Prelude – Sun, sea and sex

Article by Hannah Nepil

Opera loves a package tour. A regular evening out whisks us off to the night-spots of Paris (La traviata, La rondine, La bohème) or Venice (La Gioconda); we can thrill to the magnificent fjords (The Flying Dutchman) or Alps (William Tell), embark on a whistle-stop, if-this-is-Thursday-it-must-be-Bruges tour of all Europe (La forza del destino), shiver in gothic Scotland (Macbeth, Lucia di Lammermoor), lounge beneath Roman pines (The Coronation of Poppea, Tosca) or take a bracing mini-break on the North Sea coast (Peter Grimes).

But opera also reflects the world that bore it, and in the age of Empires it was natural for an artform that thrives on all forms of human venality to cast its eye on the alluring unknown, the semi-mythical paradises whence spices and opium had emerged to flatter European senses. The West was suddenly besotted with the soft delights of the East, doting on oneiric imaginings of odalisques and harems, minarets and vaulted bazaars, gorgeous wealth and Kubla Khan. As European powers seized varying amounts of influence everywhere from North Africa to India, the East Indies, China and Japan, opera followed, panting, eager to gorge itself and its audiences back home on new, lurid delights.

The Orient had for centuries represented a place where the most voluptuous dreams could be realised with impunity. But it required the self-indulgent sensibilities of the Romantics to fully realise the possibilities inherent in this realm of the senses, and one of the first to do so was William Beckford, the bisexual fantasist plutocrat of Fonthill.

It was a fateful day when young William discovered the Arabian Nights in his father’s library; it would lead directly to his own Oriental tale, Vathek (1786), a vivid dream of sex, incest, torture and death that set the tone for much of what was to follow. One story in the Arabian Nights seems to have particularly excited him: the tale of Shahzenan, King of Grand Tartary, a fellow constrained to chop his wife and her lover into little bits when he surprises them in bed. Later, visiting his mate the King of the Indies, Shahzenan looks out of his bedroom window to see the queen and her ladies whooping it up with their black slaves – pretty much all the nightmares of proper Protestant Christianity come true at once. No wonder little William was excited.

The Orient became the destination of choice for a flood of pleasure-seekers. The motivation was certainly primarily sexual, but it was an added incentive that nobody paid much attention to such details as orientation (or even species-preference) which exercised society and the church back home so much. Girls, boys, goats, everything could be had for the asking (and a bit of folding cash). Gustave Flaubert, visiting Cairo in 1849, caught the flavour of the place nicely: “To amuse the crowd, Muhammad Ali’s jester took a woman in a Cairo bazaar one day, set her on the counter of a shop, and coupled with her publicly while the shopkeeper calmly smoked his pipe. On the road from Cairo to Shubra a young fellow had himself publicly buggered by a large monkey….”

The East started and finished wherever you liked. For the British it was centred on India, for the French, Egypt. Everywhere from Morocco and Bosnia to Polynesia was fair game, and these places looked on helplessly as opera stripped off and joined the other arts for a luxurious wallow in the infinity-pool of stereotypes and fantasy. The East became a playground populated with innocents who engaged freely in deviant sexual practices strictly off-limits at home; where borderline paedophilia (Lakmé; Madama Butterfly) and necrophilia (Salome) could be explored with impunity; where men were pugnacious despots like Nilakantha in Delibes’ Lakmé, and women sacrificial lambs or sexpots: enter Saint-Saëns’s Dalila, the seductive femme fatale, unmanning Samson with looping melodic figures, and Puccini’s pubescent geisha Cio-Cio-San calmly awaiting a western demi-god to ravish and ruin her in the blink of an eye.

