’Tis Pity

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’Tis Pity
Photograph: Magnus Hastings
Meow Meow

Cabaret star Meow Meow is reclaiming the opera for #NastyWomen with her new show about sex and the courtesan through history

Since Trump infamously uttered the slur to insult Hillary Clinton during the final Presidential debate, women all over the world have been proudly self-identifying as “nasty”. In defiance of the mansplained idea of the “eternal feminine” – a romantic concept of womanly perfection and purity, invented by, you’ve guessed it, men – a global movement has mobilised, casting off the vestiges of arcane gender stereotypes. Women and their advocates stood together at protest marches across the US and beyond, as a challenge to misogyny. The message to the Trump White House was clear: female rights are human rights. Pussies are not for grabbing.

“I’m very much a believer that the pussy should grab back,” says Meow Meow. The Aussie cabaret star is delighted to count herself amongst the ranks of the Nasty Women. She is also one of the thousands of artists around the world who have felt the recent worldwide lurch to the right resonating through their work. Although Meow Meow’s latest collaboration with Victorian Opera, ‘Tis Pity, was conceived and largely developed before President Trump’s inexplicable rise to power, this production has acquired a particularly potent synergy with zeitgeist politics.

Described as “a fantasia on selling the skin and the teeth,” this newly created cabaret-cum-opera is an ode to the strength and agency of women. In an ambitiously brisk 70-minutes, ‘Tis Pity aims to unriddle the history of the world via a celebration of female sexuality. And just as the word “nasty” was salvaged from the language of inequality, it champions the stories of courtesans, concubines and femme fatales to transform those smears of derision into badges of honour.

“It influenced us a great deal,” Meow Meow says of Trump’s attitude to women. “I think as artists we must always question, ‘But why? Why should we be telling this story? Why will this show connect with an audience?’ And those persistent, problematic terms, that astonishing language that is being used and being normalised, is something that immediately bears dissection. So, the show has become about deconstructing those labels. I’ve always been fascinated by vamps and risqué women because it’s a topic that’s endlessly giving. As soon as it seems we’ve taken a step forward, that progress is shoved out of the way. So it’s time we all pushed back, don’t you think?” 

Written by Victorian Opera artistic director Richard Mills in collaboration with director Cameron Menzies, Meow Meow, and operatic tenor and queer cabaret showman Kanen Breen, ‘Tis Pity was originally conceived as a companion piece to Kurt Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins. Performed by Meow Meow for VO in 2015, Weill’s music channels the sexually liberated, devil-may-care ethos of the Berliner Kabarett of Weimar Germany, that thrived before the outbreak of WWII and the rise of the Nazi fascism.

For Meow Meow, the contrast between the unbuttoned freedoms of the Weimar Republic and the autocratic oppression of Hitler’s Reich remains eerily prescient. “Who wants to live in a censored, politically dangerous, morally strangulated society? Who wants to be swimming through these endless rivers of bile? The greatest struggle we have is being able to challenge that kind of bigotry with reasoned, rational debate,” she exclaims.

“That’s really at the core of ‘Tis Pity. It’s this sort of pageant that falls to pieces because we’re so self-conscious about words. The normalcy of ‘whore’ instead of ‘sex worker’; the stigma of daring to have body hair, or worse, pubic hair. My god! There’s just so much hate and oppression inside those ideas. I think it really comes down to the question, what is shame? There’s this shard of shame that becomes a repeating theme throughout the piece, because the things we choose to shame and the things we choose to accept are fucking ludicrous.”

It’s a mindset that doesn’t just buck against the injustices of American politics. Many of the operas perennially programmed by major opera companies, while musically popular, feature plots where women are often demonised or abused, and more often than not, killed by the final curtain. ‘Tis Pity offers an alternative to the outdated sensibilities that have seen Madame Butterfly, Carmen, Lucia, Mimi, Violetta and countless other opera heroines, cry and die – over and over, year after year. 

“We really didn’t want our show to be seen as naughty or overly saucy. We didn’t want it to become a pantomime,” Meow Meow notes. “Again, it’s this question of shame – why do we dismiss tragedy in such a lightweight way? Why can’t women be powerful on stage and live to sing another day? It’s quite depressing if you think about – I mean the fact that people would rather have the situation we’re stuck with now rather than having a qualified woman in charge. I despair!”

Of course, a show exploring these genuinely weighty subjects could potentially collapse into a panic-stricken sermon. However, accessibility has also been a key concern in the creation of ‘Tis Pity, and with the charismatic Meow and her co-conspirator Kanen Breen as their on-stage guides, audiences are guaranteed to have a good time while also learning a thing or two about tolerance. 

“There’s plenty of romping through Tangos and Mambos and Rumbas. It’s been such an incredible process putting it together. I’m in the absolute glow of love with it, actually,” Meow Meow beams.

“Of course, we don’t want to turn people off or scare them away. I think it’s really about consciousness raising, isn’t it? And look, we’re always going to offend someone. There’s that wonderful phrase – ‘What turns me on is erotic. What turns you on is pornographic’. We’re not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but really, it’s just showbiz darling. It’s all just locker room talk.”

By: Maxim Boon

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