Sex tips from Semele

Opera was the tinder of Renaissance Venice, says Robert Thicknesse

On Opera

This article is taken from the October issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

One of those blind-date pieces in the papers recently found its dewy-eyed young turtledoves bonding over a shared loathing of opera (it wasn’t clear whether they’d gone the whole horror-hog and actually experienced one, or if opera had just done its usual great PR without their needing to).

Neatly proving that opera can still pull its weight as the great getting-it-on enabler, traditionally evinced through frisky sopranos, droit-de-seigneur conductors and mousy accountants luring prospective mistresses to Covent Garden.

Here at the back of the mag we’re still mopping our brows after popster Sarah Ditum’s reflections on the ribald rap girls, back in the summer. Naturally, every clique and generation knows full well it has invented sex (or at least made it unimaginably better and dirtier) but I am compelled to stand up for the honour of our gang’s contribution through the centuries.

While opera is fixated on sex, it also puts it in service of an ulterior aim: universal peace, love and siblinghood

For a few aeons before the pop video, the opera, with its demi-rep singers, sexy music and pheromonal intimacy, was the go-to hotspot of titillation and seduction (as our cunning accountant knows). And Handel’s wised-up Semele, for example, all slinky, melting, panting tunes, could have given Megan Thee Stallion, whose “Captain Hook” so enthused Sarah, some cool tips about the effective parlaying of one’s booty.

In the follow-up to “Hook”, the discursive “WAP”, one idea mooted by Megan and her pal Cardi B is to “ask for a car while you ride that dick”. Wrong, wrong, wrong, sisters! — albeit rather sweetly romantic. The correct method, as any ancient Greek/baroque-era gold-digger knows, is of course to get that car deal watertight before any action: Semele, in short, ain’t putting out until those keys are in the bag. Truly, opera is the school for lovers.

And its role as commissionaire or lobbyist for (preferably illicit) liaisons started early, the Tinder of Renaissance Venice: opera was the big carnival pull, masked audiences getting all steamy at shows like Francesco Cavalli’s Callisto, wherein Jupiter impersonates the myopic lass’s boss Diana to initiate some goddess-on-nymph action. And there never was a more lascivious bit of music than the last song of Claudio Monteverdi’s Coronation of Poppea, the languorous voices of Nero and Poppea twining and slithering around each other like oiled dancers.

This raunch continued into the next century, despite Mozart’s view (in Amadeus) that opera characters hitherto were inclined to “shit marble”. It’s all Aleister Crowley-style sex-magick on the love island of red-hot witch Alcina, Handel confirming in this 1735 opera his position as the Mr Boombastic of Brook Street and making his Covent Garden theatres the centre of that orgiastic West End chronicled by Hogarth, Boswell and William Hickey.

Post-Congress of Vienna, opera suffered like everyone else from the return of gouty anciens régimes, as grim respectability descended on Europe like a puritanical vampire. Music and action in opera, while hardly chaste, became sufficiently enciphered that generations of nice ladies could sit through Traviata and so on without suspecting any monkey business — Violetta a high-society party organiser with a slightly off-colour past, maybe.

The French managed to sail a bit closer to the wind with charmers like Carmen, all eyes, hips and castanets, and Jules Massenet’s Manon (above), whose top scorchio moment comes when she deftly defrocks her ex — now a rookie priest — in St Sulpice, just after he’s wound up his orotund moralising from the pulpit. Wagner, naturally, went further, and the Tantric-sex experiment of Tristan and Isolde is pretty hardcore, though arguably wasted on Wagnerians, who tend to prefer their own company.

But while opera is fixated on sex, it also puts it in service of an ulterior aim: universal peace, love and siblinghood. As an intensely social experience (one society depicted on stage, presented to another in the audience) opera’s main business was, is, as a primer in communal behaviour — and what could be more timely in our fractious land?

In the old days, the posh hero sobers up after various japes and the ship resumes its even keel: Handel’s operas all end thus, only slightly sarcastically, and sometimes (as in Xerxes) with a genuine sense of communion, society realigned.

Mozart ditched this self-serving aristo fatuity and shifted the earth’s axis in The Marriage of Figaro by making the servant girl Susanna the moral tutor of her lordling employers and the only architect and engineer both of sexual harmony in the Big House and of a global reconciliation, a revolution of hearts, souls, sensibility, that for the first time in history, as with Hogarth’s painting of his servants, elevated “the people” to human status. Like William Blake, Mozart’s exact contemporary and spiritual brother, the point is: if we want to build Jerusalem, we’d better get on with it ourselves.

Well, I guess we know that now, and not many people are still waiting for The Man to roll up his sleeves and do it. But opera definitely beat everyone to it in making the welcome case that sex needed to be pretty central to the whole project.

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