I’m supporting the Sex Workers’ Opera, and I think you should too. But before I explain why let me say a bit about a completely different opera. Because while I’m not really qualified to write about sex work I do know a little bit about opera.
Today the most widely performed mainstream opera is Verdi’s masterpiece La Traviata. It’s an opera about hypocrisy: Violetta Valery, the central character, is a sex-worker, a Parisian courtesan doomed by 19th century social hypocrisy. She is not a victim (despite being terminally ill with tuberculosis) but an heroic woman of moral courage. Even the title La Traviata (literally the fallen woman) could be seen as ironic; Violetta has not fallen, she’s looked at the hand fate has dealt her, taken responsibility for her own decisions and built herself an independent life. OK, she’s not a typical 21st century sex-worker, and her story is set in 19th century fashionable Paris, but much of what she faces will probably strike a chord those who are.
Opera can be extremely good at portraying the process that goes on in someone’s mind as they struggle with different possibilities and come to a decision. I think that’s because however analytical and rational we like to believe we are, all our decisions are ultimately emotional. We talk about doing something because it feels right. Music is perfect for conveying the shifting feelings as we come to a settled decision, and Verdi’s music allows us to identify with Violetta at all the key moments of the opera.
Italian operas are notorious for their complicated and implausible plots, but this one is pretty straightforward.
Violetta’s clients are the middle aged and the elderly, frequently men with titles and invariably wealthy, but at a party she is introduced to Alfredo, a shy and naïve young man (think geography teacher) who has been admiring her from a distance for over a year. He is evidently besotted and declares his love for her but she laughingly tells him she can only offer friendship. When she realises he is genuinely concerned for her health she becomes intrigued. The first act ends with Violetta singing about the freedom and pleasure her lifestyle gives her, but at the back of her mind is the knowledge of her declining health and she starts to contemplate the possibility of a life with Alfredo wondering out loud whether they could have a future, only to dismiss it as folly. She cannot get Alfredo’s song out of her head and gradually it drowns out her need for freedom and pleasure.
Violetta has now retired and moved with Alfredo out of Paris and into the countryside where they have been living in blissful happiness for several months. But it cannot last. For starters neither of them has a job. They don’t want money to come between them, but neither is ready to discuss it. So Violetta sets off to Paris to sell the carriages and property she has accumulated. And when Alfredo realises what she is doing he is ashamed of having allowed her to support him and he goes off to arrange his own finances.
Then comes the hammer blow. Middle-class respectability turns up in the shape of Alfredo’s father, Giorgio Germont. He confronts Violetta, and after making snide remarks about the expense of maintaining the house she and Alfredo are sharing, he tells her their relationship has become a damaging public scandal. Apparently Alfredo has a sister whose fiancé will break off their engagement because of Alfredo’s association with a sex-worker. Giorgio lays it on thick. The future happiness of this innocent girl depends on Violetta; in asking her to leave Alfredo he speaks not just as a father but patronisingly claims to be speaking on behalf of God; and then tells her Alfredo will not always love her because any union not blessed by heaven cannot last. Knowing that she has not long to live Violetta agrees to sacrifice her happiness for the sake of Alfredo’s sister’s. She will publicly leave Alfredo and return to Paris, but she cannot reveal the true reason to him.
After telling Alfredo she will always love him, Violetta departs back to Paris. On reading the note she sends him, and realising their relationship is over, Alfredo refuses to return with his father to the family home but heads to Paris and to the party that Violetta is about to attend. Violetta duly arrives on the arm of one of her former clients/lovers. Alfredo behaves badly and throws Violetta’s past back in her face (quite literally). At which point his father enters, and without a trace of irony denounces Alfredo and tells him a gentleman should never speak to a woman like that.
In the final act Violetta is alone apart from her maid. Her money has almost run out and the doctor has confirmed she has just hours to live. She is sustained by re-reading a letter from Giorgio telling her he has revealed the truth to Alfredo and they are on their way back to see her. Alfredo returns and Violetta revives. For a brief moment they dream of moving back to the country and building a life together, but it is too late. As Violetta expires Alfredo’s father enters and remorsefully acknowledges the damage he has done.
If that all sounds sentimental, it’s not. Verdi gets us to see things from Violetta’s point of view – there are things said to her and situations she faces that will probably have her 21st century successors exclaiming “Ouch!”
Anyway, back to where we started. Two years ago a group of sex-workers and friends came together to write and produce Sex Workers’ Opera. They describe it as a multi-media experience designed to dispel myths, stigma and stereotypes and offer “… an unflinchingly honest, upliftingly human insight into the lives of sex workers around the world.”
It returns next month for a two week run, which the organisers say will be “bigger, bolder and badder.” The project is being crowd funded. They have a goal of £10,000, and at the time of writing they’ve reached £4,580 with 16 days to go.
When La Traviata had its first London performance in 1856 a coalition of bishops, establishment figures and worthy newspapers tried it get it banned for being morally questionable. So it’s always enjoyable to watch it surrounded by respectable opera goers – most of who seem to be pensioners – knowing that thanks to Verdi we’re all thoroughly on the side of Violetta, the sex-worker. The Sex Workers’ Opera team want the voices of sex workers to be heard – I hope they succeed and leave their audience wholeheartedly on their side. I somehow doubt the elderly couple who sat next to me two months ago in a Devon Odeon while we watched a living screening of La Traviata direct from the Royal Opera House, and who in the interval produced a Tupperware box of cheese sandwiches along with plastic glasses and a bottle of sherry, will be in the Sex Workers’ Opera audience – but you never know.
The Sex Workers’ Opera is on at the Pleasance Theatre London in May and you can support it through their Kickstarter page.
If any present day courtesans would like to experience La Traviata for the first time I’d love to know what you think of it. There are some great recordings about, particularly this one on Youtube. It’s sung in Italian but there are English subtitles and you get to see the gorgeous Anna Netrebko frolicking with Rolando Villazon and playing hide-and-seek in dressing gowns that match their furniture upholstery.
PS La Traviata is actually based on a real life courtesan, Marie Duplessis, who at the height of her career was apparently earning (and spending) 100,000 Francs per year, which was around 5 times the annual income of a French cabinet minister. Whether she paid tax on that is not recorded. She died of consumption (tuberculosis) at the age of just 23 and was immortalised by Alexandre Dumas Jr (the real life Alfredo) in his novel The Lady of the Camelias. Hundreds turned up for her funeral in Montmatre cemetery where she is buried.