'You're all misogynists! You're supporting trafficking! You're disgusting!'
One second into one of the most unique theatrical pieces you will ever hear about, I already felt something you don't usually feel in an opera. Deeply uncomfortable. Admittedly, the opera or ballet often make me feel a little uneasy; either embarrassed, confused or a little fidgety. But the Sex Workers' Opera thrust this discomfort straight into my face, unavoidably, blatantly and fantastically.
A faux protesting scene opens the Opera and instantly drags the audience to the edge of their plastic seats.
The English Collective of Prostitutes were generous enough to give me a free ticket to the event and I instantly jumped at the chance to attend. I found myself sat in a full house, in the somewhat cramped Courtyard Theatre, struggling to view the scenes play out and the prostitutes perform over the heads of both men and women. I wasn't sure what to expect, a Hoxton concoction of La Traviata, Moulin Rouge and the glamour of RuPaul's Drag Race, perhaps? In reality, the opera depicted a range of situations, from web camming, pole dancing, street walking and S&M dominance, but its overall message was a resounding chorus against the Nordic model in regards to prostitution.
Approximately half of the performers of the opera actually work in the sex industry, we were not told who was and who wasn't in order to maintain anonymity. Performers represented a range of ages, body shapes, and even gender, but failed in my opinion to truly represent the ethnic diversity present within the sphere of Britain's sex work industry. It would have benefited from attempting to portray this reality a little more explicitly. Co-director, Knox seemingly appreciates this "Though we have reached out, we've had to come to terms with the fact that those for whom sex work was not a choice may not want to take part," Knox says. "That's why the call-out for diverse experiences is so important in balancing the stories told on stage".
Nevertheless, the Sex Workers' Opera was a tour-de-force, luring the audience into an understanding that prostitution represents, just another kind of work. The performers' twisting of whips and hips successfully drew the audience into agreement with their underlying political message, total decriminalisation of prostitution.
The show was developed alongside a series of community workshops supported by the Royal Opera House and Goldsmiths Annual Fund. The show was the brainchild of Clouds Haberberg .It depicted a range of moments, each filled with well calculated and arranged humorous, upsetting, and touching lines. The opera revealed the humanity and nuance related to the work of sex work. It extended far beyond the conventional, polarised illustrations of prostitutes in the press as empowered middle class escorts or helpless, victims of trafficking.
One scene shows a sex worker accompanying a man to a bar, no kissing, no fucking, simply listening. But the sex worker isn't depicted as an innocent and engaged ear, she isn't a shoulder to cry on, she is ultimately a human, who doesn't have a desperate urge to hear her client bemoan his life and his wife's lack of affection. In fact, the sex worker is deeply bored. She dismisses the John's self pity and insists he takes his wife out, tell her he loves her and maybe takes her to a spa. The John instantly rejects the spa idea 'It's too expensive!' he exclaims. The prostitute scoffs, 'You can't afford a spa, but you can afford an hour with me... Ha!'.
What will stay with me, was the collection of supportive, open minded, but also eclectic people that were drawn in to attend and view the Sex Workers' Opera. I sat beside a young guy, eagerly stating moments before the show 'I've never been to the theatre before! I'm here with my girlfriend who's writing her dissertation about prostitution'. It was an absolute delight to see him squirm ever so slightly at the start, and slowly melt with the loss of his inhibitions. By the end of the show he had watched a trans sex worker strip, listened to a South American via webcam, and experienced a Soho Raid. His mind, like mine had be unequivocally blown.