Misguided Sex-Robot Opera Hits All the Wrong Notes

Jennifer Bower, Contributing Writer

Two weeks ago, I saw the opera Nova, an original collaboration between Paul Schick, professor of German, Lewis Nielson, professor of Composition and Jonathon Field, associate professor of Opera Theater. I first learned about Nova through some friends who were participating in the musical side of the project. The fragments of description that I received intrigued me, so I gathered as much information as I could before attending the performance on Friday. The promotional material for Nova, an opera about the sale of a sex robot, started to set off some alarms. The “O” in Nova was a suggestively wide mouth, ringed by lipstick, and the “V” was a pair of robot legs spread wide open. I did more homework and learned that Paul Schick, the librettist, had stated that the work was “highly feminist but could be misunderstood.” I cracked my knuckles and prepared to tackle Nova with all the fervor of a Misunderstanding Feminist.

Two hours after Nova began, I was a mess: my legs were shaking, I felt nauseated and it was hard to look anyone in the eyes. I went into the opera expecting to start with a Bechdel-level critique and go from there, but I was hit with such a tangled mass of failed satire, objectification and horrifying, near-constant simulated sex that it was hard to think, much less articulate the ways in which Nova was screwed up.

A little time has passed, and I am ready to talk about Nova. Although its authors intended to satirize the commodification of sex, the opera failed to achieve a necessary level of satire in its execution, and it wound up a violently offensive work. Over 14 simulated sex acts occurred on stage, many of which were nonconsensual and objectifying, all of which were accompanied by a stream of dialogue between the salesman and the main character, Al, that consisted mainly of crude and misogynist jokes. This excess, presented without any trigger warnings, intended to make the viewer feel revulsion for the sex-hungry, misogynist main characters. But instead, people laughed. When the salesman said to Al, “You like that blowjob, eh?” the man next to me laughed. When the salesman boasted that Nova “combines the whore and the wife into one,” the man next to me laughed again. He laughed at every awful joke, and I’m pretty sure he left Nova feeling great. The opera allowed him and others to view the work as voyeurs and thus laugh without remorse and sidestep the “satire” entirely. I shrunk down in my seat and tried to keep my rage from escaping. The two women on stage weren’t allowed a single line.

Overall, Nova presented about as much nuance regarding the commodification of sex as a collage of cutout Playboy images that Kalan included in his senior art show. Besides being functionally objectifying and misogynist, Nova flirts with classism (the main character works in a factory, and presumably is much less “educated” than Nova’s authors and audience) and is riddled with anti-sex worker dialogue. Unfortunately, the problems in Nova are symptomatic of a general crisis in the arts. It’s common for composers and writers to tackle controversial subjects in order to provoke audiences and challenge the status quo. However, given that the majority of mainstream artists are white men working alone, when they engage with social issues in a way that upsets marginalized groups it is not “avant-garde.” It’s alienating.

I will admit there were some important things to come out of my Nova experience: 1. Free beer. 2. The musicians performed really well. 3. A friend and I cut up stolen Nova promotional cards and made twee valentines out of them. 4. The show served as a reminder that even supposedly “progressive” art (by Oberlin professors, no less) can reinforce misogynist and violent attitudes towards women. I’m keeping my distance in the future.