Nudity for Opera Buffs

Monday, July 16, 2012 - 01:00 PM

Jose Cura as Samson in 'Samson et Delila' Jose Cura (fully clothed) as Samson in 'Samson et Delila' (Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)

When it is as hot as it has been lately in many parts of the northern hemisphere, getting naked seems the thing to do. At least for everyday people. If they are opera singers who appear in certain European theaters and, more rarely, in North American ones, they might be asked to perform at any time of the year without clothes in productions in which nudity is requested by the stage director.

Before I lay bare the reasons for this, let me issue a warning: If your sensibilities are offended by the sight of nudity, do not click open any of the links in this article. And if you are under 18 years old, please have your parents read this article first and ask them whether they think it is appropriate for you to see it (that goes for you too, Opera Teen).

Opera is a cutting-edge thing, and also high art. We know that nudity has been part of art since ancient times and in most centuries since. The naked body has been exalted by the Greeks, artists of the Renaissance and many others since. The human form is beautiful and most religious people believe that we are creations of God. Some of the faithful have no problem with that beauty being revealed but many more assert that the naked body has little or no place in the public arena.

When European opera productions contain nudity, it is often of dancers or actors but also, on occasion, of opera stars too. Some are discreetly lit and posed while others leave little to the imagination. There have been naked Rhinemaidens in many Ring cycles. In the recent production of Don Giovanni at La Scala that I so richly enjoyed, director Robert Carsen included a naked woman (perhaps Donna Elvira’s maid) to visually delight the Don. It worked quite well. Many operas set in ancient Greece or Rome could naturally embrace nudity in certain contexts, as would operas based on stories from the Bible. I have seen lots of writhing nudes in the bacchanal scene from Samson et Dalila. Many works by Massenet, such as Thaïs and Cleopatre, could have nudity by the title character if the singer were willing to do that.

As a general rule, I think nudity in opera is fine if it is an integral part of the story. Gratuitous nudity does not work well because it tends to be distracting and we focus on it rather than on the music and the story. If a woman playing Salome does the "Dance of the Seven Veils" and removes all of her coverings, that makes sense in the context of the opera. Singers should not be expected to do this, and I have seen some rather artful choreography that suggests that she has entirely disrobed. But some singers are willing, as Salome, to go all the way.

Karita Mattila showed her rear during her dance in Paris but appeared fully naked at the Met in 2004 (below). There is no peek-a-boo in Maria Ewing’s "Dance of the Seven Veils." She was an artist who appeared unabashedly nude when it worked in the context of the story and the production.

I once saw a staging of Salome in Germany in which the soprano did not undress completely but, when the executioner came out of the cistern with the bloodied head of John the Baptist in his right hand, he was entirely naked. In this case, the executioner was a very large, muscular black man and it was distracting on many levels. Why would this character, who wields sharp equipment, do his work in the nude? Why would Salome be interacting with him without noticing what all of us can’t help but see? I am sure you can think of many more questions of your own.

What this phenomenon of gratuitous nudity might be about is the way the naked body is perceived in different societies. Many German-speaking peoples and Scandinavians are quite comfortable in the altogether and are used to seeing naked imagery everywhere. The same is the case in France. I have seen many British actors, from Diana Rigg to Jude Law to even Dame Maggie Smith fully naked on the stage. And yet the countries mentioned above have given us Calvinism, Puritanism and certain Protestant denominations that consider the sight of bare flesh sinful. All of these strains, from the most liberated to the most repressed, are part of the American view of the naked body.

But are nudity and sensuality the same thing? I can think of many actors and opera singers who have projected incredible sexiness without taking off all of their clothes. The smoldering look of Robert Mitchum or Simone Signoret was enough to make pulses race simply because they conveyed an unmistakable sexual tension.

