Opera Head, Issue 1, Summer 2015

Satire Invades Opera

By Kirk Combe

Satire invades anything. Epic, scientific treatise, painting, song, documentary film, newscast. You name it, and satire can exploit it for its own purposes. Satire is the body-snatcher of genre and communicative form. Just think of how The Colbert Report turns inside-out The O'Reilly Factor with such devastating effect. Nor does satire hesitate to sabotage highfaluting creations such as opera. In 1728, John Gay brought The Beggar’s Opera to the London stage to ridicule the new English craze for Italian opera. While he was at it, Gay attacked the social and political corruption of his day. In fact, if something as complex as satire can be put into a nutshell, this combination might be it—that is, half-pretend to be something else, then kick power in the teeth. Satire created within the modern state frequently follows this pattern. The one-act opera Nova certainly delivers such a one-two satiric punch.

Form is an all-important consideration when dealing with satire. What fictive structure does the satirist concoct—and why? Nova is not a send-up of a spear-and-breastplate opera. It’s far more convoluted than mere parody. Like The Beggar’s Opera, Nova is in ballad opera form, mixing dialogue with singing. This foundation enables a second vital aspect of satire: polemic. Satire is always a passionate argument against something in favor of something else. What Nova attacks is the sexual commodification—and resulting dehumanization—of women. Paul Schick’s libretto, then, is clearly in line with the social commentary of Gay and, even more so, with the political theatre of Bertolt Brecht, whose famous The Threepenny Opera (1928) is derived from Gay’s ballad opera. Brecht did not mount realistic plays, but rather metatheatrical spectacles meant to provoke audiences into rational self-reflection and a critical view of the action on the stage. Instead of inventing pleasantly diverting evenings at the theatre, Brecht wanted viewers to perceive, uncomfortably, social injustice and exploitation. Nova accomplishes the same.

By the Brechtian technique of highlighting the constructed nature of the theatrical event, Nova performs a third key characteristic of satire: instruction via exaggeration. Satire engineers a particularly intense transactive experience for spectators. If text + reader = meaning, then satire always gives us something over-the-top to react to in order to make its point. And intense transactive experience describes Nova in spades. With its frank sexuality, aggressive musical score, outrageous caricature of the sales pitch, and biting running commentary by what amounts to a Greek Chorus, Nova scores exceedingly high on the satiric exaggeration scale. There is no danger of missing that Nova has a message. How that message might be understood, though, inevitably will vary from viewer to viewer.

Modern satire normally offers a critique of the dominant orthodoxy of the day. Hegemony is interrogated and exposed. Unquestionably, Nova can be appreciated as a frontal assault on patriarchy and neoliberal capitalism—the two dominant ideologies of modern western, if not now global, society. Its satire might be biting. However, after watching NOVA, the life-sized android sexbot, in action for an hour, audience members might equally come away thinking that this ostensible attack on sexual commodification is, in fact, an act of sexual commodification. That is, is the satiric exaggeration of misogyny really just a commercial celebration of misogyny? Sex sells, after all, even when one is confronting the idea of sex selling. Hence one of the acute dangers of satire: will readers mistake its blame for praise? Will scorn turn into celebration? Brecht hoped to send audiences back out into the world with an understanding of how their own reality was constructed and, therefore, changeable. Perhaps Nova does the same—or perhaps it gives us more of the same.

Go see, and decide, for yourself.

Kirk Combe is a professor of English and chair of the Theatre Department at Denison University in Ohio. Among his academic specialties are the genre of satire and stage comedy.


By Greggor Mattson

Real Time Opera’s NOVA attempts an oxymoron: to dramatize the banality of commercialized sexuality. Billed as a shocking satire containing nudity and graphic sexual language, the staging I saw won’t surprise opera-goers who watch cable TV after 9pm. The costumes, set design and libretto work together seamlessly to depict a two-dimensional man defined by his orgasms and the pitchman who sells dreams of sexual fulfillment.

