Sex and scandal in ‘Powder Her Face’

Ashley Emerson is the chambermaid and Christopher Tiesi plays the electrician in "Powder Her Face." Credit: Kelly & Massa
Ashley Emerson is the chambermaid and Christopher Tiesi plays the electrician in “Powder Her Face.”
Credit: Kelly & Massa

When it premiered in 1995, “Powder Her Face” made the then-24-year-old Thomas Adès a star in the opera world. The British composer’s unique and inventive music is responsible for its status as a modern classic, but it’s one infamous moment that tends to overshadow all else in the popular perception: opera’s first onstage act of fellatio.

“It’s infamous and famous for that particular sex act,” says William Kerley, who directs Opera Philadelphia’s version, which opens Friday. “But any good dramatic telling of a story has to show enough but not too much. If you show too much, then the audience doesn’t get to use their imagination and they can feel bashed over the head with the action.”

The Opera Philadelphia production stars Patricia Schuman as Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll, who became notorious for her scandal-ridden divorce proceedings in 1963 Britain. Adès partnered with novelist Philip Hensher to create the piece. It’s the latest in Opera Philadelphia’s Aurora Series for Chamber Opera, which Kerley kicked off five years ago with a production of Britten’s “The Rape of Lucretia.”

“That was another piece where an incredibly horrible sexual violation happens on stage and you have to figure out a way to stage it [in a way that] captures the horror but isn’t about being obvious,” Kerley says. “It’s a challenge to stage something that is infamous in such a way that one shows the tragedy of the situation rather than being pointlessly salacious.”

Beyond the tabloid highlights, however, Adès crafted a remarkably original score that calls upon a number of unconventional instruments.

“People will be surprised by the number of extraordinary instruments and sounds that are used,” the director says. “Thomas Adés doesn’t limit himself to traditional sounds. He uses fishing reels, bells going off — it’s an extraordinary sound world. I think it’s an intriguing evening that passes in a flash, if we’ve done it right.”

The dirty duchess

Kerley delved into as much documentary material on the real-life “Dirty Duchess” as he could get his hands on, though he notes that the opera departs in significant ways from the true story. In the first scene, for example, the duchess spills milk on her fur coat and recoils at the smell. In actuality, Kerley says, “We know that the real Duchess fell 40 feet down a lift shaft in 1943 and banged her head, and ever after she had problems with her sense of smell and taste. It was said that thereafter she became sexually voracious, though it seems like she was pretty much a goer before then. So you do the research, but then you’re liberated from the page to tell the story that this clever novelist and brilliant composer have written for us.”

If you go

Opera Philadelphia: ‘Powder Her Face’
June 7-16
Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center
300 S. Broad St.
From $20, 215-893-1018
www.operaphila.org



News
Entertainment
Sports
Lifestyle
International

Dinosaurs could have survived asteroid strike

It turns out there is a good and a bad time for the planet to be hit by a meteor, and dinosaurs were just unlucky.…

National

OkCupid admits to Facebook-style experimenting on customers

By Sarah McBrideSAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - OkCupid, a top U.S. matchmaking website, intentionally mismatched users to test its technology, the IAC/InterActive Corp service said on…

Local

MTA fares still increasing 4 percent in newly…

The agency said the 4 percent increases, previously announced in December, will remain steady even as the MTA deals with increasing labor costs.

Local

De Blasio, Bratton defend city's efforts after Eric…

Mayor Bill de Blasio justified the city's response to the death of Eric Garner, a Staten Island man who died while in police custody earlier this month.

Movies

Interview: Brendan Gleeson on the way 'Calvary' depicts…

Brendan Gleeson talks about how his new film "Calvary" began over drinks and how his character here is the opposite of the lead in "The Guard."

Movies

'Get on Up' producer Mick Jagger on the…

Mick Jagger, a producer on the James Brown biopic "Get on Up," talks about the time had to tell the singer some bad news and his favorite JB record.

Television

'Glee' star Lea Michele to appear on 'Sons…

"Glee" star Lea Michele has been confirmed as a guest star in the final season of "Sons of Anarchy."

Television

TV watch list, Monday, July 28: 'The Bachelorette'…

See Andi Dorfman make her big choice on tonight's 'Bachelorette' finale.

NFL

Larry Donnell has inside track in Giants tight…

Little-known Larry Donnell of Grambling State currently has the inside track, as the second-year player has received the bulk of the first-team reps.

NFL

Computer to Jets: Start Michael Vick over Geno…

Jets general manager John Idzik says the choice of who starts between second-year quarterback Geno Smith and veteran Michael Vick will be a “Jets decision.”

MLB

Yankees looking to trade for Josh Willingham: Report

CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman reported Sunday the Yankees are interested in Twins outfielder Josh Willingham.

MLB

Joe Torre: I'm in Hall of Fame because…

Joe Torre spent 18 years putting together a near Hall of Fame career as a player. But it was the 12 years he spent as…

Travel

Glasgow: Hey, hey, the gangs aren't here

This European city has done a good job getting rid of its more violent residents and revitalizing with artists.

Education

Babson College tops list of best colleges for…

Money magazine has just released its inaugural list of "The Best Colleges for Your Money" -- and the answers have surprised many. Babson College, which…

Education

NYC teens learn how to develop apps during…

Through a program sponsored by CampInteractive, the high schoolers designed their own community-focused apps.

Tech

The Ministry of Silly Walks app is both…

Monty Python have dug into their back catalogue for cash-ins once more, but with the Ministry of Silly Walks app, they've made something that's fun too.