Charles Reid, the fine American tenor who has sung extensively in his own country and Europe, told me, "There are some singers in Europe who like to be exhibitionists and want to be able to bare all on the stage. I also think—without totally generalizing—that a German mindset or director seems to approach nudity as sexy whereas, historically at least, an American director would view tension as sexy. In Europe they might put you in an S-and-M outfit, have you walk around with a whip and this is considered sexy. As an American I look at that and say, ‘that has no build-up at all and there is nothing sexy about it.’”

I should point out that it is not the exclusive province of Europeans to appear nude onstage but rather that there seems to be more demand for singers’ flesh there than in North America.

Canadian baritone Daniel Okulitch appeared nude in The Fly, which was produced at the Los Angeles Opera and, I believe, in Europe. Nudity in the transformation scene from man to insect in this science fiction story might seem incongruous, but it is brief and in keeping with the story. 

Contrast this with what American tenor Zachary Stains did at the Spoleto festival in Italy in Ercole sul Termodonte, Vivaldi’s version of the Hercules story. In the original myth, the young hero has slain a lion and wears its skin over his naked body. As directed in this production, the singer is asked to sing at length while naked, something even Salome does not have to do. What is remarkable in this performance is not so much the seeming casualness in Stains’s nudity but that he sings so well in this state.

Another question this clip raises is what it is like for other performers to be onstage with a naked singer. Give credit to the other singer in Ercole whose bright eyes and frozen smile seem more about his admiration for Hercules than the “Oh-my-God-what-do-I-do?” dilemma. I called Susan Graham, artist nonpareil, to talk about the Robert Carsen production of Handel’s Alcina at the Paris Opera in 1999. Renée Fleming sang the title role, a sorceress who enchants men and then turns them to stone. Natalie Dessay was Morgana and Susan Graham was Ruggiero, a trouser role. In this production, men in various states of undress were a large part of the stage picture. They represented the gradual transformation from human to stone. (Here is a report from French television.)

Graham told me that the cast found rehearsal and performance both fun and challenging. “One guy who was, shall we say, ‘stageworthy,’ had to walk toward Renée fully naked, with his backside to the audience and his front facing Renée, who was reclining on a bed, with her looking at him and she had to gesture and cast her spell.” It probably was a challenge for Fleming to “stay in character” during rehearsals but her concentration and focus were in full force during performances.

I asked Graham how she managed to not be distracted by the “scenery” and she said that, during rehearsals, she did notice some of the fellows on the stage but, in performance, “I was more focused on staying in character and at the right place in the music.” It struck me that, in the presence of three such attractive women as Fleming, Dessay and Graham, even the most disciplined of these men could not remain entirely resistant to their charms. “I did not look down to check,” said Graham. “Some of them were probably gay, I am sure.”

As Ruggiero, Graham was, she reminded me, “a boy too, but I was not naked.” But, boy, when she sang "Sta nell’ircana" in Alcina, who cares what she was!

What do you think of nudity in opera? Leave your comments below:

Photos: 1) The Rhinemaidens in the Keith Warner production of the Ring Cycle at the Royal Opera House (Wikipedia Commons) 2) Karita Mattila in the title role of Strauss's 'Salome' (Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera) 3) Susan Graham


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Comments [23]

John from United States

I suspect that this issue will resolve itself naturally, and not in the theater. If a country, such as America, goes through another Victorian era of prudery, then nudity in any venue will be demonized and highly distracting. However, if trends continue, then just as we "freed the nipple" for men in the 30s, the same will happen for women in the 2020s or so. Then Hollywood will pick up the trend and the female chest will be as normal as the male chest. This normalization happens on a societal level, and there's absolutely no reason why someone who thinks of nudity as "icky" won't be seen as an antiquated old fart in 50 years.

Feb. 21 2017 09:05 AM
Mike from USA

For me, it heavily depends on the artist's vision at the time of creation. If an opera was written in 1985 and the creator envisioned nudity in the performance, then I cannot object--that is art. But if the opera was written in the 1700's and from history we know that it wasn't intended to be performed live with nudity, then I consider it pandering and artistically cheap to push nudity.

