The New York Times recently featured a story about the blossoming trend of nudity in contemporary opera—most notably, how new productions of “Salome” at the Met and “The Fly” at the Los Angeles Opera (written by Howard Shore and yes, based on the film by David Cronenberg, who also directs this production) feature their protagonists baring it all in key dramatic moments of the performances. The article then goes on to question whether or not the addition of nudity into modern opera will help introduce it to a new generation of theatergoers, or, rather, will it tarnish the sanctity of the art form by incorporating sensationalism in an effort to sell tickets?
I want to preface the rest of what I’m going to say here with the following statement: I don’t know a goddamn thing about opera. I find it alienating, and boring, and inaccessible. I think that, although I can certainly discern moments of profound beauty in the limited amount of operatic music I’ve been exposed to, the strict adherence to tradition in opera has both hurt the art form from a commercial perspective, and caused it to lose relevance from a cultural one.
What I lack in opera knowledge, though, I more than make up for with my wide appreciation and love for all things musical theater (which has caused damage to both my credibility as a pop musician and as a heterosexual). That said, allow me to digress for a moment into the idea of nudity in the realm of the musical, and perhaps come full circle and make some semi-pertinent connection back to opera, so that neither of us feels like we’ve totally wasted our time here.
The first seminal musical theater nudity moment happened back at the Public in 1968 when “Hair” first exploded onto the downtown scene with its message of peace, love, and unruly pubes. It was indeed shocking, but not just because of the bare-all Act I finale; rather, “Hair” was transcendent because of its message of freedom and the fact that it served as a mouthpiece for a younger generation who hadn’t been previously represented in the musical theater realm. This summer, when “Hair” was revived at the Delacorte in Central Park, sure, it was nice to look at some boobies, but what was really electrifying about the show was how effectively it tapped into the energy of ’68, revitalizing the show for a modern audience.
Let’s fast forward, say, twenty-eight years, to the historic debut of “Rent” at the Nederlander in 1996. While the show doesn’t feature any full-on nakedness (well, unless you count Maureen’s sassy moon during the preamble to “La Vie Boheme”), it is incredibly frank about sexuality, and many of the characters are not only gay (which was pretty groundbreaking for a musical at the time—I mean, yes, the world had already seen the likes of “La Cage Aux Folles,” “Victor/Victoria,” and “Falsettos,” but none came close to achieving the staggering crossover relevance that “Rent” enjoyed), but are also living with HIV. The fact that this show became the blockbuster that it did with these thematic elements is a testament to how timely and poignant “Rent” was—the inclusion of sex helped the show achieve gravity, not commercial shock value. Like “Hair,” commercial success followed because of how effectively “Rent” was able to capture the zeitgeist of its particular moment in time.
In December 2006, “Spring Awakening” burst onto the scene, pulsating with sexuality and featuring an Act I finale that culminates with an exposed breast, some ass cheeks, and simulated thrusting (that’s subsequently continued in a second sequence at the start of Act II). The show picked up a staggering eight Tonys in 2007, including Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical, John Gallagher, Jr. (baller). The original cast of the show (which I was fortunate enough to see) brought life and urgency to the material, which is essentially about teens discovering the joys—and, tragically, the pitfalls—of learning how to do it with one another. Despite a weak story line and occasionally piddling dialogue, I forgave “Spring Awakening” its shortcomings, as I was so taken with its energy, pizzazz, and vitality.
Things were a bit different when I saw “Spring Awakening” again this past week. The show now features Hunter Parrish of “Weeds” fame in the role of Melchoir (originally created by the steely-eyed Jonathan Groff [who, incidentally, also starred in this summer’s revival of “Hair”]), and a cast that’s markedly more pre-pubescent than the original. The effect, in addition to a significant decrease in the overall talent of the actors, is slightly darker and creepier than the original. These are some kids having sex with one another, and the show becomes much heavier when one considers the tragedy that befalls characters who are barely old enough to shave, let alone understand the complexities of their burgeoning horniness.
Still, though, the younger, more inexperienced cast forced me to consider the show itself with more scrutiny this time around, and I was significantly less enamored upon a second viewing. Really, 2006, the perils of children not understanding sexuality is the edgiest thing you could come up with? “Rent” was way edgier than this a full ten years earlier. Hell, “Hair” was already past being confined by traditional sexual mores in 1968. As I watched Hunter Parrish, pretty yet ineffectual, pulling his underwear down in order to consummate his love with Wendla, I couldn’t help but think that this might be nudity for nudity’s sake, an attempt to pass something passé off as something progressive. Even the score, while it does indeed have moments of true inspiration that get me all riled up, is by Duncan Sheik, a forgotten relic of the nineties who’s only regained any significance by writing this show. The music, while it’s progressive for the Broadway stage, is at least ten years behind by pop standards, and I started to feel that “Spring Awakening” was about ten years too late as well.
What does all this have to do with opera? You’re right, nothing, but at least give me a chance to tie it all together. As a true layman of the opera world, the idea of nudity in opera is enticing to me, if for no other reason then to shake up an art form so immersed in its snooty exclusivity that it’s failed to realize its fall from relevance. That said, if I know that there’s going to be nudity in any given opera production, I might be that much more prone to bite the bullet and attend a performance (it’s the same logic by which I am only moderately interested in seeing “Equus” the play, but extremely interested in seeing “Equus” the vehicle for displaying Harry Potter’s privates). If, during said nudity-containing performance, I am struck by the music, thematic elements, story, talent of the performers, or pretty much any aspect of the production aside from the naked people prancing about on stage, then the nudity has served its purpose: it has enticed someone averse to the genre to attend a production, and, in turn, tricked them into appreciating opera from a fresh perspective.
The same goes for musical theater—although personally I may feel that looking at Hunter Parrish’s ass is a bit of a sensationalist cheap shot, if it puts people in the seats, and those people wind up coming away from the show with a newfound appreciation of musical theater, I think that’s a step in the right direction, even if it happens to be ass-driven. Like opera, musical theater has a significant stigma attached to it that inhibits its mainstream popularity. This is most unfortunate. The most important thing for either genre at this point is broadening its fan base, and if that comes at the price of an exposed nipple or two, I say give the people what they want.
“Haven’t you heard the word… of your body??”