As an art form, opera is more traditionally associated with overblown tales of romance, but this week the world's first opera about human trafficking will premiere in Britain.
Anya17 will open at the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall on Wednesday. It tells the story of a woman brought from Eastern Europe to work in the UK's sex industry. The show's official supporters include the United Nations, Anti-Slavery International and the Salvation Army. Special performances are already being mooted for the House of Lords and the Council of Europe in Strasbourg.
The drama is set in a brothel in an unnamed UK city and in an unspecified Eastern European country. The protagonist, Anya, is trafficked into Britain and forced into prostitution by a man pretending to be her boyfriend. The number 17 in the title comes from the practice of numbering girls on a "menu" in brothels. It is estimated that 800,000 women are trafficked into the EU every year. Nine out of 10 of these are forced to be sex workers in brothels.
The opera's librettist, Ben Kaye, who came up with the concept, said: "We're so used to hearing shocking news bulletins about subjects like this that we can become immune to it. Sometimes you need a different approach to engage people. I did a lot of research to make it accurate – going through stories and talking to case workers who worked with women who had gone through this."
The opera director Sir Jonathan Miller said the project showed no subject should be off-limits. "I think you can do whatever you like in opera. The Death of Klinghoffer was not something you'd expect in an opera, but it works. It's in the nature of any art form that it accommodates novelty. Genres that are thought to be closed turn out to be open-ended."
The cast, taken from the Royal Northern College of Music, went to meet survivors of sex trafficking at sheltered housing in London as part of their research. Andrea Tweedale, who plays Anya, said: "Most of the characters I play are in romantic stories about love, whereas this is very different. As an opera singer you never normally get the chance to raise awareness about serious issues. There are lines I never thought I'd sing: words like 'rump' and 'sodomised'."
The production is directed by the award-winning Caroline Clegg, with music by Adam Gorb.
Iqtadar Hasnain, a spokesman for Anti-Slavery International, said: "As far as we're aware, there has never been an opera on this subject. We hope that people will see it and realise that this is a form of slavery that is happening on their doorstep today."
Anya17 is at the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall on 7 March and the Royal Northern College of Music Concert Hall on 9 March