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Expecting opera critics to be uniformly kind to singers defeats the point of their existence

23 May 2014

Should fat be an issue in opera? Are our opera critics overgrown schoolboys with a body fixation? To judge from reports and editorials in print and online over the last two days, you can answer ‘no’ and ‘yes’ respectively. Simple? No, not really.

On Monday morning, the critics of various national newspapers published reviews of Glyndebourne’s new production of Der Rosenkavalier. These reviews included comments about the physical appearance of Tara Erraught, the young mezzo-soprano cast as Octavian. These comments have been widely disparaged and taken as evidence of ‘body shaming’ on the part of ‘male, middle-aged critics’.

My first inkling of this debate came when many of my Facebook friends (mostly the opera singers) recommended an open letter by Alice Coote (on Norman Lebrecht’s Slipped Disc website) in which she asked those critics to pay attention to a singer’s voice rather than her appearance. The Guardian published a similar article by Jennifer Johnston, Lebrecht weighed in with an editorial, and the Guardian again produced a piece by Katie Lowe (a ‘blogger and body image activist’) who, by her own admission, doesn’t know much about opera, but is writing a book on body image and presumably saw a useful opportunity. Oh yes, and then one of those critics decided to defend his position.

So why am I joining in? Because, unlike Coote, Lebrecht, Johnston or Lowe, I was at the performance at Glyndebourne on Saturday, and I think that they have distorted the point. Further, I am worried by the way in which comments that were about a specific performance in a specific place have been shoehorned and magnified into a wider debate by people who were not at the performance and have made generalised assumptions about the motivations and beliefs of the male and middle-aged.

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So, why would five critics independently decide to write about the physical appearance of one singer? Some context might help. Octavian is a trouser role, one in which a female singer is asked to impersonate a boy. Such roles are a traditional part of comic opera (think Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro), but Octavian brings special challenges. We have to believe that an older, married, aristocratic woman with a reputation to lose (the Marschallin) is sufficiently infatuated with a seventeen-year-old boy (Octavian) to risk that reputation. For me, the fact that Kate Royal (the Marschallin) was head and shoulders taller than Erraught, and that Erraught, for all the loveliness of her singing, didn’t look very boyish, made it harder to believe in that relationship (which, in the end, also made it harder to believe and wallow in the heart-breaking music of the final trio).

Were these simply unjust preconceptions about body shape and human relationships? Possibly. Should I have set aside the issue and focussed on the singing? I tried. But I was not the only person to perceive an incongruity. People in my party commented on the physical mismatch between the two characters. I also overheard other people (male and female) discussing it, while I am informed that it was a hot topic of discussion in the ladies’ lavatories. So if this is patriarchal body fascism, some of the patriarchs are, unsurprisingly, matriarchs, and many of them are not newspaper critics.

There are three important questions raised by the furore of this week. The first is, as Lebrecht suggests, to do with the language of criticism. Critics should no doubt think twice before using words like ‘unsightly’, ‘dumpy’ and ‘chubby’ to describe a living human being. Yet expecting critics to be uniformly kind to singers is a little like asking Nigel Farage to advertise British jobs in Romania – it defeats the point of their existence. The critics of critics, meanwhile, should do more than simply pick out the rudest-sounding words in reviews and repeat them all over the web. The reviews themselves provide contexts that provide a better understanding of the critics’ positions than do these isolated quotations.

The second point is to do with the physicality of opera. While Alice Coote would like us to focus solely on the voice, it is difficult to see how this is possible in an art form that includes so many aspects of the physical (not just the body, but also the staging, costume and overall production), and in which the desires of audiences matter as much as those of singers. While I can imagine someone casting a 70-year-old woman as Carmen or Susanna, or a young man as Don Giovanni or Gurnemanz, they would have to have remarkably strong dramatic reasons for doing so. This doesn’t mean that there cannot be flexibility. The finest Octavian that I have seen in recent years is Sarah Connolly, who, as a CBE, is no longer an up-and-coming mezzo-soprano of a similar age to the character that she portrays.

The third point, though, is to do with the nature of debate on the internet. Whatever the failings of the critics, I do not believe that they were trying to impose some kind of idealised/fantasised female body shape – something that happens in pop videos, but which many people in the classical music world, critics included, justifiably try to resist. Yet context is needed to realise this, and context is remarkably lacking from the web. If articles are written by people on the back of online opinion pieces, and those opinion pieces are composed by people who are far removed from the original story, and if everyone involved in the world’s social media then adds their own opinion to the opinions that already exist about other people’s opinions, all we have gained is a collection of selective quotations, ad hominem attacks and poorly contextualised arguments.