Nobody took greater advantage of this exploitation-ethos than Pierre Loti, the French writer and naval officer whose novel Madame Chrysanthème (1887) is the original story behind Puccini’s Butterfly. For six months Loti’s ship, the Triomphante, was anchored in the roads of Nagasaki, and he used his time to advantage to contract a temporary marriage with the said Chrysanthemum, half-geisha, half-prostitute, in a leasehold arrangement certainly devised with the help of the girl’s family. Emotion wasn’t included, and both parties moved on happily once it was over. A monument to this banal episode was erected in Nagasaki in 1950. (It is perhaps worth noting that Loti’s work has been described as exhibiting a “gross misunderstanding” of the cultures he encountered.)

He is an unfashionable figure now, with his flowery prose and post-Romantic indulgences which never quite amount to any kind of interesting Baudelairean decadence, but in his time Loti (pen name of Julien Viaud) was the rage of all Europe with his drippingly fainéant romantic travelogues, purporting to tell the tales of the girl-in-every-port whose charms this hyperactive seaman investigated and documented. His slightly shame-faced fans included Henry James (who perceptively said “Loti performs so beautifully as to kick up a fine golden dust over the question of what he contains, or what he doesn’t…”), Ernest Renan, Sacha Guitry and many others who happily submerged themselves in his scented, dreamy narratives. You can still take a sundowner at the Pierre Loti café in Istanbul, with its views over the Golden Horn to Galata: Turkey became his second home, and in fact he was rather more loyal to it than he was to France.

By Loti’s time (he was born in 1850) the French, British and Dutch had more or less carved up Asia between them, and one of the places that had wound up French was Tahiti. And this was the destination of Loti’s first voyage, and the site of the romance that was to lead, in a roundabout way, to the opera Lakmé. Rarahu, the enchanting creature at its centre, has just turned 14, so is clearly ripe for the affections of the diminutive, high-heel-wearing Frenchman. Strangely enough, in the book Rarahu (1880) the lifelong Anglophobe Viaud calls himself Midshipman Harry Grant, from Yorkshire, and much of the narrative takes place in his letters home to his sister. It is in Tahiti that Viaud/Grant assumes his new moniker; the Polynesians, tired of trying to pronounce his barbarous name, rechristen him with the name of a flower (actually roti, meaning rose).

Nothing happens in Rarahu, just a series of dreamlike trysts amid luxuriating tropical vegetation, as Loti proceeds to debauch his child-bride. In the end his ship sails off into the blue with Loti nursing his broken heart, which turns out to mend pretty easily. Years later he learns that little Rarahu has turned into a raddled, alcoholic nympho, turning tricks down the docks at 50 sous a go. This is a recurrent fantasy in Loti’s writings, as one woman (or pre-teen) after another finds herself understandably ruined for anyone else by the incomparable charms and sexual techniques of this latter-day Zeus.

The stories sound too good to be true, don’t they? And, of course, they are: it is no surprise to discover that Loti was homosexual. In 1892, when Loti was elevated to the Académie Française, the bitchy Edmond de Goncourt outed “this author, whose love, in his first book [Aziyadé, purportedly about his affair with an Istanbul concubine], was a Monsieur.” Loti’s œuvre is simply a highly perfumed series of encoded rent-boy episodes.

Opera’s Orientalism tended to the generic, though Puccini, when he came to deal with Loti’s Chrysanthème in the form of Cio-Cio-San, did at least make a stab at authenticity, copying and studying melodies from publications containing transcriptions of Japanese songs, and even getting the wife of the Japanese ambassador to sing him some traditional songs. But apart from the bona-fide Japanese melodies that can be identified in his score, the musical landscape of Butterfly is painted in broad brushstrokes, mingling luscious western harmonies with snippets of pentatonic and whole-tone scales, musical shorthand for the East. When it came to western depictions of the Orient, it didn’t much matter where you went: Egypt (Verdi’s Aida; Massenet’s Thaïs), ancient Palestine (Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Dalila), India (Bizet’s Pearl Fishers), Araby, or Africa (Meyerbeer’s L’africaine) – the musical idiom was pretty much the same.

