Love, power, agony and death – throughout its history opera has been cherished for its displays of unbridled passion. But for those enacting scenes of murder, sex and sometimes even rape, words like consent and agency have rarely come up.
Now, in what’s thought to be a British first, the Royal Opera House (ROH) is consulting with Ita O’Brien – an intimacy coordinator who ensures actors feel comfortable during such scenes – for Katie Mitchell’s new production of Theodora, opening on Monday.
George Frideric Handel’s oratorio – about a Christian martyr who is forced into prostitution, threatened with rape and executed by Roman authorities – first premiered at the Covent Garden venue 250 years ago. For Julia Bullock, a soprano who plays the titular role, it’s a symbolic and vital moment.
“I’ve been in so many rehearsal spaces where usually it’s the performers who are making complaints about scenes, but to have that preemptively addressed was such a relief,” she said.
“In opera, there’s so much attention given to the craftsmanship of the music, the set design, the direction of the singing and choreography, in order to allow human moments to become amplified on stage. But that also means we need to take care of the human beings who are embodying those moments.”
Bullock said she’s had a number of challenging experiences in the past, when she was put at unnecessary physical and psychological risk during intimate scenes.
“One of the first things Ita talked about was how only those directly involved in an intimate scene should be in the room for its staging. But I remember during my first ever intimate performance, my partner and I were being witnessed by 50 people, and the conductor was asking, ‘Shouldn’t Julia be simulating more noises on stage?’”
And where traditionally, she’s been left alone with a partner to explore how to stage a scene, now those conversations take place before anyone takes to the stage.
“You explore whether a man can touch your breasts, whether 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 touch, allowing your body to register if there’s anything that is hypersensitive, or if there’s a place where you might potentially be triggered.”
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