03/04/2014 13:09 BST | Updated 03/06/2014 06:59 BST

How Do You Portray a Blow Job in Opera?

Apparently with lots of humming. Powder Her Face is an opera composed by Thomas Ades, with a libretto by Philip Hensher, based on the infamous Margaret Campbell, the Duchess of Argyll and the scandal her sexual exploits and subsequent divorce in the 1960s. Polaroids of the Duchess in action were used in evidence which she initially denied until a jeweller examined the photographs and identified the Argyll pearls. New technologies caught up very quickly. Hence the need to include it in the performance. She once reportedly said:

"Go to bed early and often."


Portrait of Margarett Duchess of Argyll in her dining room in The Grosvenor House London taken by Allan Warren. Courtesy the photographer.

The opera, produced by the English National Opera, charts the glamorous rise and fall of the notorious socialite, Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll. Drawing on episodes from the Duchess's colourful life, it takes a satirical view of the woman dubbed "The Dirty Duchess". With references to her voracious sexual appetite, her celebrity lifestyle and her very public divorce, the work charts the demise of this elegant yet tragic figure. She wrote later in life:

"I had wealth, I had good looks. As a young woman I had been constantly photographed, written about, flattered, admired, included in the Ten Best-Dressed Women in the World list, and mentioned by Cole Porter in the words of his hit song You're the Top. The top was what I was supposed to be. I had become a duchess and mistress of a historic castle. My daughter had married a duke. Life was apparently roses all the way."

Thomas Ades's first opera, Powder Her Face launched his international career and it remains one of his most performed works. His precocious score is both witty and satirical, paying homage to Weill, Berg and Stravinsky with cabaret and tango influences. Its most arresting scene, however, remains that in which insanity is hinted at during her trial, expressively composed not for musical instruments, but rather the sound of several fishing-reels slowly turning. He says:

"Powder Her about someone who's become a recluse, because her life has closed one door after another and the Duchess has trapped herself in every department, so she retreats into a world of perfume and fantasy and memory."

As in the Tempest in which Ades made Ariel scaled the heights of the soprano range while suspended from the ceiling for perilously long periods of time, he pushes the singers to a new level. A challenge taken by the soprano Clare Eggington as the duchess' maid with a difficult repertoire delivered with great ease as if her voice were limitless. Amanda Roocroft as Margaret commands the stage with her fragility tilting towards madness. A superb performance.

Powder Her Face will be performed in the intimate atmosphere of Ambika P3 - a contemporary arts venue that is one of the capital's "hidden and most exciting new spaces" according to the Guardian. Part of the University of Westminster, this underground space has played host to numerous cultural events including exhibitions, art installations, fashion shows and live performances, but Powder Her Face is the first opera to be performed there.


Powder Her Face Opera. Photograph by Lorenzo Belenguer.

Associate Director of the Young Vic, Joe Hill-Gibbins, embarks on his first opera. He has directed several productions for the Young Vic and Royal Court and most recently Edward II at the National Theatre which was deemed "tirelessly inventive" by the Observer.  Set and costume designs are by Olivier award-winning designer Ultz who last worked with ENO on the Richard Jones production of The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant in 2005. My only comment would be about the projections: unnecessary and very distracting.

Powder Her Face opens at Ambika P3, University of Westminster, Marylebone Road, NW1 5LS on Wednesday 2 April for 9 performances - 2, 4, 8, 10, 14, 16 April at 7.30pm, 5, 12, 19, April at 6.30pm.