Sooo… Why a Porn Opera, Anyway?

NOTE: The following is a mini-essay around the idea of “The Enchanted Organ,” the opera burlesque by Gordon Beeferman for which I wrote the libretto. It adresses the, ahem, mating of porn and opera and originally appeared in abridged form on the website

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Sooo… Why a Porn Opera? Or alternatively, why a Porn Opera? And what is a Porn Opera anyway?

As the creators of a work called “The Enchanted Organ: A Porn Opera,” Gordon Beeferman and I get asked this question a lot. Our rough-and-ready answer is that it’s not a “porn opera” at all: it’s a burlesque opera that satirizes both the porn industry and four hundred years of the operatic tradition. The plot, which features a naïve Midwestern lad who arrives in the City of Pornopolis with dreams of XXX superstardom, frames a humorous and critical look at the “adult” world through musical and erotic spectacle. “The Enchanted Organ” juxtaposes “high” and “low” culture, celebrates a wide spectrum of musical styles and sexual preferences, and touches on serious topics such as addiction and exploitation. But there’s no full-frontal nudity, no live sex show, no lap dances in the orchestra pit… well, not until we tour Europe, at least! For after all, burlesque is the art of the tease.

So much for the what; but the question remains, why a porn opera? Simply put, we knew we had to write it before someone else did. The first glimmer arrived in 2006, during a brainstorming session for our first opera, The Rat Land, a family drama that was dark and perverse but hardly pornographic. It was a “Eureka!” moment, like a naked, flyblown, red light bulb just popping on over my head with an ominous buzz. Gordon swiftly grasped the potential for wicked parody, musical and societal: porno flicks and their soundtracks have always held up a funhouse mirror to mainstream culture. Given the sheer ubiquity of hardcore content in this digital age, an X-rated opera assumed the force of inevitability. With its invisible, taboo force of gravity, internet Porn is bending our culture–from childhood sex ed to adult relationships, from adverts to art– like a black hole bends space-time.

Indeed, Culture with a capital C seems to be rapidly triangulating in upon the idea. Throughout the ‘naughties, a Bay Area ensemble called the PornOrchestra performed symphonic accompaniments for porn film screenings. In 2007  we saw John Eaton’s chamber opera “Pumped Fiction,” set in the seamy world of penis enlargement and featuring the god Eros as a mythological porn star, at Symphony Space in Manhattan. The following year witnessed a rock opera based on the life of “Deep Throat” star Linda Lovelace. Last year, Mark-Anthony Turnage and Richard Thomas’s opera “Anna Nicole” premiered at the Royal Opera House in London, becoming a surprise hit. A full-fledged porn opera is the obvious evolution of this no-longer-backdoor affair between various forms of high art and low.

And let’s face it… opera is all (mostly?) about sex anyway. As George Bernard Shaw famously said, “Opera is when a tenor and a soprano want to make love, but are prevented by a baritone.” Or in our case, “A tenor and a soprano and several baritones and a mezzo all want to make love, but are prevented by a bass who wants to make love to himself.” Ninety percent of the time, the action in grand opera involves a love affair—often forbidden or star-crossed—or alternatively, a seducer/seductress threatening to violate the pure hero or heroine. As allure or as danger, the power of desire to disrupt human affairs takes central stage.

Ultimately, opera as an art form is simply… hot. Regardless of the storyline, there’s something unabashedly erotic about human voices sublimating passion into song, wantonly exhibiting their beauty and flexibility, or weaving an illusion of intimacy between performer and the masses in a darkened theater. The sublime and the carnal fuse in the heaving bosoms, pulsating throats, vibrating tongues, quavering uvulas, and parted lips of vocalists throwing themselves bodily into the music. In opera as in porn, the plot often serves as flimsy or downright ludicrous excuse– for singing on the one hand, screwing on the other; likewise, both types of production are burdened by clichés that invite Bugs Bunny-style sendups, even as our primitive selves shamelessly respond to them. Hey, the fat lady with the horns makes our hearts beat faster—and that pizza guy has the “extra sausage” we crave under all the grease and polyester. Given the best screenplay or libretto on earth, the physical and emotional tension still inevitably builds to the point where words alone cannot suffice. Opera lingo references this erotic release in the double entendre “money note”; what is a high C but the “money shot” of opera?

Violetta, heroine of Verdi’s La Traviata, was a courtesan; Cio-Cio San, or Madame Butterfly, was a kept woman. From the garret dwellers of La Bohême to the motley crowd of Berg’s Lulu, opera often unfolds within the demimonde—the underground culture at once frowned upon and patronized by “respectable” elites. Arguably, Venusberg in Tannhäuser and the Queen of the Night’s kingdom in The Magic Flute serve as allegorical demimondes: parallel universes of pleasure and corruption. The porn industry is our twenty-first century demimonde. Actresses, starving artists, and the mistresses of famous men no longer raise our collective eyebrows, but porn stars still scandalize polite society, while the Masters of the Universe furtively watch on their iPhones…

While exploring this conceit, Gordon actually uncovered a historical link between grand opera and contemporary pornography. Their shared history begins with the opera burlesques of Victorian London. Today we associate “burlesque” with Vaudeville-era striptease, but historically it referred to any “low” imitation of “high” art for comic effect. Grand Opera was very popular in 19th-century London, and whenever a serious production opened in the West End, a burlesque takeoff would open across town to capitalize on its vogue. These shows used parody, pastiche, and absurdity to poke good-humored fun at their models. Enjoyed by audiences from all social classes, they departed from the original storylines, mingled song with spoken dialogue, and incorporated topical references and cultural or political commentary. And of course, they featured shapely women who wore revealing costumes and performed saucy dance routines.

The English performer Lydia Thompson and her troupe of showgirls popularized burlesque in New York in 1868. Witty and risqué, Thompson’s productions subverted classical drama, showcased the female physique and depicted women as sexual aggressors. Musically, they borrowed operatic arias and popular songs for their own dramatic ends, this introducing them to a wider audience. The ensuing craze led to a thriving nation-wide circuit of burlesque venues that would thrive for over fifty years.
By the early 1900s, certain performers were upping the scandalous elements, shedding garters and “forgetting” panties, but most revues still relied more upon double entendre than actual skin. However, the 1920s saw the form decline, as tastes changed. Producers such as the Minsky Brothers increasingly resorted to striptease to attract a crowd, and “bump and grind” gradually muscled out the remaining elements of parody and social commentary. After a decade of Giuliani-style harassment, Mayor LaGuardia finally banned burlesque in 1937. The scene, now literally “stripped” of its theatrical elements, went underground, where it intersected with a burgeoning “blue movie” industry. Low-budget films of solo burlesque performances prefigured the avalanche of porn movies that followed.

With the New Burlesque revival now taking place, it’s time to bring this journey full circle. Burlesque traveled a long way from Covent Garden to Times Square, losing Opera by the roadside. We’d like to take it on a reverse Odyssey, a sort of homecoming. The original opera-burlesques poked fun at the status quo, presented challenging new visions of sexuality, and brought “high art” to a diverse audience. With “The Enchanted Organ: A Porn Opera,” we aspire to do the same.

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