*This is a fictional story. CW: scenes describing sexual violence and misogyny, though not in graphic detail.
Welcome to Rape Culture: The Opera. It’s opening night. The controversial and much talked about show has been shrouded in mystery, already sold out months in advance. Brad is attending with Lisa, an attractive younger woman he had a one-night fling with a few months back. Honestly, he is surprised that she has reached out to invite him. Their last date didn’t seem to go well though Brad could not figure out why. He had called and left messages but no response until tonight and he was happy to get another chance. He was also down to attend this edgy new show that had so many people in the art scene buzzing and he thought it would do good for his image to be seen attending, especially to be seen attending with a hot, but not in the conventional way, feminist-ish but still sexy type of woman.
In the lobby they run into his friend, an up-and-coming author named Todd. Todd is there with his ex Cheylene who was wearing a smoking black number that hugged her curves. Brad was slightly disappointed to see them back together as he had wanted to hit Chey after the breakup. Slowly chattering and looking around to see who was there, as well as, who would see them there, the guests make their way into the theater and take their seats. The lights go out and it is pitch black. An operatic scream makes the audience’s hair rise.
A dim and smokey red lighting envelopes the stage as the actors take their places. The women are all different types – beautiful, small, large, dark, pale, muscular and lusciously fat. The men… well Brad begins to realize that there are no men in this opera, at least not men in the way that he would consider men. There are actors playing men but something about their bodies, their movements, their soprano trills – no, these aren’t men, Brad decides. Probably some edgy attempt at gender-bending.
The content of the opera is both strange and unsettling. Scene after scene features a mix of actors on dates, hookups, or other interactions that just don’t seem right… it’s almost erotic, Brad thinks. The effect that the opera is having on the audience is another thing altogether. Brad notices several uncomfortable people shifting around him. One older man a row ahead of him keeps wiping sweat from the back of his neck with a kerchief. Probably some old, conservative senator-type, Brad chuckles to himself, he can’t handle the daring sexual content of the show. What did he think he was getting himself into?
Still, Brad too has to sort of force himself to relax into it. There is something uncomfortable in the scenes. Brad especially can’t seem to figure out if it would be OK for him to laugh – and if so, when? He certainly does not want to be seen, at such a public event no less, as a misogynist. Is it misogynist to laugh at women who are depicted in uncomfortable sexual situations? He wonders… The women in the audience are laughing, weirdly, coldly, almost to themselves, as if it is a private joke that only they can understand. Brad turns around when he hears a large man behind him force a deep laugh and then sees the man’s date (his daughter? they look alike) turn to him and mouth the word, NO.
The man looks around embarrassed and shuffles his hands. The date turns back to the stage glued to the performance. All the women, Brad realizes, are glued to the performance. And yet, they seem to know it already. They are never shocked or surprised with anything that transpires. They never shift in their chairs or jump back in their seats the way the men do when something almost violent happens on the stage. Yet, if they do know what is happening in advance, they also do not appear bored either, and sit with knowing half-smiles on their faces.
The scenes escalate as the opera goes on, each one vaguely more familiar to Brad, as if he too has seen this before, but not quite – no, the scenes depicted here are like real-life viewed through some sort of dark, gothic glasses. They are both familiar and frightening. One scene taking place in a generic office reminds Brad of something he has seen his colleague Dan do. Something him and Dan and the guys had laughed at. It was funny! He smiles remembering the way Dan had roasted Sheila, the office slut. Ha ha! Damn though, Sheila does have a nice ass. But this scene, this scene doesn’t sit right. He can’t quite put his finger on why. The actress on stage though, her eyes look like they could shoot fire. She is both attractive and also intimidating, a look that Brad kind of likes.
As the opera continues Brad finds himself growing increasingly uneasy. Other men too seem to squirm and glance around as if silently looking for help, yet the women don’t seem to notice anything but the show. A man in front of him, after dancing around in his seat and shaking his legs for some time, stands up suddenly as if to leave, but his date, eyes still not leaving the stage, grips his arm, her glossy and blood-red fingernails seeming to extend and press themselves uncomfortably into his skin, and he sits back down.
The next scene catches Brad’s eye. It’s set in an apartment – modern but sparsely furnished, a large flat screen mounted on the exposed brick wall above he bed. It looks uncannily like his own room. A man and a woman enter. The woman stumbles and laughs, falling onto the bed. The man, already half-undressed, begins to tear at her clothes. The woman wriggles out from under him and, wasted, stumble-dances around the room, pushing him back whenever he approaches. Brad can’t help but laugh as he remembers Lisa dancing in her underwear around his apartment. He turns to her, her face is stony and fixated on the stage, her grip on the chair ledge unnatural.
Things on the stage get uncomfortable. The woman has passed out, limp. The man is aggressive. Brad shifts in his seat – this, this isn’t what he remembers! The stage is lit up again as daylight. The woman is crying, the man laughing. Brad remembers his own laughter and becomes annoyed, shifts again, starts to feel almost attacked, but no! This is fiction! This is fiction, Brad reminds himself, this has nothing to do with you! This is just some feminazi bullshit, he thinks, deciding then that he doesn’t like the opera. He feels annoyed with Lisa for bringing him here. He better get some ass out of this afterwards, he tells himself.
The finale of the show approaches. Each of the musical numbers cresting into something more symphonic, the high notes more dramatic. Suddenly, it is full dark again. A hush falls over the theater. Someone, somewhere in the sprawling audience timidly attempts to clap but is stopped. The curtain rises. A tall, elegant person, covered head to toe in sequins, stands alone, center stage. Their gender is ambiguous though they begin to sing in a deep and voluptuous baritone. A drag queen? Brad thinks. The makeup is certainly stunning, almost grotesque.
The baritone and androgynous singer slowly glides forward on the stage, their song ringing out loudly like a condemnation. They seem to staring right at Brad, right into his eyes – no, into his soul, he thinks. Brad twists in his seat, turning to look behind him. The fat man from earlier is trembling in his seat, transfixed by the singer, his date (daughter?) is grinning, tears streaming down her face, she looks possessed, demonic. Brad spins back around, wide-eyed. He watches the stage as the singer’s voice rises and rises, hitting impossibly high notes for someone who had only moments before held them all entranced with their baritone roar.
Suddenly, it is no longer music but the most high-pitched and shrill scream that escapes from the singer’s wide-open mouth. It is impossibly loud, filling every millimeter of air. Brad squirms in his seat in agony, hands to his ears, but the noise doesn’t stop. Indeed, it increases in force and intensity. He darts his eyes to the side, unable to move his crouching body and sees that other men too are bent over in obvious distress. He looks up to Lisa – but no, what is on her head? She – she is wearing bright orange headphones over her ears and is smiling cruelly down at him… they – they all are.
He sees all of the women in the audience standing over the shrunken men, some of whom are crying, others have lost consciousness and are splayed out on the floor – but the standing women are laughing, all wearing large, brightly-coloured, noise-cancelling headphones. Where did they get them all? The noise still thunders as the women throw back their heads in laughter, applauding as Brad trembles and pisses himself.
Lisa picks up her jacket and taking the arm of the woman next to her, she leaves. This is the worst opera Brad has ever seen.