Felix Mendelsohn’s The Story of A Hundred Operas, though published in 1913, still presents a fairly accurate sampling of the operatic canon, particularly as it pertains to the portrayal of women. In most of these operas, the lead female character is either assaulted or dies in the end. The operatic canon, it would seem, has a problem with engaging female characters – and, indeed, female bodies.
Opera companies across the country have been tweaking the staging of these plots to make them more palatable for audiences and, crucially, for the singers on stage. The emergence of intimacy directors has been one of the ways these problematic plots are being rehabilitated.
Providing real-time guidance on everything from establishing basic grounds of consent to faking a believable kiss or staging a sex scene, intimacy coaches are introducing a safety net to opera that is now commonplace in the production process of other art forms such as film and theatre.
One company introducing intimacy co-ordination is the Halifax Summer Opera Festival. “We didn’t have intimacy co-ordinators or directors for most of my performing career, but we sure as hell needed them, every bit as much as we’ve always needed fight choreographers,” says artistic director Nina Scott-Stoddart. “Opera is just chock full of some pretty extreme sexual situations, especially non-consensual sex, uneven power dynamics, sexual coercion and more.”
It’s not that opera is more salacious than any other art form when it comes to exploiting intimacy, but it’s a relatively much older medium and its core repertoire brings with it the baggage of previous centuries.
Scott-Stoddart recalls her own experience as Lucretia, in the 1946 Benjamin Britten opera The Rape of Lucretia, as an example of where an intimacy co-ordinator may have been welcome: “When it came to the titular action, the baritone was basically just told ‘Rape her,’ ” she says. “There was no real direction and not even an acknowledgment that the situation was a difficult one.”
It is for the sake of preventing scenarios like this that Siobhan Richardson – one of the country’s leading intimacy directors – has become an indispensable presence in rehearsal spaces coast to coast. Taking on both the role of intimacy director and fight choreographer, Richardson has worked with the Canadian Opera Company (COC) on productions such as Carmen, Salome and Macbeth.
In all of these works, the lead female character doesn’t make it out alive. Richardson’s contribution has helped stage these outdated plots with a more critical eye. Every intimacy director defines their role differently, but for Richardson it comes down to simply choreographing intimate moments with the same intentionality as she choreographs a fight scene.
It begins with negotiating boundaries, which Richardson sees as “defining the edge of your ‘yes’ space. We tend to be more creative and more joyful when we’re moving toward a yes,” Richardson explains, “as opposed to moving away from a no.”
In real terms, her work encompasses everything from speaking with actors to ensure consent and comfort is achieved before an intimate scene is rehearsed, to how intimacy will be communicated in a scene through choreographed touch, and even creating space in the action for a singer to gather their breath before a major aria.
Away from the rehearsal stage, an intimacy director’s role can also engage how a production is marketed to the public to better align the expectations of the audience with the performance on stage.
In that sense, intimacy directors are likewise advocates for the audience’s boundaries, because, as Richardson puts it, “an audience expecting to watch The Lion King is a very different audience than one that’s going to watch Hair, where nudity is actually an important plot point of the script.
These efforts were especially beneficial for a completely new work like Hadrian – a 2018 opera by Rufus Wainwright for which the COC employed her services – where audiences are unfamiliar with the plot, and the nudity and sex scenes involved were fairly publicized before opening night.
The anti-bullying, anti-harassment policies that were instituted as a result of the #MeToo movement also noticeably increased the demand for intimacy directors in opera. Though Richardson cautions against categorizing intimacy direction as merely a tool to keep those in power from abusing their positions, she acknowledges that, “There was definitely an acceleration that we saw as the world became aware of the #MeToo movement. We hear a lot about directors with power wanting to see people do things. We hear a lot about men taking advantage of being able to touch women.”
Intimacy co-ordinators are also helping to open new doors of artistic expression by advocating for female characters. “I’m quite tired of stories where the female character succumbs the moment there’s some manner of threat, and I’m much more interested in putting stories out there to normalize the idea of, no, you can keep fighting till you’re absolutely done,” Richardson says.
Without changing a word of the script, an intimacy director can introduce an element of resilience, resistance and overt female strength that’s often missing in these operas. Borrowing the earlier example of Lucretia: One can imagine a production wherein the assailing Prince Tarquinius emerges bloodied and battered would still stick with the letter of the libretto, while simultaneously adjusting the titular scene to communicate Lucretia’s unyielding defiance to the very end.
Intimacy co-ordinators can sometimes disagree with directors, whose creative direction is at odds with more consent-focused choreography. “Sometimes the biggest challenge is, there are some folks who are still resistant to the idea of choreographing intimacy,” Richardson says. “Sometimes it’s just because people are uncomfortable with being directed with ‘this is how long this kiss will be’ or ‘this is where you will touch each other’ and they’d rather do it a little bit more spontaneously in the moment.”
But when it comes to intimacy on stage, Joel Ivany, the artistic director of Banff Centre Opera, Edmonton Opera and Toronto’s Against the Grain Theatre, says that he finds the presence of intimacy directors in rehearsal rooms “comforting and reassuring.”
For Ivany, intimacy direction can help make up for some of the HR oversights that come with a hectic rehearsal schedule: “When companies look to hire, they typically do not interview artists to inquire about past trauma, PTSD, or ask about situations where intimacy will be triggering.”
So why are intimacy directors not yet ubiquitous in opera companies big and small?
The answer depends on various factors in the production process, that are in turn constrained by operation costs. Taking an even broader perspective on the challenges facing this emerging role in opera, Ivany recounts factors such as, “the scene depicted, the number of people involved, each individual’s past experience, the budget – all play into what is possible. I am seeing less and less time in rehearsals for operas, as opera is such an expensive art form to produce.”
Despite these financial constraints, companies such as the Halifax Summer Opera Festival are implementing ad hoc solutions. “We don’t have HR,” says Scott-Stoddart. “We don’t have formal intimacy co-ordinators – our stage directors handle this, or, if they prefer, I can step in myself and help. At the festival, any time we have any sexual content in a show, directors are asked to close at least the first blocking rehearsal and only the people involved work on it.”
“We establish boundaries, acknowledge the awkwardness of this, get consent from all parties and then block the moves and intentions. We do this for men and women. All human beings have wounds, many of them sexual. All human beings deserve to do their work in a safe environment.”