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'
Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center
300 S. Broad St.
From $20, 215-893-1018