Have you heard? Opera is dirty business Anna Netrebko and Roberto Alagna in the Metropolitan Opera's production of Roméo et Juliette, 2011. Photo: Metropolitan Opera

Have you heard? Opera is dirty business

Jenna Simeonov
Note: this post may not be safe for work.

When I was in my first year of my undergrad degree, I lived in a dorm, on a floor full of music students. I remember one day, when a floormate burst into our room, saying she’d just heard “the cutest pick-up line ever for musicians”. I prepared myself for a nerdtastic joke, and was rewarded when she quoted, “I’m a fermata, hold me!”

Of course, we all chortled and were charmed by the adorable play on words, and we all jumped in to come up with our own puntastic pick-up lines. As things usually do with 19-year olds, the puns went from cute to direct, really quickly.

  • “I’m a whole note, I’m easy.”
  • “I’m a recapitulation - haven’t I done you before?”
  • “I’m retrograde inversion - do me upside-down and backwards.”
  • “I’m a fortepiano - do me hard, and then get the hell off me!”


Studying music comes with lots of opportunities for sexual innuendo. As a piano student, it was all about fingering. Finding the right fingering for you, remembering where to put your thumb, and making sure your nails are clipped and your hands are warm before doing anything else.

Then, I started working with singers. Less talk of fingering, but plenty about tongues and their tenseness, casual references to TMJ, learning to breathe low (nope, lower), and endless talk about vibrations. Filthy stuff, these voice lessons were. Plus, have you seen a scope shot of vocal folds?

Conductors sharted shouting things like “Breathe with me!” or, “Milk it!” or, “I need more eye contact!” Not as overt, sure, but remember that this is coming from a personality that is, well, dominant.

But you know what? Opera is dirty. Like all great forms of entertainment, opera takes the lecherous and blunt, and turns them into symbols and reference. It’s a beautiful thing; Shakespeare did it, Da Ponte did it, and Wagner definitely did it. Prositutes are heroines, the interesting nuns have secret babies, and incest is just being genetically picky. Even onstage fights are always a little bit about sex, if not a lot about sex (anyone see Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda?). Weapons are usually phallic, partly because it’s a good shape for aiming bullets or stabbing people, but probably a little bit because sex, too (relevant etymology).

And frankly, when you put a bunch of artsy, often extroverted people in a room with music and juicy stories, you’re going to have a good time. Beloved operas get renamed in a tongue-in-cheek way (see what I did there?) because it’s hilarious:

  • The Bartered Bride = The Battered Broad
  • Albert Herring = Prince Albert
  • Salome = Salami
  • Dido and Aeneas = Dildo and Anus
  • The Turn of the Screw = The Turn of the Screw

They’re not necessarily gone, but the days of getting offended by sexy things on the opera stage are winding down. It’s a big tell that one doesn’t know much about opera to complain that things are getting steamy around Donna Anna and Don Giovanni, or that Count Almaviva seems a bit rape-y towards Susanna. It’s funny, I’ve noticed more complaints about characters having sex than about Siegmund and Sieglinde having an incest baby; but hey, everybody has their line.

And honestly, once we get used to some sex with your singing, we can get better at spotting the true from the gratuitous.

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