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Opera Babes and Other Oxymorons

In the ongoing babe-ification of the Western world, welcome to this week’s episode: Classical Babes 2.0. I’m referring, of course, to “Too Hot to Handel,” a current feature on the online arts and entertainment segment of Playboy.

Sexing up classical music certainly isn’t anything new. I can remember a Beethoven LP cover from the 1970s that featured a nude model holding two strategically placed Beethoven busts. To this day, I can’t remember if that was the album with a whole bunch of Beethoven piano variations, or the one with works like the Choral Fantasy and Creatures of Prometheus. But that cover, I’ll never forget.

Anna NetrebkoAs for this current contest from Playboy, I can’t decide whether to laugh or cry or groan (the thing is filled with hideously awful puns). Yes, it’s a vote-for-your-fave-classical-babe contest. Here you can find opera stars—they do have clothes on—like Anna Netrebko (Lucia di Lammermoor at the Met in January), Danielle de Niese (the Met’s Orfeo in January), and Sarah Coburn (Juliet in last summer’s I Capuleti e I Montecchi at Glimmerglass). Apparently, playing the violin is extremely sexy, judging from the slew of violinists (Jennifer Frautschi, Julia Fischer, Hilary Hahn, Janine Jansen). Another violinist at the Playboy site, Leila Josefowicz, has just been named winner of a MacArthur “Genius” Award. There’s even a token over-40 violinist (Anne-Sophie Mutter) and an oboist, Ariana Ghez, from the Los Angeles Philharmonic. I won’t say who my vote’s on, but since Playboy is kind of retro anyway, it helps if you come off in press photos looking like a 1960s Bond girl.

Here’s the thing. In opera, people do occasionally get naked, though normally it’s because it’s actually part of the plot. Case in point: Prokofiev’s Fiery Angel, which the Kirov Opera brought to New York in the early 1990s, featuring demons, an orgy, and nude nuns flying around the stage. And how about Karita Mattila, the Met’s gutsy Salome, who bares it all, but not in just the literal sense? As Anthony Tommasini wrote in The New York Times on September 24, “I cannot think of a performance on any stage in New York right now that tops Ms. Mattila’s Salome for courage, intensity and emotional nakedness.” Amen to that.

Meanwhile, classical-babe marketing goes on. Today, in fact, I spied a brand-new CD featuring a new “babe,” Alison Balsom. Playing trumpet. Now that’s a first.

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SundayArts is made possible in part by First Republic Bank and by the Rubin Museum of Art. Funding for SundayArts is also made possible by Rosalind P. Walter, The Paul and Irma Milstein Foundation, The Philip & Janice Levin Foundation, Elise Jaffe and Jeffrey Brown, Jody and John Arnhold, and The Lemberg Foundation. This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Additional funding provided by members of THIRTEEN.
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