Matilda Bathurst

There’s nothing transgressive about opera using sex to sell tickets

There's nothing transgressive about opera using sex to sell tickets
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Fluffy bunnies. Human-size, pink and white fluffy bunnies. Twerking. The image has never left me, ever since an ill-fated date to see Purcell's The Fairy Queen at Glyndebourne in 2012. Over salmon during the damp interval, my date confirmed that he liked the bunnies, I didn't. Having established myself as a purist and a prude, we parted ways.

Since the onslaught of arts cuts, opera-goers have had to harden themselves to scenes of sex and violence – the oldest trick in the book to ramp-up ticket sales. The bunnies hopped on to the stage in the same year that ENO unveiled their notorious Don Giovanni condom ad; two years before, the company had spiced up Mozart's opera with a scene of suggested gang rape. Now, obliged to rent out the Coliseum over the summer, ENO is responding to demands that opera 'adapt or die ' by wheeling out the Don once again this September, breathlessly promising 'sex, sex and more sex'. If human history followed the same pattern of adaption, we'd be stuck as endlessly multiplying bacteria.

Other opera companies are only slightly more subtle in their use of shock tactics. After the outrage caused by last year's production of Rossini's Guillaume Tell, the Royal Opera House thought it wise to send out email trigger-warnings in advance of Donizetti's blood-soaked Lucia di Lammermoor – a move which was widely condemned as a publicity stunt. Glyndebourne's general director Sebastian F. Schwartz has spoken of prioritising storytelling over sensationalism, stating that opera should never offend 'just for effect'. The cover of this year's festival programme highlights a production of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream with a detail from Raqib Shaw's painting 'Self Portrait as Bottom'; the image zooms in on a scene of fairy sodomy, that lesser known sub-plot between Moth and Mustardseed.

Sex sells, but no one is willing to admit it. That's what makes The Sex Workers' Opera so radical, a polemical peep show currently being performed at the Pleasance Theatre in Islington. The directors Alex Etchart and Siobhan Knox specialise in bringing performance into marginalised communities, and at least half of the cast and crew are otherwise employed in the sex industry. 'Prepare to be tickled, prepare to be teased,' trills Etchart in the Rochester-esque prologue, 'prepare to be thrilled, prepare for unease.' The show was a sell-out during its short run at the Arcola Theatre last year, and no one's denying that the promise of titillation will sell most of the tickets. 'We're unapologetic hustlers when it comes to promoting the show,' says the publicist. ‘This is about making sure the voices of sex workers get heard.'

The directors developed the script by inviting sex workers from across the world to send in their stories, and received responses from as far afield as Singapore and Chile, India and the Ukraine. These stories, alongside those from sex workers in the local community, are expressed through song, dance, mime and multimedia projections; a webcam strip-tease is attributed with the same power as a traditional aria.

The performers are not obliged to disclose their identities, but this much is clear: they're not opera singers, and the show isn't exactly a challenge to opera as an art form. Leading lady Charlotte Rose is no Renée Fleming and the plot favours polemic over dramatic potential – the show aims to prevent the adoption of the Nordic model, which arguably places sex workers in greater danger by criminalising clients rather the workers themselves. If the singing is occasionally a little ropey, the production as a whole has an authenticity which no amount of theatrical rigging could achieve. You are flattered into feeling that you know the performers by the end of the show; we hear about the trials of admin and childcare, the joys of companionship and the pleasures to be found in a veg-box delivery.

The Sex Workers' Opera throws operatic shock tactics into sharp relief. The show is an 'opera' in as much as it's about amplifying the voice and expressing the intensity of lived experience – sex, violence included. This only becomes a problem when these issues are treated as taboo, simultaneously sensationalised and sanitised for the audience's delectation. At the opera house, little shock waves and frissons of delight are transmitted from the safety of the stage. At the Pleasance, stripped and strapped performers clamber over seats to whisper their stories to crossed-legged audience members. 'Oversexed' opera isn't the problem. What's at fault is our definition of transgression.

The Sex Worker’s Opera is at The Pleasance Theatre in London until 29 May