The Revolutionary Art of the Sex Worker’s Opera

The opera grew from a community arts project into an international sellout show - and resisted opportunities to sell out along the way

June 2024
May 2024
June 17, 2024
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This article was created in partnership with Red Insight

“I believe that good art is behind every revolution.” – Alex Etchart, co-founder and co-director, Sex Worker’s Opera

This year marks ten years since the first performance of the Sex Worker’s Opera, in London's Courtyard Theatre.

The Opera is a multimedia production written and performed by sex worker artists and their friends. With music spanning from jazz to opera, and performances from pole dance to poetry, it offers an honest insight into sex workers’ lives around the world. 

Launched as a form of art and activism, the show quickly grew from an experimental theater project into an international sellout, with performances in nine countries from Amsterdam to South Africa and Nepal. Throughout, the project remained steadfast in its primary aim to support communities and pioneer marginalized-led art.

On this tenth anniversary, we caught up with early creators to hear about how the show has expanded beyond theatre to advocacy, academia, and even an exploration into filmmaking.

A “Fleeting Experiment”

In 2014, a group of sex worker artists and allies gathered in an East London squat to talk about art and activism. 

Although it is technically legal to exchange sexual services for money in the UK, sex work is criminalised in a number of ways that make it much more dangerous. Any building containing two or more sex workers is classified as a brothel; in the past few months, several violent police raids had just taken place in London, and British pornography laws had just been amended, which put many queer and feminist creators out of work. 

The gathering was organized by Sibling Arts, an experimental street theater group in London. Alex Etchart (they/them), a British-Uruguayan community artist who helped organize the gathering, remembers a collection of escorts, brothel workers, strippers, webcam models and porn actors, as well as queer and feminist friends.

Coming out of the meeting, the group decided to create a musical theater project, using storytelling, music and drama to highlight damaging sex work laws, and reframe the narrative about sex work in the media. No previous artistic experience would be required.

'Hug' by Manu Valcarce

A date was set, and the first iteration of the Sex Worker’s Opera was devised in the week leading up to opening night; dress rehearsal took place in the pub across the road. “We thought it was a fleeting experiment, but one that we wanted to do as beautifully as possible,” recalls Etchart, who became the co-founder and musical director of the Sex Worker's Opera alongside Siobhán Knox. “We wanted to do justice to the communities involved.”

The show's first performance was at the Courtyard Theatre in Hoxton, East London, a theater known for experimental and controversial performance art. In an upbeat opening song, the cast divided into two for an on-stage protest. They neatly addressed the key arguments for and against sex work, to give a basic understanding that they could complexify later. Next came a sultry jazz number about a dominatrix, and a scene set in a strip club with choreography likening it to the backbreaking demands of many other physical jobs. 

The show lasted 90 minutes, and incorporated a digital piano, violin, pole dancing pole and several stick-on fake mustaches – as well as Disney-style sex worker anthems, UV performance art, and webcam model projections from the United States and Brazil.

“Backstage, as we were about to perform, we found out we’d sold out both nights, and there were queues round the block to get in,” Etchart remembers. “The cast performed even better under pressure, improvising and playing with the audience, quipping and making them laugh, cry and sing with us… After the show, the first thing on everyone's lips was, ‘When are we doing it again?’”

Arts as Activism

Aided by crowdfunding and small donations, the Opera continued with a number of successful London shows in 2015 and 2016, and then went on a national United Kingdom tour in 2017. By then, the Opera had developed into a two-hour scripted performance featuring a combined cast of three dozen performers and a small orchestra.

Next up was a two-week run in Amsterdam, followed by shows in Nepal and South Africa. By the end of their tour, the Opera had performed in nine countries, and sold out 97% of tickets.

For the first time, the company had the time and space to develop a full show. 

“The script and characters had kept evolving over time, with feedback from sex work groups around the world,” Etchart recalls. “So the script kept developing, the songs kept improving, the music kept on getting rearranged, recomposed and strengthened.”

