramatic acting; campy overblown sets; ridiculous librettos.
        + We must abandon the idea that opera singers do not need to be type cast. In our world of television and cinema, people expect performers in all kinds of theater to fit their roles. This is especially important now that cinema is a major presenter of opera.
        + We must create opera based on modern economic concepts. It evolved as a genre when life was cheap. Costs are vastly higher now, so new forms of opera must evolve that matches new economic conditions.
        + Opera must embrace modern theatrical theories. The days of melodrama , bogus spectacle, and overt cultural nationalism are gone.
        + Opera must create new styles of singing that allow the words to be understood. The convention of warbly, bel canto bellowing is no longer accepted. And by burying the words, it kills the ability of opera to become a more integrated theatrical art form that modern audiences expect.

        There are many other problems as well. So yeah, long live the “clueless” because they are the only ones who will save opera, if it can be saved at all. (And of course, I realize that a discussion of the problems is not suited to a general forum like SD.)

        • Herodias says:

          Nonsense, nonsense and more nonsense. And pure ignorance about what opera really is and means! I will say no more, except one thing: even if new operas were never to be written again, the repertoire that the great geniuses of that genre left us would be more than enough for thousands and thousands of years of delight. Because this is what all the highest manifestations of art are all about: they last, enchant and mesmerize us forever.

        • Ms.Melody says:

          I am glad you were not in charge of casting because Caballe, Sutherland, Norman, Eaglen and many other big ,beautiful, gifted ladies would make the cut, because they “did not fit the role”. We would all be poorer for it.
          Regietheater will not revive opera, which by the way is not dying. Regietheater will continue to pervert the composer’s and the librettist’s intentions for cheap shock value. it will not become more relevant or treat women with more respect. So far, just the opposite. Women on stage are made to expose themselves and pretend to perform sexual acts while singing glorious music all because they need to work. We do not need to invent a different kind of singing, we should work hard not to lose the skills that have been perfected over the centuries, and that includes belcanto. There are fewer and fewer teachers left who can teach this kind of singing and proper technique, which is why singers are having problems in their thirties and forties. You would like to get rid of “Hokey, melodramatic plots, ridiculous libretti and overblown sets”. Most of the sets are available and just need to be maintained. It is much more pleasant to see a historically accurate production than some cheap, vulgar garbage. While we are at it, why not get rid of most of the literature of the past? After all the treatment of women in the literature is less than exemplary by today’s standards.
          I know that sounds absurd, but you essentially propose to scrap the entire art form for the sake of creating “relevant musical theatre”. May I ask for whom this sacrifice is to be made?
          Meanwhile, I hope that most of us will take an overweight, or short or otherwise imperfect singer with a glorious voice who can do justice to the music, over someone who just ” looks” the part.

        • Sibylle Luise Binder says:

          I don’t know where to start with contradicting you because I think you’re wrong in almost every point. As Herodias said: Opera doesn’t need to be modernized all the time. And it certainly isn’t a “dead artform”.
          Besides: We need a new way of singing? Well, I thought Wagner was the one who demanded (and got) a new way of “Wortverständlichkeit” – and with his influence the way of opera singing already changed.
          There’s only one point where I agree with you: Regietheater isn’t the way to keep opera alive and to keep the audiences in the theatres. In my opinion it’s a kind of game for a certain group of “intellectuals” who aren’t interested in the audience, but only in what their peer group wants and praizes.

        • Novagerio says:

          “Salome a poor libretto”? Please, tell me I misread you, because you surely know the libretto is by Oscar Wilde, right?…

          Also, the various creative combos throughout Opera history, like Jacopo Peri and Ottavio Rinuccini, Gluck and Calzabigi, Mozart and Da Ponte, Bellini and Felice Romani, Verdi and his various librettists such as Piave and Boito, Puccini and Illica & Giacosa and not least Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hoffmansthal are precisely the perfect symbiosis of Music and Drama; the one is indispensable to the other. What they represent is the very Zeitgeist of their own or
          of a passed time, so, your argument about “type cast” and “psuedo-skinny bimbos and seamstresses with tuberculosis” is simply not valid.

