Over the last year or two we’ve heard from a number of people who were wondering, “Hey, whatever happened to that Porn Opera?” It’s true, we’ve been lying low for a while — in a sort of refractory period performance-wise. Never fear: in the wings, your trusty composer and librettist have been getting down to business with The Enchanted Organ. Now we’re back on the scene with a completed score and this shiny new website, complete with video and audio excerpts, to refresh memories and spread the word. So dig out your money notes, and strike up an Air on your G-Strings!
Yes, The Enchanted Organ is, for all practical purposes, complete. The long awaited second act is ready, and if you were wondering how we could top Act One, rest assured that we do — and we just go on topping ourselves. Act Two takes the intrepid Avery Dick and friends on a fantastical quest through the Magical Kingdom of Porn, amidst all the lurid, technicolor excesses of the creators’ imaginations. There’s something for every taste, and lack thereof: a Samson and Delilah parody, an Amazon horde, an S.T.D. Ball, the Three Ten(inch)ors, and much, much more. And of course, in the climactic scene the mysterious Enchanted Organ itself is finally revealed! Now we just need a little outside help to reveal it to the eyes (and ears) of the world…
Much as we’d like to rest on our sullied laurels, enjoying a figurative post-coital smoke, it’s past time to gird up our loins and get this epic work produced! The challenges are many: The Enchanted Organ isn’t straight opera, or straight burlesque, nor is it really porn, or even erotica. It’s as magical and misbegotten as some monster from classical mythology, and may require a Hero to market it! So, we aren’t yet sure what form our next step will take. However, we are determined to get the Porn Opera out there in some way, shape, or form, whether that be a revue of selected scenes, or a stripped-down works-in-progress production, on the way to a full-scale production — we’ve even pondered a virtual opera projected in a former porno cinema! To this end, we’re actively seeking a producer to partner with, suitable venues to perform in, and artistic patrons or fundraisers to pay our amazing singers and creative team. We welcome our readers’ ideas, referrals, connections, and support via our website — and of course, share, share, share with your friends. Most importantly, we want to thank you, our audience past and prospective, for your interest and encouragement. It’s our goal not just to produce an opera, but to create a genuine “Enchanted Organ” community around it.
As the creators of a work called “The Enchanted Organ: A Porn Opera,” we get asked that question a lot. Our quick-and-dirty answer is that it’s not literally a “porn opera” at all; it’s a burlesque opera that satirizes both the porn industry and four hundred years of operatic tradition. The plot, which follows the adventures of a naïve Midwestern lad who chases his dream of XXX superstardom to the big city of Pornopolis, frames a humorous and critical meditation on the so-called “adult” world. Through comic set pieces and erotic spectacle, The Enchanted Organ celebrates a wide spectrum of musical styles and sexual preferences, while also confronting serious topics such as addiction and exploitation. There’s much dishabille but no full-frontal nudity; abundant simulated but no live sex—well, not until our European tour, anyway! After all, burlesque is the art of the tease; it gets you all hot and bothered, then leaves you just a fig leaf away from full release. In that spirit, “The Enchanted Organ” targets the biggest erogenous zone of all—the mind.
Yet the question lingers: why a porn opera? Simply put, we knew we had to write it before someone else did. Neither of us began as connoisseurs of porn, but over the last decade its imagery and lingo have infiltrated the collective consciousness, and our own. Thus the idea came to Charlotte in 2006, seemingly from nowhere, as we were brainstorming our totally un-pornographic first opera, The Rat Land. It was a classic “Eureka!” moment: like a cartoon lightbulb (a naked, red, flyblown sort of lightbulb, to be sure) flickering on atop her head. Gordon instantly grasped the potential for wicked parody, both societal and musical: porn, and its soundtracks, have always held up a funhouse mirror to mainstream culture. Given the ubiquity of hardcore content in the digital age, an X-rated opera assumed the force of inevitability.
Indeed, Culture seems to be rapidly triangulating in upon the idea. Throughout the ‘naughties, a Bay Area ensemble called the PornOrchestra performed symphonic accompaniments for porn film screenings. In 2007 at Symphony Space in Manhattan, Beth Greenberg directed the John Eaton chamber opera Pumped Fiction, set in the seamy world of penis enlargement and featuring the god Eros as a mythological porn star. The following year witnessed a rock opera based on the life of Deep Throat star Linda Lovelace, with book, lyrics and music by Charlotte Caffey and Anna Waronker. In 2011, Mark-Anthony Turnage and Richard Thomas’s surprise hit Anna Nicole premiered at the Royal Opera House in London. X-rated opera is the obvious evolution of this no-longer-backdoor affair between high art and low.