The cast used their growing notoriety to advance their advocacy agenda. They used the show to discuss different sex work sectors and legislative models, and ultimately campaign for decriminalisation. The Opera was invited to perform the stage show at Amsterdam Pride, the International AIDS Conference, and the Transgender Europe Conference.

“Bringing advocacy, storytelling, direct lived experience and the persuasive power of poetry and song to academic contexts, human rights contexts and inter-movement solidarity contexts was new for us,” says Etchart. “It was really special because art breaks down barriers.”

In 2019, Sibling Arts transformed their theater company into a community interest company and NGO. Etchart and Knox drew on their experience as creative facilitators to design educational workshops for the Royal Opera House, Amnesty International and the Dutch Ministry of Justice and Security.

“Why aren't sex workers going into the Royal Opera house and teaching them things?” Etchart asked. “There's so much that a posh opera singer could learn from a sex worker about life, about resilience, and about creativity against all odds.” 

With cross-movement collaborations and queer solidarity in mind, in 2020 the Opera collaborated with the Mollies Masquerade project by Heads Bodies Legs to revisit London’s gay underground in the 18th century. Last year, Etchart conducted educational sessions in schools, using storytelling and their first short film Johnny Barnes to visualize genderqueer and trans Herstory. 

Telling Our Own Story

For a project that is all about representation, the Opera has not been immune to outside voices interpreting the work on their own.

Etchart says that though there is a rich tradition of community engagement through the arts in the UK, and Ireland especially, it's often at surface level. “It can be a little bit tokenistic or tokenising, and ultimately seen as not really a worthy art form that deserves to be platformed.”

“A lot of journalists just refused to see or understand our way of working,” Etchart says. “Lynne Gardner in The Guardian saw that the audience gave us a standing ovation and understood that we'd really impacted hearts and minds. But she still wrote that the acting was a bit ropey, stating that it was a mix of professional actors and sex workers in that kind of binaristic divide. As opposed to sex workers and their friends, acting with no prior experience necessary.”

Eventually, the Opera released a set of media guidelines to encourage more respectful and insightful coverage. The guidelines outline the morality of sex work, appropriate terminology, and the duty of care that is offered to project participants, to demand that media practitioners offer the same. 

Partly because of this tokenism, over the years, the Opera has turned down several opportunities to be featured on film.

Most recently, the BBC offered them £800,000 to create a three-part documentary series. While the offer was initially compelling, Etchart said the performers ultimately had serious concerns about exploitation: “They would have been prying into people's personal lives, meeting the actual clients to try to be gritty and real. The BBC lens would be invasive and sensational; outing people just for a brief hype.”

Instead, the company has decided to go their own way, and explore producing a fictionalized feature film based on the themes of the stage show. They have a multi-year plan to write, produce, and market the movie, and have consulted with filmmakers and raised some initial seed funding.

They have also led two writing residencies with their group in Europe, and one in South Africa with the Sex Worker Theatre Group, run by the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Task Force.

They taught screenwriting skills, co-wrote a first draft of the script, and co-developed a vision of what they want to make:

“A film made by sex workers about our lives. A musical epic on a magical realism journey, showing how we are all entangled, bodies and economies. A manifesto that connects sex work to class struggle, colonialism, patriarchy, capitalism, ableism, sexual health, borders and policing.”

The company is currently seeking development funding to keep working on their script and is hoping to attract screenwriting mentorship and industry support with fundraising.

Etchart wants to create an uplifting, dignifying film that will be cathartic for sex workers, and educational for everyone else. They say that fiction feels like the right mode for the Opera to express itself on film, rather than documentary. 

“Fiction has a hyper-realism that can show internal thoughts,” Etchart says. “It can beautify the mundane, it can normalize the extraordinary – and it can unlock the poetry in sex worker lives to shape the audience's world, too.”

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