“It was so good, I almost peed my pants,” says Julia Roberts’ character Vivian in Pretty Woman about her first visit to the opera. Her happy-go-lucky ‘hooker with a heart’ who had the good fortune to run into Richard Gere is probably the most famous prostitute in popular culture. But she is a vapid character if you ask Siobhán Knox, co-founder of the Sex Worker’s Opera.
“The arts and the media portray sex work in this really one-dimensional way,” she says. “It’s either very glamorous or very tragic. Anything written about it is done by very privileged voices, never by sex workers themselves, and we felt there was a real need to address that.”
The arts and the media portray sex work in a one-dimensional way. It’s either very glamorous or very tragic
Knox co-founded the Sex Worker’s Opera in 2013 with musical director Alex Etchart to help marginalised people tell their stories through the arts. “We knew from the very first workshop that this was necessary,” she explains. “The workers we spoke to felt that there was no art speaking for them, they felt misrepresented. We knew we had to change that.”
The first production was created in just three days, culminating in a critically acclaimed multimedia performance of sex workers’ stories. Now in its fourth year, the production has grown from a 40-minute show to a spectacle complete with projections and score – thanks to growing interest from participants, production crew and audiences.
Half of the opera’s cast and crew are former and current sex workers telling their own tales on their own terms. The production is developed from workshops where they share their stories.
“The stories that are shared and how the entire production connects is so important to the final show,” Knox explains. “That people are finally able to share their stories too, that’s as important to us as the final product.”