Monday, May 15, 2023

Looking at La traviata through a sex-positive lens

Briq House, Moonyeka and Gabrielle Nomura Gainor discuss Verdi’s famous heroine and new narratives for sex work, pleasure, and liberation in 2023.

Moonyeka, Gabrielle Nomura Gainor and Briq House.

The first year that La traviata played to audiences in 1853, Verdi was able to pull off a great feat. The Italian composer had manipulated a mid-nineteenth century European audience into sympathizing with Violetta—a woman who, despite being a member of high society, was a sex worker—a person who made a living through transactional relationships with wealthy men. La traviata means “the fallen woman,” or, more literally, "the woman who has been led astray."

Now, 170 years later—the oppressive structures governing women and femmes are still in play. What’s different are the new and more varied narratives surrounding sex workers, pleasure seekers, and women who strive to be “sempre libera” (always free) like Violetta.

For Briq House and Moonyeka, sex is not simply about personal joy (though it is definitely about that). Human sexuality is a vehicle for healing, community-building, artistic expression, and more. In May 2023, the two artists and community leaders sat down with Gabrielle Nomura Gainor to record a new episode for the Seattle Opera Podcast. The discussion centered on the "fallen woman" archetype in Verdi's opera, the joy and challenges surrounding sex work—and other politics of pleasure for women and femmes–particularly QTBIPOC (Queer, Trans, Black, Indigenous People of Color). Listen to the podcast or find it on your favorite podcast distributor.

Briq House is a proud Black woman—in addition to a professional Dominant, Intuitive and Burlesque Goddess. Moonyeka is a nonbinary Filipinx shapeshifter and interdisciplinary artist; their sensual offerings span stages and queer clubs.

Briq House on the cover of The Stranger.

Episode host Gabrielle is an Asian American activist, dance artist, and storyteller who was previously on the Seattle Opera staff for eight years.

For people who might be familiar with opera but less familiar with the topic of sex work, this episode is an invitation to deepen one’s understanding and challenge one’s preexisting assumptions. The conversation touched on collective care for sex workers—including the need for affordable housing, as well as destigmatizing sex work, so that sex workers are better able to handle their money, access health care, and move through the world without fear for their safety or being denied basic services.

Sex workers need to be seen as full human beings. Thus, Moonyeka and Briq pushed back on Verdi’s narrative among others. Why are sex workers so frequently portrayed as downtrodden individuals who suffer? Why can’t they ever be seen as complex human beings who live in abundance of community, love, and safety?

To contrast Violetta’s story, Briq House and Moonyeka are also scholars, activists, leaders, healers, teachers, and more. They create performance offerings that revolve around joy. Briq produces the Shuga Shaq, the longest running and only all-People of Color review in the Pacific Northwest. And Moonyeka just finished a multimedia performance, a “queer-ing” of Filipino mythology—at Base in Georgetown.

A space for healing

Sex work is not the same thing as involuntary sex work. Involuntary sex work can take many forms, but the commonality with all of these situations is that someone is being exploited—either by being forced into sex work—or because of challenges related to substance use disorder, homelessness, behavioral health, or human trafficking. When a person willingly takes part in the sale of sexual services (which could also include stripping or bikini barista stands), this is called sex work.

Moonyeka performs as part of their residency at Base: Experimental Arts + Space in Georgetown. V and the @HouseOfKilig

To assume that all sex workers are damaged or traumatized is not only overly simplistic but contributes to stigma that harms sex workers. The ACLU has in fact supported the decriminalization of sex work for almost 50 years.

For Briq House, “trauma and harm” couldn’t be further from her truth.

“One thing I am most passionate about is working with healers of sexual abuse and trauma,” Briq House said. “I work with people who are trying to engage differently in their intimacy, first with themselves, and then with their partners that they're with. I also really love doing sexual healing work with couples, triads, polyamorous folks, monogamous folks. Fostering new ways of intimacy between folks is such special and sweet work.”

Moonyeka has also found both excitement and peace in their more erotic artistry. When Moonyeka was a child, they were called a hedonist—which simply means a person who moves toward pleasure. But ultimately it felt like slut-shaming, like a glib dismissal.

“Actually, pleasure is really hard,” Moonyeka said. “Pleasure is a commitment. And I think, for both me and my trans siblings, feeling good in our bodies is a very dissonant process sometimes. Even in our most joyous moments, the joy is not without suffering—these moments illuminate how unaligned we have felt in our own bodies.”

Because it's hard work, Moonyeka believes in prioritizing pleasure—after all, it's our birthright as humans, not something that needs to be hidden away behind closed doors. 

Dominick Chenes (Alfredo) and Vuvu Mpofu (Violetta) in Seattle Opera’s La traviata. Photo by Sunny Martini

New narratives for Violetta

During the podcast conversation, at one point, Gainor invited Moonyeka and Briq House to share how they might rewrite La traviata. First Briq suggested a narrative where Violetta exists in a polyamorous collective; people acknowledge how hard-working Violetta is. In this scenario, Violetta might say: “You know what? It’s really expensive to be this fine. And so if that requires two or three or four incomes, from various humans then—that's what it takes.”

Then Moonyeka added a new layer: Violetta ultimately writes a letter to her boyfriend, but rather than breaking up with him as was suggested, she writes: “Hey, your dad is trippin.’ Do you want to get in on this scheme with me?” After that, the lovers ditch Alfredo’s judgemental family and radical love prevails.

To close out, Gabrielle shared that some moments in La traviata help her feel incredibly connected to herself. Those lines between Violetta and Alfredo—“torment and delight”—allow Gabrielle to access certain memories, and feelings in her body—what it’s like to be completely infatuated or in love—all from a seat in McCaw Hall.

It’s ironic that opera is a space where women and femme’s sexuality is so fraught sometimes, Gainor said.

“As the very sensual art of opera often shows—sex and pleasure are incredibly important, normal—and exciting—elements of the human experience. In many ways, I see Violetta, a courtesan—a sex worker—as being strong and ahead of her time.”

Listen to the full episode “Looking at LA TRAVIATA through a Sex Positive Lens” wherever you listen to podcasts (You can also search for "Seattle Opera"). Learn more about the featured speakers Briq House, Moonyeka and Gabrielle Nomura Gainor on their personal websites. 

Moonyeka, Gabrielle, and Briq House recording for the Seattle Opera podcast.

Advocacy Resources for Sex Workers in Washington State:


Listen to the podcast or find it on your favorite podcast distributor.


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