It’s almost a one-man show for Ed, the smooth pitchman-cum-faith-healer whose job is to sell the sexbot NOVA. The lights come up as he steps into the frumpy Elyria, Ohio living room of Al, a tongue-tied man-child. Ed is egged on by a chorus quartet that punctuates his persuasion with anodyne marketing-speak straight from Dale Carnegie: “A change in thinking can be brought about through questions!” “The customer has to know to be able to make an informed decision!” Throughout, Al’s wife Marlene putters in the background, tapping feverishly on her iPhone or distractedly dusting, while Andy Gramps sits frozen before the television. Each of the 11 scenes of this 80-minute production are punctuated by blackness and its noise-music score of electronic bleeps, guitar riffs, and drum-set breakbeats. The demo’s orgasmic moments are punctuated by Ed hanging Al’s used condoms from the mantel like so many Christmas stockings.

It was impossible not to compare NOVA to Her, Spike Jonze’s Oscar-nominated film about a love affair between a lonely nerd and his computer’s operating system, given sultry voice by Scarlett Johansson. But where Jonze puts us in the awkward position of having to wonder whether we even have to suspend disbelief about such a love affair, NOVA delights in the mere 80 minutes it takes to convince Al to trade in the mute Marlene for a Britney Spears sexbot whose mouth and “secret place” are made of “super-flex Realy-Feel foam.” While Jonze asks us to consider whether love can survive in the absence of Johansson’s body, it’s clear that poor, obsessive-compulsive Marlene is on the outs well before Ed lifts her yellow house dress and shines a light up her va-guy-na to reveal putrefied body ash in the folds of her skin, rancid with bacteria. Who wouldn’t trade her in for a hygienic alternative with superior suction and vibration, that cooks and mixes cocktails besides? Al’s Benny Hill sex antics during his demo foreshadow the climax: the inevitable final discount proffered by phone from Ed’s manager.

The play bill promised the audience a radical rethink of feminism, but this was quite a dated version. Researchers at Bowling Green State University have shown that contemporary Ohio boys want and expect egalitarianism in their romantic relationships (Giordano et al. 2006). That men’s orgasms have been technologically enhanced and packaged has already been explored by feminist scholars. Over 20 years ago, Judith Levine showed the diagnosis of sexual frigidity in women was accompanied by a simultaneous diagnosis of sex addiction in men, suggesting that our expectations, rather than our biology, had changed (1993). More recently, Meika Loe showed that men’s anxieties about sexual performance make it a ready business market when it is socially validated by insurance companies, as with Viagra (2006). And we hardly need research to tell us that the bombardment of commercial advertisements for male sexual enhancement promote unreal expectations of sexuality and relationships (Croissant 2006).

In case the message wasn’t clear, Al’s twelfth orgasm is accompanied by the chorus presenting the audience with a message on cue cards: since nobody’s doing anything about overconsumption or the depiction of women in the media or our obsession with technology, just get used to it. Presented as we were with a one-dimensional prick who trades in his wife and father-in-law for a sex toy, that’s not shocking at all.

Croissant, Jennifer. 2006. The New Sexual Technobody: Viagra in the Hyperreal World. Sexualities 9:3 pp. 333-344.

Giordana, Peggy C., Monica A. Longmore, and Wendy D. Manning. 2006. Gender and the Meanings of Adolescent Romantic Relationships: A Focus on Boys. American Sociological Review 71 260-287.

Irvine, Janice M. 1993. Regulated Passions: The Invention of Inhibited Sexual Desire and Sex Addiction. Social Text 37 pp 203-226.

Loe, Meika. 2006. The Rise of Viagra: How The Little Blue Pill Changed Sex in America. New York University Press.

If I Was Aroused While Watching NOVA Did I Miss the Point?

By Charles Peterson

Broad satire is a dicey game. In order to take a stick to a societal problem, balance, delivery and accuracy must be taken into consideration. Its aim must be true and its points must be surgically precise. Yet at the same time, satire may deliver uncertainty in the minds of the audience. Its vehicle of delivery may be as disturbing as its argument. The best satire is as disturbing as it is arresting and its excellence, possibly, determined by its ability to unsettle.

