Sex Workers' Opera lets escorts, webcam performers and strippers tell their stories through performance and music

The sex workers will take to the stage tomorrow night to share their experiences, both good and bad. Frankie Mullin discovers why they're finding their voice

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The Independent Culture

The conflict-ridden and controversial have long been rich territory for artists. As such, sex work, in various guises, is often a central theme. But despite a long-standing relationship between sex work and opera – courtesans feature regularly in opera, from Madame Butterfly to Manon – any contemporary pairing seems, at first glance, to be a clashing of worlds.

"We knew that putting the words 'sex worker' and 'opera' together would grab people's attention," says Sex Workers' Opera co-producer Alex Etchart of the Experimental Experience theatre company's new project, which lets sex workers tell their stories through performance and music.

The Sex Workers' Opera, the brainchild of Clouds Haberberg, who is co-founder of the feminist opera company Better Strangers Opera, has been buoyed by the Goldsmiths Annual Fund, supported by the Royal Opera House and funded in part on Kickstarter. The opera will be performed tonight by sex workers and their allies, the former guaranteed anonymity by the fact that no one will reveal to which group they belong.

"The production isn't a linear story, but a journey through the various experiences of sex workers, asking audiences to challenge their stereotypes," says co-director Siobhan Knox. "We wanted to make a bridge between some of the least-represented members of society and some of its most established, respected – and often orthodox – institutions."

In fact, the Sex Worker's Opera isn't strictly operatic and will include elements of grime, hip-hop, spoken word and jazz. The Royal Opera House – the most established of institutions – is on board in an advisory role and has subsidised a training programme for the directors.

The group cites Bertolt Brecht as inspiration, a man whose 1928 Threepenny Opera not only took aim at capitalism but was performed by people recently released from concentration camps; similarly allowing the usually voiceless to tell their own story.

Charlotte Rose, a sex worker based in Exeter, is taking part. "People believe all my job involves is opening my legs," she says. "I'd like them to see the other side of it: the business skills I use, the times I've looked after clients who are sick, the fact that I'm passionate about what I do."

The cast includes escorts, webcam performers and strippers. Key to the group's mission is that diverse experiences be represented, and the Collective of Sex Workers and Supporters movement in Taiwan is involved.

Toby* is an independent sex worker from London. He will be performing in the opera anonymously. "I got into sex work after hitting a hard spot financially," he says. "I didn't find it the horrible, disempowering experience I was expecting, though. Quite the opposite."

Through the opera, Toby wants to share his experiences of bonding with clients and his insights into why people use escorts. "Hopefully, we'll reach people who've never thought about sex workers before," he says. "I want to put on something quality that really slaps people around the head."

However, the directors are aware that not all sex workers' experiences are rosy and that those signing up to perform may not be representative of the whole industry. "Though we have reached out, we've had to come to terms with the fact that those for whom sex work was not a choice may not want to take part," Knox says. "That's why the call-out for diverse experiences is so important in balancing the stories told on stage."

Outspoken about sex workers' rights, with a recent spot on Channel 4's Love For Sale under her belt, Rose will be one of the few sex workers in the opera who feels able to confirm her identity. Like others involved in the project, Rose says the initial workshops – during which sex workers faced the challenge not only of discussing personal issues but of performing on stage – was intense and sometimes emotional.

"The workshops were such a safe environment and people were able to be honest," she says. "I'm glad we've got the chance to voice our views. I've never had an opportunity to tell my stories like this before."

'The Sex Workers' Opera' is on tonight at The Courtyard Theatre, London N1; sexworkersopera.com

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