03/06/2008 06:26 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Bothering With Triffles

The Royal Opera House Covent Garden has managed the rare trifecta of making itself appear crass, idiotic and pandering at the same time. It is the sort of activity that makes the English smile wanely in the hope that you will change the subject, and leaves Americans slack-jawed in astonishment.

In the March 5, 2008 issue of The Independent, the dramatic scene was set in this way: "The Royal Opera House has said it will stop using a promotional poster for a Verdi opera after an actor complained that it had been distorted in a demeaning way." This scarcely prepared the readership of The Independent for the story to follow.

Juan Pablo di Pace is a 28 year old actor. In 2001 he was cast in a non-singing role in a Covent Garden production of Giuseppe Verdi's Rigoletto. Whilst so engaged, Mr. di Pace posed for promotional photographs which, it seems, have been used repeatedly thereafter despite the fact that he has had no on-gong relationship with the company. So ends the decorous recitation of the facts.

The mass marketing of opera is nothing new. Last season it was nearly impossible to pass a bus shelter or a bus in New York City without seeing an advertisement for The Metropolitan Opera featuring the comely form of Anna Netrebko. Back in the summer of 2001 banners for the Seattle Opera's Ring of the Nibelungen production adorned lampposts throughout the Emerald City. The portrait of Philip Joll as Wotan radiated power, and the photos of Ms. Netrebko oozed sex appeal. Covent Garden's promotion campaign does, however, appear to be of another order entirely.

In one of these "promotional photographs" featuring Juan Pablo di Pace, a scene setting reminiscent of a Peter Paul Rubens painting, Mr. di Pace appeared without raiment of any sort. His face looks at Rigoletto to his left; from the neck down his body is canted toward the camera. It is, in the snappy patois of the Hayes Office, "full frontal nudity."

Now it must be said that Mr. Di Pace, circa 2001, was a handsome physical specimen. Indeed, he is so buff as to make Nathan Gunn and Chris Maltman (two of the reigning "barihunks" of our day) look rather like Reichsmarshall Goring at his most grotesque. No doubt the Covent Garden audiences swooned at the sight of his well defined musculature. Precisely what a well-built young man was doing prancing about in the nude in a production of Verdi's Rigoletto was, of course, no where explained. A diligent examination of the score reveals no evidence of an instruction on the order of "naked guy walks/dances in here." Verdi had enough problems with the censors over this opera that additional provocations of that sort would have resulted in his immediate incarceration.

The problem, strange to relate, is not that a serious offense has been committed against Verdi, against Italian Opera in general and against Rigoletto in particular. A young man of fair form walking into this opera naked as the proverbial jaybird as though beamed down from a distant planet is not the cause of consternation. The fact that posters of this curious scene were all over billboards and busses in London does not appear to have ruffled the British at all. No, the controversy has arisen over the fact that the images so exploited were "altered."

What seems to have angered Juan Pablo Di Pace is the fact that in these "promotional materials" his natural endowments were ... well... let's let an otherwise unidentified "friend" of Sr. di Pace's who spoke to The Independent relate it: "They airbrushed his penis entirely to shrink it. They made it look like he barely had one at all."

Indeed, an examination of the offending photograph, helpfully provided by The Daily Mail, certainly makes it appear that something of the size and shape of a fingerling potato has been crudely placed in Sr. di Pace's pubic thatch. It does, in point of fact, look like a quickly rejected campaign crafted by a warped marketer of raisins. It is of a size familiar primarily to mohels. Presumably, Juan Pablo di Pace would have been far less upset had the publicity geniuses at Covent Garden digitally altered the scene to have given him an endowment the size of a baby's arm. It is not enough to note that Mr. di Pace now has the most talked about penile member since John Dillinger, the question remains what any of this has to do with Verdi. The answer, needless to say, is "Nothing at all."

Matters were not much aided by the comments of Christopher Millard, identified by Sky News as "a spokesman for the Royal Opera House, [who] said it was common practice for promotional photos showing nudity to be edited for legal reasons. Mr. Millard said di Pace had been offered a payment but had declined it six months ago so the photo will no longer be used. 'If it was causing Juan Pablo distress then there would be little point in using it again,' Mr. Millard said." So the "little point" has become the whole point.

Although I have a difficult time understanding the depth and breadth of Mr. diPace's emotional distress, I have a more difficult time still understanding why the Royal Opera House Covent Garden feels the need to use such sophomoric tactics to sell opera tickets. If they feel the need to display a penis in their advertisements, there are any number of political figures I can readily suggest be used instead.