And let’s face it… opera is all about sex anyway. As George Bernard Shaw famously said, “Opera is when a tenor and a soprano want to make love, but are prevented by a baritone.” Or in our case, “A tenor and a soprano and several baritones and a mezzo all want to make love, but are prevented by a bass who wants to make love to himself.” The majority of the time, the action in grand opera involves a love affair—often forbidden or star-crossed—or alternatively, a seducer/seductress threatening to violate the pure hero/heroine. Presented as paradise or as danger, the power of desire to disrupt human affairs takes central stage.
Ultimately, opera as art form is simply… hot. There’s something unabashedly erotic about human voices sublimating passion into song, wantonly exhibiting their beauty and flexibility, weaving an illusion of intimacy between performer and the masses in a darkened theater. The sublime and the carnal fuse in the heaving bosoms, pulsating throats, vibrating tongues, quavering uvulas, and parted lips of vocalists throwing themselves bodily into the music. In opera as in porn, the plot often serves as flimsy or downright ludicrous excuse– for singing on the one hand, screwing on the other. Both types of production labor under clichés that invite Bugs Bunny-style sendups, even as our primitive selves shamelessly respond. Hey, the fat lady with the horns brings down the house—and that pizza guy has the “extra sausage” we crave under all that grease and polyester. Given the best script or libretto on earth, the physical and emotional tension still inevitably builds to the point where words alone cannot suffice. Opera slang references this erotic release in the double entendre “money note”; what is a high C but the “money shot” of opera?
Violetta, heroine of Verdi’s La Traviata, was a courtesan; Cio-Cio San, or Madame Butterfly, was originally a geisha. From the garret dwellers of La Bohême to the motley crowd of Berg’s Lulu, opera often unfolds within the demimonde—the underground culture at once frowned upon and patronized by “respectable” elites. Arguably, Venusberg in Tannhäuser and the Queen of the Night’s kingdom in The Magic Flute serve as allegorical demimondes: parallel universes of pleasure and corruption. The porn industry constitutes our contemporary demimonde. Actresses, starving artists, and the mistresses of famous men no longer raise eyebrows, but porn stars still scandalize polite society, while the Masters of the Universe furtively watch on their iPhones…
In the course of his musicological research, Gordon even uncovered a historical link between grand opera and contemporary pornography. This back story begins with the opera-burlesques of Victorian London. Today we associate “burlesque” with Vaudeville-era striptease, but historically it referred to any “low” imitation of “high” art for comic effect. Grand Opera was wildly popular in 19th-century London, and whenever a serious production opened in the West End, a burlesque takeoff would open across town to capitalize on its vogue. These shows used parody, pastiche, and absurdity to poke good-humored fun at their models. Enjoyed by audiences from all social classes, they altered the original storylines, mingled song with spoken dialogue, and incorporated topical references and cultural or political commentary. And of course, they featured shapely women in revealing costumes.
In 1868, the English burlesque performer Lydia Thompson and her troupe of showgirls took New York by storm. Witty and risqué, Thompson’s productions subverted classical drama, showcased the female physique, and depicted women as sexual aggressors. Musically, they borrowed operatic arias and popular songs for their own dramatic ends, introducing them to a wide audience. The ensuing craze helped create a thriving nation-wide burlesque circuit in America.
By the early 1900s, certain performers were upping the scandalous elements, shedding garters and “forgetting” panties, but most revues still relied more upon suggestion and wordplay than actual skin. However, the 1920s saw tastes change, and the form declined. Producers such as the gangland Minsky Brothers increasingly resorted to striptease to attract crowds; “bump and grind” displaced parody and commentary. After a decade of Giuliani-style harassment, Mayor LaGuardia finally banned burlesque in 1937. The scene, now literally “stripped” of its theatrical elements, went underground, where it intersected with a burgeoning “blue movie” industry in the 1940s. Low-budget films of solo burlesque performances prefigured the avalanche of porno flicks that followed.
With the New Burlesque revival now taking place, it’s time to bring this journey full circle. Burlesque has traveled a long way from Covent Garden to Times Square, losing Opera by the roadside. We’d like to take it on a reverse Odyssey, a sort of homecoming. The original opera-burlesques poked fun at the status quo, presented challenging new sexualities, and brought “high art” to a diverse audience. With The Enchanted Organ: A Porn Opera, we aspire to do the same.