Mar. 03 2013 06:14 AM
Orselina from Satellite Beach

Nudity is natural. It's how we came into this world, and it's what we all are underneath our clothes. Personally, I don't find it pandering, cheap, or distracting at all. All that matters to me is a solid cast, a good orchestra, and pretty staging doesn't hurt. If all of that is present, what the singers are wearing (or not wearing) wouldn't affect my overall opinion.
Saying nudity is ok "as long as it serves a purpose" is iffy because that's kind of relative. A particular staging could put Nemorino singing "Una Furtiva Lagrima" in the nude to show his emotional openness - an emotional "nudeness," so to speak. Even if everyone the company thinks it's a brilliant move, someone is bound to get 'butthurt' and ask, "But was that REALLY necessary???"
The only thing that really offends me are the comments that imply that some singers "don't have the body to be nude." EVERYONE has the body to be nude. Just because YOU are not physically attracted to someone, doesn't mean they have to cater to your tastes. It's an opera, not a dating game. Jeez.

Feb. 12 2013 06:18 AM
bev joy from cambridge

sorry. i can't resist this.

"It ain't over 'til the fat lady sings"

Jul. 22 2012 12:27 PM

I am offended at this whole discussion! I used to think that classical music was the one still-in-vogue art that was still "clean" and that I could bring my kids to, etc. Now I see how wrong I am. Shame on those promoting nudity in opera. There is enough degenerate behavior in other so-called arts. Classical music doesn't need it too. Does nobody have any shame any more?

I was offended when I read WQXR's story about how Yuja Wang was dressed at a concert in California (yes, DRESSED, but dressed like a prostitute). The music can speak for itself, really. Human beings are not animals: animals don't get dressed, human beings do. And people want to know why there are so many more broken families and adulterous affairs, etc., nowadays. Is anybody so naive as to think that people parading onstage nude (or dressed like prostitutes) won't have an effect on people's libido and their ability to control their urge for illicit and harmful relationships? Anyone who answers that, "yes, there is no correlation between the two," is living in denial. The state of our culture is sinking by the day. God save us.

Jul. 20 2012 03:59 PM

Like a bell-curve, a small number will be for or against nudity in opera (and in all the performing arts) however tastefully or tastelessly done. But the great majority will lean for or against it to the degree that it "works" in a given production.

What I oppose is the contemporary tendency to elevate the aesthetics of a modern production over and against the original artistic conception, as if to cancel it out. But as a nudist myself, I am very much for physical display provided it is in harmony with the overall aesthetic of the production.

Jul. 20 2012 01:45 PM
Iphigenya from Nova Caesarea ;-)

Hey, never mind the title "Nudity for Opera Buffs." Shouldn't this be titled "Operas IN the Buff"?????

Jul. 19 2012 02:45 PM
David from Flushing

Many years ago, the Danish Ballet did a nude dance at the Met. The lights went nearly out so one did not see much of anything. Since then there has been a Gluck Orfeo with nude blessed spirits mostly standing in place and turning.

Entirely nude operas might be good for the box office and certainly save money on costuming. However, at some point it would tend to overwhelm the production. I can imagine audiences for Billy Budd or the Flying Dutchman being distracted by navel architecture.

Jul. 18 2012 06:44 PM

How about reverse nudity? I saw a "regie" production of Salome in Stuttgart about 15 years ago. For the life of me I can't remember the performers (I think Varnay as Herodias? and H. Kupfer, production?) Anyway, the idea was a contemporary version modeled on a pederastic Sadam Hussein and his corrupt court. The famous dance began with Salome in bra and panties, and as the dance proceded she began to clothe herself in the costume of a little Catholic school girl, plaid pleated skirt, blouse with tie, patent leather shoes and all. Delightful fun, really! Anyone know who performed this production? (It may have come from Berlin.)

Jul. 18 2012 05:07 PM
Tom Fiorillo

I think nudity in opera would be a distraction. Opera tends to be a very sensory laden experience already. Instrumental music, voice, costumes, scenery, and I have to occassionally glance at the translation, when I want to remind myself of where we are in the libretto (I read the libretto before going to the opera). Also, unless you're sitting in the orchestra or orchestra balance at the Met, what are you going to see? They might as well be wearing body suits.

