All opera is sado-masochism

All opera is sado-masochism


norman lebrecht

November 29, 2020

This book-length thesis by Axel Englund, professor of literature at the University of Stockholm, aruges that opera is a surrogate for our darkest fantasies and should, ideally, be directed by BDSM practitioners in leather and whips.

Pull quote: ‘The opera stage is an arena where the problem of sex, power and violenceis made manifest and played out in physical form… A staging can illuminate, interrogate and question – or endorse and capitalise on – the brutality of the plot… (it) thrives on our capacity to derive pleasure from the suffering and humiliation of others.’

Yeah, right.



  • spirit of music says:

    that s what todays opera directors and managers think and are able to offer – their own private deformations. (musicians and singers are less progressive). unfortunatelly they ruin the genre – which most probably is intended. from knowledge+culture to showbuizz and downwards. afterwards to cancellation of opera. i m sure that Monteverdi, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Verdi, Wagner, Puccini and Strauss had something different in their mind and hearts. The birth of tragedy from the spirit of music.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Indeed. And the reference to Nietzsche in the last line is very appropriate.

      In Europe, the theatre has been the platform where collective and individual life experience is explored and illuminated, in the sense of a thought experiment, but made ‘real’ by the emotional resonance provided by the music.

      Opera directors who neglect the universal subjects of opera – the examples of the human condition – don’t understand the art form. Contemporary composers who sink to the level of pop and folky imitation don’t understand it either.

      Fortunately, there are again composers and directors who want to restore the genre to its former glory:

      • fflambeau says:

        “In Europe, the theatre has been the platform where collective and individual life experience is explored and illuminated, in the sense of a thought experiment, but made ‘real’ by the emotional resonance provided by the music.” Translation please? Certainly you should be able to put it better than that.

    • Re the composers listed. The sadomasochism in the relationship of Mozart’s Don Giovani and Donna Elvira. The same in Verdi, Othello’s murder of Desdamona and then his suicide. Need one mention the sadomasochism in Strauss’s Salome? Brunhilde’s self-immolation?

      • John Borstlap says:

        There is a serious confusion of meaning here. NONE of the mentioned protagonists derives pleasure from their gruesome fate, and neither of the wrongdoers do. The function of having death and murder in the theatre is to heighten the stakes of the plot.

        To check this, I asked my PA’s opinion and she wholeheartedly disagrees with me, so it must be true.

        • fflambeau says:

          Sorry, I disagree. Ever seen Baron Scarpia in Tosca? He’s obviously into S&M.

          • John Borstlap says:

            But his sadism is shown to be bad, and he is punished on the spot before he can practice his evil inclinations.

          • fflambeau says:

            But these are qualifiers you did not write about in your post and have nothing to do with sadism and masochism in opera. It certainly exists in the opera, even if it is “punished.”

      • Marfisa says:

        John Borstlap is absolutely right. Applying the label sadomasochism (or BDSM to be up-to-date) to anything involving love, lust, revenge, remorse, hatred, piety, etc. as sadomasochism is limited, prurient, and daft.
        I would like to start a campaign against acronyms and initialisms. If people had to type out “Bondage and discipline, Dominance and submission, Sadism, and Masochism” in full every time, perhaps they would think harder, and talk less, about it.

    • fflambeau says:

      Well, Tosca has plenty of S&M (Baron Scarpia), brutality etc. and it was written by Giacomo Puccini. As for Wagner, guess who was one of his favorite fans? (Hint: the man with the funny mustache and whips.) Ever seen Beethoven’s opera? Full of cruelty and abuse. I heartily disagree with you. I don’t think this is true of all opera but a lot of it does and it is a known fact that the owner here loves to exaggerate to sell and entice.

  • A.L. says:

    There are many angels from which to understand this. Two of them are salient in explaining why opera has become increasingly hellish and sadomasochistic: 1. Directorial whimsy on stereoids or hallucinogens or both; and, 2. Horrible and inconsequential singing. 1 & 2 are the order of the day, underscoring the on-thin-ice precariousness of the artform and its practinioners.

  • A.L. says:

    Angles, that is. Wish there were angels.

  • Paul Dawson says:

    Amazon shows a quote on the back cover.

    “Any opera lover who dismisses a BDSM-inflected opera production as simply the latest Regietheater fad needs to read this riveting study. Englund uncovers surprisingly analogous connections between BDSM (its conventions, “transgressions,” and semiotics) and opera—a cultural practice that has luxuriated in extremes of sexuality, violence, and power for four centuries.”—Kristi Brown-Montesano, author of Understanding the Women of Mozart’s Operas.

    I’m most grateful to Ms Brown-Montesano. She has saved me from wasting time and money on this tome.

  • christopher storey says:

    Another loony on the loose………..

