Queer the leads and unleash the nudes: how to reboot a sexist classic for the #MeToo age

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When Opera Queensland’s Don Giovanni opens next week, dozens of ordinary women – old and young, big and small – will appear naked on stage.

The nude display – representing the “avenging furies” who, in the opera, drag the ghastly Giovanni to his death – is not a publicity stunt, claims the director, Lindy Hume (although the press won’t hurt). It is about enacting female retribution and empowering women. Women who after centuries of misrepresentation, repression and self-restraint in the performing arts are finally claiming the soapbox as their own.

Opera and musicals from decades gone by are particularly vexing: the former are unashamedly gory and sensationalist, often at the expense of women; the latter can hide deeply dated views within upbeat feel-good tunes and supposed happy endings. Both are highly subsidised, requiring large casts and even larger budgets.

Queensland Opera’s artistic director, Patrick Nolan, doesn’t believe we should be driven by fear when exploring such thorny narratives, but we should use them instead to interrogate our own values and assumptions.

“If by ‘problematic’ we mean complex stories that are full of ideas that prompt us to think about the way we connect with each other, the way we understand behaviour, the nature of relations between men and women, the way power is used in interpersonal, societal, political contexts – then yes, Don Giovanni is a problematic opera,” Nolan says.

“Why tackle it? Because the stage is a space in which we can look at these ideas, questioning the motivations behind [them].”

It is a mantra that Jack Symonds, the artistic director of the Sydney Chamber Opera, also abides by. This year, the SCO’s The Rape of Lucretia divided critics and audience alike. As the title suggests, Benjamin Britten’s 1946 “problem” opera features a brutal assault: this time of the chaste Lucretia who, in shame and fearing ostracism from her peers, kills herself. The general thrust of the cocksure, brash libretto is summed up with lines such as: “All women are whores by nature.”

A scene from the gender-flipped Rape of Lucretia at Dark Mofo in Hobart
A scene from the gender-flipped Rape of Lucretia at Dark Mofo in Hobart. Photograph: Zan Wimberley

To lessen the blow and to force audiences to cross-examine such language, the director, Kip Williams, flipped the genders. Male actors, wearing ladylike Roman-era clothing, played female roles lip-synching the libretto. Their voices were provided by female singers who stalked behind them, like an eerie shadow or ghostly conscience. The women, dressed in male togas, lip-synched to the male singers.

“I would never have given it to a director who might have just put it on the stage as is,” he says, adding that companies such as SCO exist to bring opera into the modern era and “not wall it off in a museum of ‘that’s how people thought then’”.

Richard Carroll, the director of the hit musical Calamity Jane, believes there are some classical works that are fundamentally inconsistent with how we view the world today – meaning they should, in his words, “be given a rest completely”.

Examples Carroll cites includes the 1950s musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, in which the brothers kidnap the girls to marry them, and Kiss Me, Kate, the 1948 musical version of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Put simply, he says: “I don’t know how you present a musical that ends with the lead character singing: ‘I’m ashamed that women are so simple.’”

I think we have a very strong responsibility about the stories we want to tell. These stories have power,” agrees the actor Virginia Gay, who plays the title role of Calamity Jane. “Unless we subvert the stuff that is archaic and not relevant; that is misogynistic, homophobic; the stuff that is racist – unless we subvert that, we have no right telling these stories.”

Tony Taylor, Virginia Gay and Anthony Gooley in Calamity Jane
Virginia Gay in Calamity Jane. Photograph: John McRae/Belvoir

In Calamity Jane, that meant hiking up the protagonist’s rejection of gender norms (she is, after all, a female buckaroo who dons men’s clothing and rides with the best of ’em) as well as her queerness. Carroll used directorial, performance and design choices to reframe the story with an emphasis on a woman-on-woman love twist.

In one scene Calamity Jane and the ultra-feminine Katie Brown set up home together, singing A Woman’s Touch. The film version, featuring Doris Day, shows Calamity learning how to become proper lady. Here, however, a “woman’s touch” becomes more literal – a love song with a heavy dose of sexual innuendo. The lyrics “With a rub rub there and a rub rub here” take on a new meaning (a hint: it’s not about the cleaning).

There are elements of Calamity Jane that the production could not change without messing with the text, such as the ending which involves a triple traditional heterosexual marriage. (Calamity’s boastings about fighting Native Americans are also archaic and, in the case of this production, less well addressed.)

The musical’s message that you need a man to make you happy, one still trotted out today, chafed. During the same-sex marriage plebiscite Gay would throw her bouquet in the final scene to a queer couple in the audience. The entire cast would then scream: “Make it legal, Australia!” As Gay says: “It’s so important to be subversive and political, even if you are using a standard three-act hetero musical theatre comedy: subvert subvert subvert. Otherwise art is dead.”

Few characters in the canon are more schismatic than Salome, a pathological virgin who revels in blood lust (it’s hard to forget that kissing scene with John the Baptist’s severed head). Indeed, most productions of Richard Strauss’s 1905 opera, based on the biblical story and popularised by Oscar Wilde, shamelessly objectify Salome, as highlighted during the infamous dance of the seven veils.

Adena Jacobs’s production of Salome for English National Opera
Adena Jacobs’s production of Salome for the English National Opera gives Strauss’s opera a feminist reboot. Photograph: Catherine Ashmore

The Australian feminist queer theatre director Adena Jacobs, whose English National Opera production of Salome is now on in London, believes the roots of a story “are not as important as what we are trying to investigate and why”.

That means an investigation of power, something Jacobs also probed in her new (silent) opera The Howling Girls, which premiered this year. In Salome, she wanted to give her lead character more psychological complexity, removing her from the archetype of biblical femme fatale (a projection of male fantasy) to see if she “could be redeemed or extradited from this system of decay and cycle of violence”.

All too often “the feminine is used as a weapon against [male] figures to punish them, [and] women use the feminine to weaponise themselves too”, observes Jacobs.

While Salome is traditionally set in one room over the course of one night, Jacobs and her all-female creative team staged the opera through a shifting landscape designed to mirror Salome’s internal battles. The set was a way to give Salome complexity and agency as the audience travels “deeper and deeper into her psyche – instead of going into the [patriarchal] system, we go with her into this cave-like space”.

Virginia Gay is resolute the next step is writing our own texts, using the classics as launching pads: she has plans to pen a follow-up for Calamity Jane which explores the queer aspects in more depth.

The world is ready, she insists.

“If we’d done this 10 years ago, people would say, ‘What a nice show with queer overtones.’ Doing it now, people come out of the show and say, ‘Shame she couldn’t end up with Katie, huh?’

“It’s important to know the original text but let’s tell our own story from here.”

• Opera Queensland’s Don Giovanni run 19 October to 3 November at QPac; Calamity Jane is running 12 to 23 December at Arts Centre Melbourne, before opening at Comedy Theatre Melbourne on 1 January; Salome is running at the Coliseum, London until 23 October

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