Love, power, agony and death – throughout its history, opera has been cherished for its displays of unbridled passion. But for those who depict scenes of murder, sex, and sometimes even rape, words like consent and agency rarely popped up.
Now, in what is believed to be a UK first, the Royal Opera House (ROH) is consulting Ita O’Brien – an intimacy coordinator who makes sure actors feel comfortable during such scenes – for the Katie Mitchell’s new production of Theodora, which will debut on Monday.
George Frideric Handel’s oratorio – about a Christian martyr forced into prostitution, threatened with rape and executed by Roman authorities – was first performed in Covent Garden 250 years ago. For Julia Bullock, a soprano who holds the titular role, it is a symbolic and vital moment.
“I’ve been in so many rehearsal spaces where it’s usually the performers who complain about the scenes, but to have it preemptively addressed was such a relief,” she said.
“In opera, there is so much attention paid to the craftsmanship of the music, to the scenography, to the direction of the singing and the choreography, in order to allow the human moments to amplify on stage. But it also means that we have to take care of the human beings who embody these moments. »
Bullock said she had a number of difficult experiences in the past when she was exposed to unnecessary physical and psychological risks during intimate scenes.
“One of the first things Ita talked about was that only people directly involved in an intimate scene should be in the room for it to be staged. But I remember during my very first intimate performance, my partner and I We were seen by 50 people, and the conductor was asking, “Shouldn’t Julia be faking more noises on stage?”
And where traditionally she was left alone with a partner to explore how to stage a scene, now those conversations happen before anyone takes the stage.
“You explore if a man can touch your breasts, if it’s comfortable. You go step by step over parts of the body that may be exposed or are going to be subjected to intimate contact, allowing your body to register if there is anything that is oversensitive, or if there is a place where you could potentially be triggered.
Since the revelations against Harvey Weinstein, intimacy coordinators have become commonplace on the sets. But while scenes on TV and in movies can often be completed in a few takes, a live broadcast is repeatedly aired in front of thousands of people each night.
O’Brien, who has worked on hit TV shows such as I May Destroy You, Normal People and It’s A Sin, as well as recent plays such as Spring Awakening at the Almeida and Manor at the National Theatre, said that the scale was totally different. .
“There is consent every day. You might agree one day that you’re very happy to kiss each other on the lips, and then you develop a cold sore, so it’s no longer appropriate. So you explore what the moment is about, different ways of telling the same story,” she said.
“There was concern that if you introduce guidelines you would reduce creativity, but in fact it’s the opposite because you’re inviting this open conversation.”
But even for O’Brien, who trained as a ballet dancer and worked as an actress herself, opera was a learning curve. “For example, you have to make sure that the positions you put the performers in don’t interrupt their beautiful sound.”
“Opera,” she added, was “the highest form of art, and because it was written mostly from history and mostly by men, power plays occupy an important place in the story. So helping to bring female empowerment to Theodora has been truly rewarding.
Oliver Mears, director of opera at ROH, said the company was “committed” to making the direction of intimacy an integral part of future productions.
“When staging new commissions and reimagining repertoire operas, it’s essential that ROH artists, creatives and staff feel safe and supported,” he said.
“Many of the most famous operas explore themes of exploitation, sexual violence and abuse of power, and it is essential for us to approach these subjects with sensitivity and care in the rehearsal room, ensuring so that our artists can give the best of themselves.”