Sex Workers' Opera is Set to Take London by Storm

What do the following operas have in common? La Traviata, The Threepenny Opera, Manon, Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Madame Butterfly, Lulu. They’re all about sex-workers.


For centuries, composers and librettists have made money from courtesans by depicting their lives onstage. But Sex Workers’ Opera, which opens in London this week, aims to buck that trend.

“Writing stories from everyday life – that’s not uncommon in opera,” says director Alex Etchart. “But it’s never in the words of the people it’s representing.”

In 2013, as part of a Royal Opera House new writing programme, Etchart first began working on the idea of an opera written and performed by real sex workers, tackling their many different experiences and sung in their own voices.

For Etchart, the idea was to create a work that was as radical in its form as in its content: “Darren Henley [chief executive of Arts Council England] recently challenged ENO, and opera in general, to ‘adapt or die.’ Sex Workers’ Opera is a great example of opera adapting; we have classical arias, hip-hop, jazz, spoken word, projected poetry — a diversity of mediums.”

Joined by co-director Siobhan Knox (with whom he runs the Experimental Experience theatre company), Etchart assembled a cast, more than half of whom work in the sex industry. Some prefer to keep their work private, while others are outspoken campaigners within the industry – including one of the UK’s most high-profile activists, Charlotte Rose.

Rose has stood for Parliament twice and has made many TV appearances, including BBC Two's Daily Politics. “Sex workers are isolated by society,” she says, “but the great thing about this opera is that we work as a community… it’s a family. If somebody is struggling in any way, then we all come together and help each other.”

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