    • Esther Cavett says:

      ==Even by the standards of opera, there are no real humans, just one-dimensional, quasi-Biblical figures.

      Well said, I’d never thought about it in that way

      • Narraboth says:

        Because that way is pure bullshit! It is actually hard for me to believe that anyone with a minimum level of intelligence, culture and sensitivity can watch this opera, this masterpiece in all ways and come to such superficial, stupid conclusions…

    • Esther Cavett says:

      ==Even by the standards of opera, there are no real humans, just one-dimensional, quasi-Biblical figures.

      Yes, well said. I’d never thought about it in that way

    • Luigi Nonono says:

      Then how can a blonde be cast as a surely Semitic Salome?

  • Caravaggio says:

    Why would anyone seek to transform such a classically beautiful lady into something coarse and vulgar defeats me. It’s the acting and, primordially, voice acting, and above that, the alignment of the two, that count in the end. Or should. And yes, within reason and within certain bounds, physique du role is important but not at the expense of all else.

  • HugoPreuß says:

    As a rule, nudity on stage means (at least to me) that the director didn’t have any ideas about the piece. Nudity may have been shocking at a 1970s German Stadttheater; it is no longer.

    HOWEVER: having said that, there are exceptions, and Salome would be the prime example for the exception. I’ll never forget the incredible Salome by Karita Mattila at the Met a couple of years ago. Of course the split-second of nudity at the end of the dance only works if it is preceded by a proper dance. No problem for Ms Mattila, a trained dancer. But anyone who can’t do the dance should probably abstain from the nudity as well. And you don’t necessarily have to have it, even in Salome. It adds to the performance, but it is not an absolute must.

    • Caravaggio says:

      Not a couple of years ago but close to 13?

      • HugoPreuß says:

        If you get to be my age, that *is* a couple of years ago 😉 But I looked at the video (which I have, and it is still easily available, but without the second of nudity!), and it is from 2011. So, not quite as long ago as 13 years after all!

  • Quintus Beckmesser says:

    It is possible to simulate nudity without in fact being naked. Have a look at Grace Bumbry in the Covent Garden production c. 1970:

  • Mark Hildrew says:

    ==traditional breasts-out bit in The Knot Garden

    Oh yes, the one bit of interest in that most tedious of operas !

  • Bruce says:

    Interestingly (or not), neither Strauss nor Wilde wrote nudity into the role. In the play, there is simply a stage direction: “Salome performs the Dance of the Seven Veils.” We assume — naturally, I guess — that the last veil has nothing underneath it.

    The one time I’ve seen it, the singer wore a body stocking that was sheer enough to indicate nudity, but clearly was not intended to fool anyone into thinking she was actually naked. Seemed like a fair compromise.

  • Luigi Nonono says:

    Shame on you. Opera is no place for naturalism, for nudity. It must be simulated. False breasts, body stockings, are far more theatrical and effective than the actual. I have not seen your body, but I’m sure it’s image from the balconies is not at all what the opera is calling for. The “naughty bits” require exaggeration for visibility and shock value, meaning wigs, lipstick or pasties, etc. You are distracting the audience, and behaving like a cheap “actress.”

    • Herodias says:

      It’s not usually the singer who gets to choose what she wears. Perhaps your ire would be better directed at the directors and design team?

  • Sibylle Luise Binder says:

    You’re certainly still more as “und”. However, I’m not too happy about some directors’ need to undress whoever they can. If I want to watch a strip I go to a night club and not in the opera! And whenever I see one of the “barihunks” with their six packs I wonder how they manage to sing with these muscles on their belly. I’m a former bassoonist, I know something about breathing techniques and I don’t believe such muscles make it better or easier.
    And when it comes to the girls … well, I’d rather listen to a Jane Eaglen as to one of these dolls with the sexy figure and the small voice.

  • Saxon Broken says:

    Sometimes I feel the correct question is:

    “If it was crucial to the plot, and to the directors concept of the piece, would you agree to keep you clothes on?”