In review: Sex Workers' Opera

In review: Sex Workers' Opera

Jenna Simeonov

The Sex Workers’ Opera was probably the biggest departure from our norm that we’ve seen yet. The people in the audience, the pre-show vibe in the lobby of the Pleasance Theatre, and everything about the show itself were all totally refreshing. We showed up with lots of anticipation, but few expectations; simply put, there’s something perfect and exciting about finding one’s own seat in a cozy theatre, wine glass in hand, live music playing, and a giant pile of red and gold cloth, draped over a frame in the shape of a giant high heel shoe.

The Sex Workers’ Opera is a collection of stories from working men and women, adapted into theatre and song by sex workers and their friends; the stories were sent in from around the world, and the cast and crew of the show is 50% sex workers. Thanks to the news, some of these stories were familiar in the abstract: rallies to spark legal reform (“there are no bad whores, just bad laws”), police raids in the supposed spirit of “protecting trafficked people”, tales of clients who ask for marriage advice from the sex workers they hire, the complication of emotional attachment between client and worker, and those clients who enjoy what they pay for, while at the same time, offering their two cents about how their hired sex worker is “better” and “smarter” than what he or she does for a living.

In the context of the show, these stories were dragged from the abstract, and into the specific. Stereotypes like The Average John (always with a mustache), the CEO who likes to be slapped around, and the “moral person” who broadcasts loudly his own preferences in his judgement of which forms of sex work toe the line of “appropriate”, and which are downright lewd and dangerous. Even the abstract idea of why people hire sex workers was fractured from one Big Reason to the infinite number of possibilities.

With a continuous plot-line of a mother, concerned and confused by her daughter’s decision to go into sex work, all these stories came out of age-old arguments and misconceptions about what it means to be in charge of one’s body, and to work hard for a living. Under a revue/cabaret feel, complete with gender non-specific emcee, there was an honesty that was everything from hilarious to touching. We loved the personal anecdotes, letting us in on fascinating and weird stories of on-the-job happenings, and the performers themselves showed, without showing off, exactly why they’re professionals.

There was a totally gorgeous scene that kicked off the second half, where we got a picture of an average work shift of a dancer; it’s hard to argue with the beautiful athleticism of a pole routine, or what it takes to dance, contort, and hold poses for hours at a time. It was moving as these dancers shifted from “onstage” to peeling off platform heels, stretching and massaging their tired muscles. On top of athleticism, they showed us bravery, like when the transgendered woman stripped off her clothes, almost in an answer to what so much of the audience may have bluntly wondered: “so, what does she have under there?”

Plus, we laughed so hard when, to the soundtrack of Pachelbel’s Canon in D, the cellist sneakily slipped away from the band, seduced the cello with a dance and a grope, then proceeded to stick a suction-cup dildo onto it, slide a condom over that, and go to town. That cellist made it back to the band just in time for the final strains of Pachelbel, seemingly unnoticed by bandmates.

Go, go and see the Sex Workers’ Opera. It’s important, it satisfies the curiosity and voyeurism in all of us, and it’s funny. When we review opera with professional singers, the best kinds are when we actively “forgive” an imperfect vocal phrase because the story as a whole more than makes up for it. We wouldn’t trade in these honest and fascinating stories for professional voices, not ever. It wouldn’t be the show without its coming straight from the source.

Photo: Vera Rosalind.

Sex Workers’ Opera plays at The Pleasance Theatre until May 29th. For details and ticket information, follow our box office links below.

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