Does nudity have a place in opera?

Nude Rigoletto

(Note: none of the videos in this article include full nudity, but they come close. Parental discretion advised.)

The Metropolitan Opera was recently the subject of scathing articles when it emerged that they paid supernumeraries more money to wear less clothing. “Less clothing” in this case was pasties rather than a bra — full nudity is a rare sight on the Met stage. (Not an unheard-of sight, though: Karita Mattila doffed all her clothes as Salome.)

It’s more common in European opera productions, where directors tend to be bolder. (Nudity also has less shock value in many European cultures than in the United States, so it’s easier to use the naked body as part of a larger directorial scheme rather than a surprise and distraction.)

Does nudity have a place on the opera stage? Most definitely! There are operas where nudity makes total sense as part of the plot. The dance of the seven veils in Salome and the bacchanale in Samson and Delilah are obvious examples.

Other operas that foreground sex or seduction, such as Don Giovanni, Giulio Cesare, The Tales of Hoffmann, Carmen, and Thaïs, could also incorporate nudity in ways that further the audience’s understanding of the drama.

An anecdote: when Bieito’s Carmen, which features a nude dancer, came to San Francisco, it seems someone in the administration or lighting booth decided the nudity was not serving the drama. While the dancer’s naked body was clearly visible on opening night, when I attended again just before closing, he was so dimly lit that it was impossible to tell he was nude! Then again, San Francisco Opera audiences seem unusually prudish. Even the naked backside of Arturo’s corpse in Lucia di Lammermoor caused some scandal among patrons.

Specific production concepts can use full or partial nudity to make a point. Andreas Kriegenburg’s Ring cycle begins with the nearly nude chorus painting each other blue and forming a human river. An overarching theme of the cycle is humans turning away from nature and towards industrialization — creating a river out of bodies serves this theme.

Warlikowski’s Eugene Onegin relies on half-naked cowboys to emphasize the premise of the production (that Onegin and Lensky are gay and in love). Bieito’s infamous Abduction from the Seraglio features nudity amidst horrific violence and forced sex (which is clearly intended to shock), but it tells a coherent story, albeit a much darker one than Mozart’s opera traditionally does.

Of course, singer comfort must be considered. If nudity is not essential to a production concept, singers need to have a say in whether they disrobe fully or find a workaround. (For instance, plenty of choreographies for the dance of the seven veils suggest nudity without displaying it to the audience.) If nudity is central to the production, singers must be warned in advance.

Directors have to work with singers to solve the unique problems of being naked onstage, such as cold or extra nerves interfering with vocal production, or awkwardness preventing chemistry between cast members.

Ultimately, the appropriateness of nudity in opera boils down to a simple question: does having naked people onstage serve the story the director is trying to tell? If so, nudity is called for. If not, tread with caution: United States audiences, at least, are likely to find gratuitous naked bodies distracting.