Prepare to be shocked if you go to the English National Opera at the moment. In Don Giovanni there is a gang rape by a group of masked men wearing Jesus Christ T-shirts. In a new opera, A Dog's Heart, there are four-letter words. Down the road at the Royal Opera House the recent production of Rigoletto included rape, oral and anal sex and much else that Verdi never envisaged.
Opera productions have had a shock factor for some time. But there is now an added thrust, and an added pleasure, in that more and more theatre directors are being encouraged to try their hand at opera. Don Giovanni is directed by Rufus Norris, a leading light in contemporary theatre. A Dog's Heart is directed by Simon McBurney, who, with his company, Complicite, produces the most imaginative theatre to be found anywhere.
Other theatre directors such as Katie Mitchell and Rupert Goold are bringing new approaches to classic operas, as are film directors such as Sally Potter, who was hired by the ENO to direct Carmen.
In the final analysis, the shock factor is a success only if it illuminates understanding of the piece, as it does in showing the seediness and exploitation of the court in David McVicar's Rigoletto.
Opera should never be seen as too sacred for experimentation, re-interpretation or a radical rethink. And it should continue to use the best and most imaginative directors. Shock for its own sake will always be rumbled, but being shocked into a deeper understanding of a work is something that most adult audiences appreciate.