  • M McAlpine says:

    Well these people have to write some rubbish to justify their existence

  • John says:

    “Should, ideally, be BDSM practitioners in leather and whips”. This is a blatant misrepresentation of the book’s content. Have you read the book before slurring the author’s project in this way? Is it so difficult to conceive that opera – notorious for its depictions of female suffering and and its emotional extremes – connects with particular psychological fantasies and that this has led to a spate of modern productions that explore sadomasochistic behaviour? Last time I checked, Carmen was no bedtime story!

  • J Barcelo says:

    Can’t wait for the BDSM version of Hansel and Gretel. What possibilities!

  • sam says:

    It’s an outrage to suggest that Bartok’s Blue Beard’s Castle has anything to do with BDSM, it’s about one man’s interior decorating faux pas, and his new wife’s demand to redecorate.

    Mr. Englund is shooting fish in a barrel, if his grand thesis is “opera is about sex”. It’s like making the discovery that “opera is primarily in Italian, German, and French.”

    Ok, Sherlock.

  • Nicholas says:

    I wish Sir Roger Scruton were alive to review the book.

  • J Morris Jones says:

    I haven’t read this book, but I’m not aware of any operas with libretti derived from the works of De Sade or Sacher-Masoch. Perhaps they do exist, I don’t know.

    • William Osborne says:

      The point is that the theme is a common part of the literature of theater and has a long history.

    • fflambeau says:

      Ever seen Tosca with the obviously SM character, Baron Scarpia?

    • William Safford says:

      Or someone could attempt to write a new opera based on a work of one of theirs, or similar material. We could watch and listen to and judge it based on its merits.

      I would much rather observe such an opera (at least once), than have sadomasochistic themes grafted onto an old opera, irrespective of the merits of the book at question.

  • Jim says:

    Sounds like a worthy successor to Catherine Clement’s feminist “Opera, or, the undoing of women” which more of less demonstrated that opera is very mean to women. Even the Marschallin dies (symbolically, but that’s good enough)

  • Actually, theater has a long tradition of exploring sadomasochistic themes. Two of the most notable playwrights in the 20th century for this were the Marquis de Sade and Ionesco. Samuel Beckett also extensively explored the the topic. Lucky and Pozze in Waiting for Godot are an obvious example. Also Hamm and Clov in Endgame. The work of such authors strongly influenced theater in the 20 century. James Joyce’s Ulysses employs themes of masochism, especially in the “Circe” section. In a more superficial manner, Bret Easton Ellis wrote a best seller on the topic. The examples are countless.

    Sadomasochism in theater becomes an avenue to explore fundamental human impulses that are sadly a part of human life and society. It was also natural that opera explore these themes since no genre better explores human passion and the sadomasochistic impulses it can engender.

    As Englund notes, this most strongly affected the portrayal of women in opera. In this, he follows the 1979 book by French philosopher Catherine Clément, “L’Opéra ou la Défaite des femmes” which explores traditional operatic plots that often feature the death of women – in her words, “the infinitely repetitive spectacle of a woman who dies, murdered.”

    This isn’t to say that a lot of Regietheater isn’t over the top and superficial, but it is to say that the topic and its role in theater and opera is central and should not be overlooked.

    • John Borstlap says:

      De Sade was an 18C crank, not a 19C one.

    • William Safford says:

      I wonder if there is a definitional disconnect in much of this discussion: the difference between the prevalence of sadistic and/or masochistic themes in opera, vs. the occurrences in opera of the eroticization and ritualization of sadomasochism. The former is common. I can’t think of an example of the latter in the modern repertory, but I bet that someone has written such a modern opera or at least incorporated such themes into it.

  • Correction to my previous post: de Sade was 19th century. We should also not forget Antonin Artaud who extensively explored the themes of sadomasochism in his work which was also highly influential. Given the horrors of the 20th century, we might see why art was led to these themes and why it became a focus of European thought.

    • Eric says:

      Marquis de Sade: 1740 – 1814

    • John Borstlap says:

      Which also means that such dead end mindset will pass. It is a reaction, not a contribution to understanding of the human condition. Abberations remain abberations, also where they have been explained.

  • We might also reference Suzanne G. Cusick’s study of the use of music for torture in the CIA’s Detention Camps. The woman Biden has appointed as the new CIA Director, Gina Cheri Walker Haspel, ran one of those camps.

    • Antony Walker says:

      Gina Haspel was appointed Director of the CIA in May 2018, by Trump, after having served as Deputy Director under Mike Pompeo. At present Biden has not made his CIA or Pentagon picks public, as far as I am aware, and appears to be still considering whom to out forward.

  • Stweart says:

    I wonder if he’s ever watched “Midsomer Murders” ?

  • William Safford says:

    Is there a chapter on Grainger?

  • fflambeau says:

    It certainly explains Adolph’s love of opera. And he walked around with a whip.