Sex work and opera may seem unlikely bedfellows, but one thing both have in common is strong public preconceptions.
The desire to challenge stereotypical thinking and stigma has brought the two together in the Sex Workers Opera, which comes to Dalston’s Arcola Theatre this month.
The show lets prostitutes, escorts, webcam performers, strippers and other sex workers tell their stories on stage through performance and music, foregrounding personal experiences good and bad.
“Everyone has an opinion on sex work,” explains Siobhan Knox, co-director of the show and co-founder of Experimental Experience theatre company. ”But when it comes down to it, the only people who really have the right to talk about it are sex workers themselves.”
“Very rarely is sex work represented in art through the words of the people actually doing it,” adds Alex Etchart, also co-director and co-founder.
“We put a call out for stories we could use in the opera, and received them from all over the world. We want to represent the diversity of sex workers on their own terms.”
As such, the less obvious aspects of selling sex are highlighted in the show, such as the close ties some forge with their clients and the personal empowerment – and disempowerment – experienced through the profession.
The term opera is used in the loosest sense, with the show incorporating other musical styles like hip-hop, jazz and spoken word. It was in part inspired by Bertold Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera of 1928, following the tradition of using a supposedly highbrow artform to explore gritty, earthbound themes. Nonetheless, the concept has been embraced by the opera establishment, with the Royal Opera House providing financial backing and guidance.
“Opera is one of the most established music and art forms, while sex work is one of the most marginalised professions,” says Etchart. “People often stop and stare when they see the poster for the show!”
The sensitivity of the opera’s subject matter is brought home by the Experimental Experience’s choice to cast a mix of sex workers and their allies in the production. As no-one reveals who is who, anonymity is ensured.
Contributing to the opera has been an intensely personal experience for many of the performers. The directors insist the intention is not to glorify sex work, rather to present a spectrum of viewpoints, unvarnished and straight from the horse’s mouth.
“Our main message isn’t ‘sex work is really great!’ or ‘sex work is really bad!’” says Siobhan. “It’s just literally: listen to sex workers.
“Whether you think it’s good or bad, objectification or empowerment, come and listen to a sex worker tell you about their life. Then you can open up a new dialogue.”
The Sex Workers Opera is at Arcola Theatre, 24 Ashwin Street, E8 3DL from 26–29 January 2015