Thursday, 19 June 2014

Nudity on stage

This article first appeared at

Photo: Ruby Washington/The New York Times
There's a been a storm in a (a very small) teacup this week about a wannabe 'opera singer' stripping off during the variety talent show America's Got Talent. In the skit, a personal trainer takes her dress off while singing O mio babbino caro, revealing a red bikini with an apologetic shrug. There's nothing more to it than that. However, it usefully forms the polar opposite to the outcry against critics responding to Glyndebourne Festival Opera's der Rosenkavalier - in this converse situation the personal trainer's lack of operatic talent is obfuscated by the narrative & perception of physical attributes.

Elsewhere this week there has been real nudity deployed on stage in the genuine pursuance of lyric drama. The New York Times reports a bijou production of GF Haas' Atthis (above) in which a particularly brave soprano removes an undergarment of duct tape (yes, adhered to her body) whilst her character "sings of her despair over having lost her lover".

Photo: Richard Hubert Smith
Meanwhile over here at the not-much-bigger Print Room in Notting Hill, soprano Callie Swarbrick removed a virginal-white costume before the magnifying gaze of a camera (projecting its image across the set) in a soul-baring-and-cleansing action for Reunion, Christian Mason's part of Opera Erratica's Triptych (I saw Triptych - Swarbrick & the rest of the company gave fine performances in one of the operatic highlights of the year thusfar). In either case, the size of venue is worth noting for the proximity of the audience to the performers.

I think that the use of nudity in any of these situations - whether or not it has the necessary effect - is quite clear and doesn't need to be discussed. However, a colleague has recently pointed out an article about the pitfalls of introducing too much 'reality' onto the stage. The author quotes dramatic theorist Bert O.
As soon as you put something real on stage, it stops the theatre – or, more likely, the thing itself stops being real. On stage, says the Austrian writer Peter Handke, "Light is brightness pretending to be other brightness; a chair is a chair pretending to be another chair."
Funnily, we come back to the Glyndebourne Rosenkavalier. Richard Jones' production opens with the tableau of the Marschallin (played by Kate Royal this season) naked in the shower. I had no problem with assimilating the 'nudity' of the performer with the aesthetic intent of the scene having realised that she was wearing a body stocking. The performer wasn't actually naked at all. What's the furthest you would be prepared to go to help realise the intent of a director? Does it make a difference if the nudity is written into the piece itself (say in Richard Strauss' Salome?)

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