A Sex-Positive Xerxes

Komische Oper's Ecstatic Production

By: - Jun 19, 2023

When I mentioned to a young Gen Z friend of mine that I was traveling to Berlin for the first time, his response was, “You should go to the Kit Kat Klub and enjoy a sex-positive party.”

Sex-postive? ‘What does that mean, exactly?” I asked. His response was vague, he may have just repeated it, but it got me thinking about this term he so casually bandied about. Like the Millenials who preceded Gen Z and are credited with advancing contemporary society’s thinking thanks to their subversive synthesis of identity-affirming terms like cisgender, nonbinary, transgender, agender, gender-expansive, etc., as well as their insistence that society recognizes the limitations of the English language constructions of personal pronouns, my young friend got me questioning what sex-positivity was and why he thought I needed to experience this in Berlin.

Generation Z––or Gen Zers, Zoomers, iGeneration, Homelanders, Centennials–– are those born in the late 1990s to the early 2000s according to Britannica. They are the most diverse generation thus far with more than 16% of the population identifying with the LGBTQ+ community, more than any previous generation. Their ability to raise social consciousness with the aid of technology, on which they were raised, is fast and effective: a Tik-Tok video can send an announcement in seconds and start world-wide movements. They are digital natives: born and raised with it.

“Sex-positive”, according to the Cleveland Clinic, “emphasizes openness, nonjudgmental attitudes, as well as freedom and liberation about both sexuality and sexual expression”––an extension of Freud’s sexual liberation theory but originally coined by Austrian Psychologist Wilhelm Reich. So, this is not a new idea––think of the Weimar period in 1920s Germany or the sexual revolution of 1960s America––but it has enjoyed a re-resurgence thanks to the Millenials and Gen Zers.

Berlin is renowned for its anything-goes policies, and not unlike Las Vegas, what happens in Berlin, stays in Berlin. And yes, there is plenty of opportunity to find dens of iniquity and palaces of pleasure if that’s your thing. It wasn’t mine.

My focus was opera, not the Kit Kat Klub, and I chose to go see Handel’s Xerxes. Imagine my surprise, and delight, when I found myself in the middle of a sex-positive party in this ecstatic production presented by Komische Oper.

The theater itself is a beautiful little jewel box seating about 1200 people, an intimate setting appropriate to a production that would highlight, well, intimacy. The sets and costumes were right out of the 18th century and it felt like at any moment Handel himself could appear in powdered wig, knee breeches, silk stockings and waistcoat. There was a turntable structure on which scenery easily shifted the action from indoors to outdoors from one locale to another; the set design was effective, amusing and engaging and very à la baroque.

Across the board the vocals were exceptional and as an ensemble, the singers all rose to the challenge: this production required great physical exertion. A stand-out example and a sex-positive moment, was the masturbating scene between Xerxes, sung deliciously by Cecelia Hall, and the spurned lover Amastris, sung by the vocally impressive Virginie Verrez. His fingers match his vocals as he caresses the air above her thrusting pelvis in an amazing pas de deux, sans touchant, suggesting a moment which seemed to go over the heads of any children in the theater but made many an adult blush and giggle. 

Likewise, the moment when Xerxes parades around the stage and the giant letters of his name, managed by stagehands, get mixed up and we end up with Sex Rex.

Hysterical but affirming, like the sex-positive movement itself, promotes a message that sex is all good as long as consenting adults are participating. Which, unfortunately, is not the case for the darker undertones when Atalanta appears battered, bruised and bloody after an offstage rape by what appeared to have been zombies. The sadness of that incident is lightened in Atalanta’s earnest attempts, with various weaponry, to kill her sister Romilda.

The sex-positive message is of course inherent in a performance where women are singing the male roles; the gender bending or expansion is not hard to imagine. In fact, it makes so much sense. Why does anyone get caught up in gender constructs? If a she can be a he for three hours onstage, why can’t the same be true in real life? The baritone Hagen Matzeit, brilliantly comedic and vocally flexible, trans himself throughout the opera appearing as a man when necessary and as a woman when it serves his purpose. Just like Xerxes, who begins the opera with the pastoral and sublimely beautiful “Ombra mai fu”, singing to a tree, love comes in many forms.