As a university lecturer, I spend much of my time trying (and failing) to persuade my students to approach internet sources with caution, and this example helps to explain why. Somewhere down the line, perhaps a student will present Katie Lowe’s article as proof that classical music critics simply perpetuate the ‘old-fashioned, narrow-minded ideal of the room women should inhabit’. If so, I suppose that I shall sigh and mutter something about context, but the student will probably be too busy checking Facebook to listen.

Benjamin Wolf is lecturer in music at Regent’s University, London, and a practising performer and composer

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Show comments
  • Robert Davis

    The best point I’ve heard made by anyone in this discussion is that this opera is actually about the irrationality of attraction. Why does the Marschallin find herself attracted to Octavian? Why, indeed Sophie, but that is another question. Love is irrational and capricious: that is the overriding message of this piece. And the audience’s empathy is not required.

    The second best point I’ve heard made too little is about Kate Royal. This is a miscasting. There is surely no reason to add the wanton scopophilia of having her apparently naked in a glitter shower at the outset. And can there be such a thing as looking too young and statuesque for a part?

    The sheer revelry in the stating of the need for stunning looks (Quentin Letts, take the prize) and how it was stated is the thing. The point that young Ms Erraught may not have looked convincing in the part is a fair response and with sufficient caveats about expressing that opinion, fine.

    Why does the Marschallin do as she does? Have you seen Baron Ochs? It is about life and the need for living, about youth and the extraordinary allure of its vitality, about a fading woman wanting to break the bounds of her gilded cage.

    And that is why you might see one miscasting but I see three: surely the Ochs, too, was too young?

  • BJW1

    Since I wrote this, perhaps I should respond to the comments. I didn’t say that the fact that several people noticed something means that sexism doesn’t exist (obviously it does). However, several people in the past week have pointed out that there was a female critic who did not comment on physical appearance, but there were male critics who did. I just wanted to point out that negative comments were not limited to men, and nor were they limited to critics. More generally, it seems overly simplistic just to call this ‘sexism’. The question is whether it is ever legitimate, in a situation in which a woman is playing a male character, to consider her physical appearance an important element in our evaluation of whether she plays the part convincingly. If the answer is yes, then you can’t claim that comments on appearance are simply ‘sexist’. If the answer is no, then you logically end up disallowing any comments on the appropriateness of the physique of actors or singers for a particular role (can people be too old for a part, or the wrong height? Would it be ageist or heightist to suggest it? Could you, or should you, cast Dame Judi Dench as Juliet…?).

    I agree about Cherubino, though.

    • Robert Davis

      So we are narrowing the discussion to the provenance of such comments? I have seen people of ‘the wrong’ age or physique play characters wonderfully and challenge preconceptions – take the hmm, somewhat small and not exactly dynamo-esque Anthony Sher’s terrific portrayal of Cyrano de Bergerac, for instance.

      It is fair enough for designers, casting directors or directors themselves to challenge an audience and ask, “Is this pushing your credibility too far?” – I mean, not when it’s totally anomalous from convention but at least somewhere around the bounds.

      I’ll also risk queering the pitch on Cherubino: the portrayal I couldn’t accept would be lethargic and plodding. If I saw a performance full of nervous energy from an actress of somewhat unexpected physique, might I accept it? Maybe. Does that betoken a bedroom athlete? Not squarely. Someone who might like to have a go at seeing whether or not they were – that’s a different matter.

  • Liz

    “But I was not the only person to perceive an incongruity. People in my party commented on the physical mismatch between the two characters. I also overheard other people (male and female) discussing it”

    What – lots of people in your party are fixated on women’s bodies? You overheard other people (male and female) being sexist too? My god, this is proof sexism doesn’t exist!

    • transponder

      The author is saying that the singer in this case didn’t quite convince as the boy she was playing. That ain’t sexism, darlin’, it’s being in the audience.

  • Elliott Sirkin

    Cherubino really is one role where the singer’s physical charms are mandatory: the whole point of the character is that he is a bedroom athlete. As far as singers and theirweight is concerned, the stout American Wagnerian Helen Traubel put it best when she said it’s not so much what the singer weighs as how she carries it.
    Alice Coote is just ignoring realty when she says the voice in opera is all: with the advent of televised opera and opera in High Def in heaters, that is just no longer the case. Period.

    • transponder

      ‘Bedroom athlete’: what a depressing term. Signifies: limited brain, rather little soul, and a talent for pleasing himself. Whether he pleases others or not is never the bedroom athlete’s real interest. No wonder I turned him down.

  • rtj1211

    Opera critics are like courtiers in the Royal Household.

    Sycophantic and gushing to those in power, dismissive, contemptuous and brutal to those not.

    It was ever thus……

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