Cleveland Public Theater’s Big Box Series presentation of Lewis Nielsen (composer), Paul Schick (libretto) and Jonathon Fields (director) production NOVA provokes the latter concerns. The production’s goal/target is the interrogation of the ways women are sexually objectified and essentialized in a consumer society. The scenario is brutally direct as the protagonist, Ed (Aaron Mucciolo) is a sexually bored (boring?) husband who is considering replacing his wife with a fully functional sex bot (Emily Ann Stys). Younger, tauter, limber and profoundly silent the NOVA unit is put through her paces as he NOVA salesman, Al, (Dan Folino) dips into every archetype of the American shill imaginable. The salesman is a fusion of the spectacled de-humanizing corporate and male gaze. Whether in the guise of a used car salesman, carnival barker or televangelist, the idea of cash on the barrelhead sexual satisfaction is pitched as the ultimate answer to marital bliss. The fact that the sex is mechanized only makes the guaranteed service more efficient. The point is that in modern relationships, corporatized consciousness has reduced women to sexual commodities whose value is based on the degree of male sexual satisfaction. Though explored in other narrative works, film and literature (ex. The Stepford Wives and The Handmaiden’s Tale) this remains a relevant critique of contemporary society, especially in the age of reality television shows (ex. The Bachelor). However in NOVA the package o’pussy is not the only robot. Ed’s wife, Marlene (Claudia Lillibridge), “like the actress” is equally robotized, pantomiming household chores while consumed by her smart phone. Only fleetingly is there a sign of awareness. It is unclear if Marlene is an older model domestic robot or a woman who has been robotized/reduced to her condition by unnamed forces. Her silence exemplifies the conundrum at the satirical heart of the production.

The point of male gaze=sex=objectification=male gaze... is clear but what is not clear and this takes us back to the question of the challenges of satire, itself, is where is the line between critiquing female objectification and objectifying females. The two named female characters are reduced to the very thing that is up for criticism. The NOVA sex bot is an attractive young woman, scantily clad and maneuvered into a provocative series of sexual positions and a variety of simulated sexual acts. As well Marlene is just an (seemingly) empty minded body who shows no consciousness much less one that would decide to not satisfy her husband’s (sexual desires). Aside from the NOVA sex-bot’s dismissal of Ed at the end of the production, (she decides to watch television instead of demonstrating her attributes) there is no self-awareness in the production. Ed has to strenuously work to convince Al to make a purchase but outside of the question of affordability we see no other reason for doubt or hesitation on Al’s part. There is a Greek chorus, which narrates the inner thoughts of Ed but these are only hilarious Dale Carnegie like tips on how to better manipulate the customer. Where is the “nod, nod, wink wink”? Where is the outside voice inside the play?

Yet should satire have a moment of self-awareness? Does a moment of clarity dull the dagger’s edge? Does earnestness in the midst of satire become moralizing? At one point the Greek chorus displays a series of cards meant to generate questions about women and objectification, yet this earnest concerns carry little weight against the onslaught of Ed’s sales pitch. How would 10th grade high school English students remember Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” if there had been a coda stating how terrible and disturbing was the plight of the tens of thousands starving Irish? Should satire reveal the real beating heart of concern? Or is it its obligation to take the devil may care route, follow its target’s logic to its unnatural conclusion and within the audience’s queasy wake having driven home the point? These are questions that NOVA does not readily answer nor can these questions be answered over the course of spirited kitchen conversations at late night parties (trust me I tried). However, the fact that NOVA provokes such questions and stimulates such debate is argument enough for the worthiness of the production.

Musically Brilliant

By Mike Telin

I thoroughly enjoyed Nova! although the plot is truly unbelievable, but what opera plot is? Paul Schick’s libretto is quick and filled with wonderful satire. His characters are sympathetic, except for Ed, and the cast somehow makes all the outrageousness believable. Although it is Lewis Nielson’s musical score that holds the opera together, the composer made a wise decision not to include any melodic arias in favor of Singspiel. The proselytizing Greek Chorus adds all the harmony the opera needs and the four members of the chorus sounded fantastic.

The instrumental ensemble, two electric guitars, two percussionists and a canned laugh track brilliantly enhance the text. In the program notes Nielson writes: “Instead of setting the text, I set up a musical structure that is progressive and surrounds the action.” And this he did with distinction. Although there was plenty of quasi improvisation or vamp till ready moments, the musicians were spot on with every musical jab, bang, and slide.

Nielson’s writing also makes even the most outrageous actions of the characters believable. Jonathon Field’s fast paced and often over-the-top staging works tremendously. The only joke that went on just a bit too long was the dance of the ten condoms. This is fantasy but we get it already.

Mike Telin is Executive Editor of Cleveland Classical. He has co/authored numerous public interest articles on music and the performing arts, and served on grant review panels for, among others, the Ohio Arts Council.