Jul. 18 2012 11:14 AM
Sabrina from Oregon

Well, I don't have any issues with nudity in opera or any of the other arts as long as it's done for a legitimate purpose in the production, and not merely for the sake of nudity, prurience or shock value. Mind, people should be warned beforehand in case they are bringing under 18s to the opera or they are adults who are overly sensitive.

Jul. 17 2012 08:56 PM
Barry Owen Furrer

Dear Mr. Plotkin,
I could not turn the other cheek to yet another one of your titilating articles. It's truly art imitating life when the fourth picture down shows a scene from "The Fly" with Mr. Okulitch's hand on his zipper!

Jul. 17 2012 07:38 PM
Mat Dirjish from New York, NY

Essentially, what is the difference between nudity in an opera, a play, and film? In operas and plays it is live, on film the actors/actresses are detached from their fully-clothed audience. Movies and plays carry ratings to help potential viewers decide whether they will or will not be offended by what they see. Operas, for the most part are for general audiences regardless of their subject matter. If nudity in the opera becomes commonplace, and since America has a double standard for rating all things art, operas may have ratings posted outside the theater. The ratings, not the nudity, will denegrade the art.

Jul. 17 2012 02:35 PM
Chickie from California

I thought I went to school so I could perform without stripping down. Opera is too amazing to need nudity to survive.

Jul. 17 2012 02:25 PM
Bumper from Sacramento,California

I don't have a problem with nudity on stage with either gender.If one has chosen to act on stage or screen, that person should expect nudity as part of the art. I one participated in a 5K run with over 600 runners of both genders totally nude, and it was exhilerating.

Jul. 17 2012 02:04 PM
concetta nardone from New York

The thought of seeing some of the singing elephants nude is enough to make one throw up. Ugh.

Jul. 17 2012 01:28 PM

Stimulating blog, roles could add a new level of meaning to "Song to the moon"

Jul. 17 2012 01:06 PM
Gev Sweeney from Ocean Grove

Forgot to add: Whoa, that is NOT my grandmother's Hercules. Or Disney's.

Jul. 17 2012 09:08 AM
Gev Sweeney from Ocean Grove

Run a few more blogs like this one, and opera houses won't have to worry about funding for the next century, they'll be that packed with a fresh, new audience.

Jul. 17 2012 09:06 AM
Bernie from UWS

The real issue is not addressed here is WHO is getting naked on stage. Matilla was in her 40s when she did Salome and was certainly pushing the age envelope. But she was in good shape, so she could get away with it. Other singers I'd rather not see in the buff.

But I am waiting for a production with full-on nudity by Elina Garanca, Danielle De Niese or Kate Royal. Now THAT would sell tickets!

Jul. 17 2012 06:55 AM
Reiner Torheit from Moscow

Svetlana Sozdateleva has appeared nude in Moscow productions of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (the sex scene with Sergey, obviously), and Nabucco (the scene where Abigail is taking her bath, attended by handmaids). Both scenes were entirely justifiably in their dramatic context. European opera-goers are considerably more relaxed about this kind of staging than their American counterparts.

Jul. 17 2012 05:44 AM
Mr. Z from Le Canada

While we're on the mention of Natalie in Handel opera...she recently did a Cleopatra in Giulio Cesare with a breast exposed most of the time. was fake, but...pretty daring. Next year she does Cleopatra again at the Met, but this time in the McVicar production scantily clad during the V'adoro. Plus she bathed nude in McVicar's Manon, the rehearsal of which was recorded quite candidly for DVD. :O

Jul. 16 2012 09:54 PM
Luis Marquez from Mexico

Nudity as such, may be well used only if there is a reason for it. Otherwise, like many other "scene gadgets", only demonstrate a lack of inventive...

Jul. 16 2012 07:44 PM

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Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream and devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns, Amanda Angel and others. The music stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings.

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