It’s described as a “maelstrom of deception, secrecy, betrayal, violence and apparent hopelessness,” a “collision of East and West values, and where human beings are treated as mere commodities to be bought and sold.”
The product of composer Adam Gorb and librettist Ben Kaye’s extensive research and collaboration with nearly a dozen charities, Anya17 opens Wednesday night in Liverpool. Billed as the world’s first human trafficking opera, it comes with support from the United Nations, Salvation Army and Anti-Slavery International. The latter’s spokesperson Iqtadar Hasnain told the Independent's Emily Dugan, “As far as we're aware, there has never been an opera on this subject."
But there has been. Not to diminish the importance of the cause in its contemporary context or to slight the work of Gorb, Kaye and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic’s Ensemble 10/10, but historically, opera has been far more than what Dugan terms “overblown tales of romance.”
There’s heightened romance to be sure, but to write off the genre over the last four-hundred years as such is misleading and a disservice. You want prostitution? La traviata, Madama Butterfly, Lulu, La Rondine, Thaïs, Manon Lescaut, The Tales of Hoffmann, Peter Grimes. (“Opera” has its own entry in the Encyclopedia of Prostitution and Sex Work, Volume 1.) And that doesn’t even get into the laundry list of women who are treated and traded like chattel in Lucia, Salome, Don Carlo, La Clemenza di Tito, Ernani... I can go on.
And even more extreme are the harems, from Weber’s Oberto and Verdi’s Il Corsaro to Rossini’s L’italiana in Algeri and Mozart’s Zaïde. In fact, it was another Mozart opera, Die Entführung aus dem Serail, that was scandalous for its salacious setting in a Turkish-crazed 18th-century Vienna and arrived in Berlin with a newfound controversy in the Komische Oper’s 2004 production. Directed by iconoclast Calixto Bieito, the action that shocked Joseph II’s Austria was updated to an equally contentious contemporary setting. Nipples were sliced off, actual prostitutes were reportedly hired, and (fake) blood wasn’t the only fluid flowing onstage. The opera company’s vital corporate sponsorships were threatened, hecklers screamed for the director’s death.
On the flip side of the issue, Thomas Flierl, Berlin’s senator for culture, said, “the depiction of blood, sex and violence is a true reflection of social phenomena.” Almost ten years later, very little has changed: Operas are staged with gruesome, post-gothic gore (such as last month’s Rusalka at the Royal Opera House, imported from Salzburg which was also the setting for a Don Giovanni that features the brigand shooting up heroin in his wooded squat). Many cry foul, others cry genius for directors who expose contemporary bearings on works from the past. Even the Met, a bastion of conservatism, has had working girls in its recent new productions of Tosca and Hoffmann, and promises more with next season’s Vegas-set production of Rigoletto.
Social issues beyond sex abound in opera; another recent British opening in John Adams's The Death of Klinghoffer is a readily accessible exhibit A. What’s different—not entirely new, but certainly different—in Anya17’s concept (and obviously I cannot speak yet to its execution), is that it takes a social issue and attempts to use an opera not only to provoke discussion and awareness, but to solve the problem with nonprofit partnerships. But deception, secrecy, betrayal, violence and hopelessness? East and West values colliding? Trading human beings as commodities? Overblown or not, it’s been done.
Do historical representations of prostitution and harems in opera equate with contemporary human trafficking? Leave your opinions in the comments below.