Pushing our buttons: Hadrian, Actéon, Pygmalion and erotic opera

Before there was pornography, there was always opera. Slavoj Zizek spoke of opera as redundant once we had psychiatrists, which is how he explains the decline in opera in the 20th century.

But maybe there are other reasons opera wasn’t so popular. Before we had film, opera was the palace of forbidden delights, a place for sublimated desires.

Love is often a feature in operas. Sometimes it’s a pure kind of love, as we might think of Tamino’s ideal love for Pamina in The Magic Flute. Sometimes it’s more transgressive, especially when we think of 20th century operas such as Salome or Lulu, where things are more erotic & even obsessive.  I think it’s fair to assume that when an opera could be seen as exciting, that at least some in the audience would find the excitement.

Notice too that while we’re speaking of opera, I’m really talking about the visual element.

I want to focus on the four operas being presented this fall by the big companies in Toronto. No matter how tasteful the production –and I believe all four of these are very restrained in their style–the subtext never goes away.   I couldn’t help noticing that we seem to be more erotic than usual.

  • Tchaikovky’s Eugene Onegin from the Canadian Opera Company features lots of thwarted relationships (Tatyana & Onegin, Olga & Lensky) plus one that seems successful at least superficially (Gremin & Tatyana).
  • Rufus Wainwright’s Hadrian is a new opera set to have its world premiere this coming weekend with the COC. The production bears a disclaimer that I quoted in my recent interview with Cori Ellison, namely
    “Content advisory: Hadrian contains nudity and scenes of a sexual nature. The opera is recommended for audiences 18 or older.” 


    Isaiah Bell (centre) Thomas Hampson (foreground) and dancers (photo: Gaetz Photography) from the Canadian Opera Company production of Hadrian

  • Opera Atelier offers a double bill of mythological operas. Charpentier’s Actéon is a cautionary tale about a man who is punished for getting too close to a naked goddess, turned into a wild animal that is hunted by his own hounds. Erotic desire is front & centre in this story.


    Artist of Atelier Ballet Edward Tracz poses as the stag in Actéon (Photo: Bruce Zinger)

  • Rameau’s Pygmalion, is a happier bit of mythology concerning the artist who falls in love with his own creation, and is blessed when the statue is brought to life by Cupid.


    Meghan Lindsay poses as the statue in Pygmalion (Photo: Bruce Zinger)

All four operas concern the consequences of sexual desire.

  • Young Tatyana is thwarted by Onegin, who in turn is rejected by Tatyana when he meets her again years later. Lensky challenges Onegin to a duel when he becomes jealous of his neighbour’s flirtation with his beloved Olga. The closest thing to happiness is the contentment expressed by Gremin, even though he’s older. If we go by the music in the last two scenes, Gremin’s slow aria suggests that he’s no longer sexual, while the fervent music of Onegin is all about his desire for Tatyana, an infatuation that leads nowhere.
  • Hadrian too is an opera about frustrated desire, as old Hadrian sadly recalls Antinous, a lover who died years ago, while his wife Sabina in turn notices the shift in her husband’s gaze; I say this, never having seen the opera, that premieres Saturday night. I can’t wait to see it.
  • Actéon is punished for his voyeurism, transformed into a beast for looking upon a naked goddess: an apt description of what happens to some people when they are stimulated.
  • Pygmalion faces something similar, although there’s no naked goddess involved; he is frustrated by the fact that the object of his desire is a statue rather than a living woman. When he prays to the Goddess of Love she is merciful rather than harsh, bringing his creation to life.

And of course there are many ways to present any opera. Think for example of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice¸ which has seen at least three stagings in Toronto over the past decade:

  • Robert Carsen’s minimalist production with the COC in 2011
  • Opera Atelier’s historically informed 2015 production
  • Against the Grain Theatre’s Orphee+ earlier in 2018 featuring burlesque & aerials

    Marcy Richardson is Amour in Against the Grain’s Orphee+ (Darryl Block photography)

    There’s certainly a great deal of beauty on stage in these productions, each one pushing very different buttons in the viewer: or voyeur.

I feel a special connection to Actéon. I used some of Charpentier’s 17th century opera in my operatic adaptation of Venus in Furs written & presented in 1999. It seemed too good to be true to be able to adapt something erotic into another erotic opera, to present a specimen of voyeurism, when the main character is a bit of a voyeur himself.

Don’t we all run the risk of becoming animals when we’re too excited? And now in 2018, prepare to have your buttons pushed.  The COC’s Eugene Onegin continues its run until November 3rd, while Hadrian opens October 13th: both at the Four Seasons Centre.  Opera Atelier’s double-bill of Actéon and Pygmalion opens October 25th at the Elgin Theatre.

This entry was posted in Opera, Personal ruminations & essays, Psychology and perception and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Pushing our buttons: Hadrian, Actéon, Pygmalion and erotic opera

  1. Pingback: Pushing our buttons 2: pornographic musings on Actéon and Venus | barczablog

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