And, having ravished Africa and Asia, operatic colonialism was in no mood to stop. As the Napoleonic official, Auguste Creuzé de Lesser, remarked in 1806, “Europe finishes at Naples – and it finishes rather badly,” and the sun-kissed southerners on the Mediterranean coast were about to be on the receiving end of a similarly ambivalent press. There were no special favours here for being closer to home: the most barbed compliments were dished out by those nearest and not exactly dearest: Cavalleria rusticana – by the Tuscan Pietro Mascagni – depicted 19th-century Sicily as a hotbed of hedonism and impulsiveness, where rational thought and moral fibre yielded easily to sensual pleasure; where violence was the first resort; where the wine was free-flowing and bodily juices scarcely less so. Move across to Calabria – the site of Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci – and you’ll find much the same story; no wonder Cav & Pag form an inseparable duo. Naples itself was certainly fair game for the sexual fantasies of northerners: German-Venetian composer Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari dispatched it salaciously in I gioielli della Madonna, whose controversial elements include love between a brother and his adopted sister, sacrilege and even – joy of joys! – an onstage orgy.

None of this should surprise us. Riddled with poverty and high levels of organised crime throughout the 19th century, southern Italy was ripe for a kicking, particularly after 1861 when Garibaldi helped to form the new Kingdom of Italy. The north, happy to gloat at a safe distance until then, was suddenly yoked to its poor relation, while the south, now saddled with heavy taxes, was plunged ever deeper into a financial abyss. It was in good company. Just round the corner, Spain was still reeling from the devastating impact of Napoleon’s invasion. Now a deeply divided, economically unstable society, it offered plenty of scope for dramatic tension, and one who took full advantage was Georges Bizet: his 1875 opera Carmen broke new ground with its themes of lawlessness, murder and gritty portrayal of proletarian life in Seville.

Its premiere at the Opéra-Comique in Paris caused mayhem, with onstage depictions of prostitution and murder in a theatre dedicated to mild, edifying dramas for the respectable middle classes. Opera-goers of the era were used to more polite portraits of Hispanic culture, something along the lines of Rossini’s Barber of Seville, not an opera that concerns itself too much with grim reality. Still, in terms of sheer pin-up potential its heroine, and Bizet’s fiery cigarette-girl, rival the sexy virgin goddesses of any Orientalist paradise, the difference being that Rosina and Carmen are rather more robust: they would wipe the floor with the likes of Cio-Cio-San were they not already busy doing the same with their suitors.

It’s a recurring theme in the “South” as a whole, at least in the gospel according to 19th-century opera: Lola (Cavalleria rusticana), Nedda (Pagliacci) and Maliella (I gioielli della Madonna) make life easy for no-one – least of all themselves – embracing adultery in all its messy glory, leaving chaos in their wake on the road to ruin. The only challenge for audiences was not to get these spirited girls confused.

Returning, drained and haggard, from our tour, we conclude that the operatic view of the world is rather like one of those maps of the globe as seen from one place or another, full of undefined promise or threat – in fact a projection of our own fantasies and psychoses. And this is exactly as it should be. Opera is art as untamed id: a documentary about what happens if we follow our desires with no heed for the disasters that inevitably follow. In the end it hardly matters whether the location is the moon, one of Handel’s magic islands or a Parisian garret, though a bit of local colour always goes down well. The result is the same: people discover their true selves and become human, then they die. Arguably (and generously) they do this both for our entertainment and so that we won’t have to do it ourselves. The piquancy of Butterfly is not merely that she is a woman dying for love – that is the daily bread of opera – but that she is non-Caucasian, exotic, not to mention satisfyingly young. Like Pierre Loti, we can wipe away a comforting, sentimental tear – and move swiftly on to our next victim.

Hannah Nepil is a freelance classical music writer and critic. She has written for the Financial Times, The Times, Time Out, Gramophone, Opera and Opera Now. Robert Thicknesse is editor of Scenario