Culture House Daily

Why is the opera world so damn uptight?

12 June 2014

God, opera singers are touchy. You dare to analyse how they look, you dare to criticise the enormous subsidies they get, you have the temerity to call someone an opera singer who hasn’t been vetted by an opera commissar and they go all Al-Qaeda on you.

Yesterday the Today programme had an interview with Russell Watson, a decent, popular singer whose shtick includes shouty renditions of opera arias. The presenter introduced him as an opera singer and the poncey opera world went ballistic. ‘He’s not an opera singer!’ they bleated, ‘He’s just a singer!’ Note that twatty ‘just’?

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No art form that was confidant about what it does would ever feel the need to puff up their chests like this. No art form would need to throw their toys out of the pram over something so slight. No other art form has such a chippy, proprietorial claim over certain words. Someone needs to explain to opera that the 20th century happened. You can no longer keep hold of definitions you feel to be sacred like they’re your teddies.

If the BBC wants to call Russell Watson an opera singer, they should be able to do that and not be forced to offer a grovelling apology. If the BBC wants to call Ken Dodd a performance artist, they can do that. Marina Abramovic won’t mind. Lots of people call Miranda Hart a comedian. I don’t demand a public apology. I laugh.

It’s part of a broader problem of operatic exceptionalism. Fat-gate was part of this. How dare opera singers tell us that, alone of all performers in any theatrical art form, the way they look should be off limits? How dare they police what we say about them? What, they think their job is less deserving of the kind of critical censure that pop and film gets regularly because opera singing is more difficult and, therefore, more virtuous? Seriously?

Of course, as with all exceptionalism, it arises from profound self-doubt and self-loathing and terror at the fact that – in its sclerotic, 19th-century form – it’s clearly an art form that is on its last legs. But please, opera people, get a room. It’s embarrassing watching someone have a nervous breakdown in public. See a therapist, have a holiday, leave us out of it.

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Show comments
  • Kathleen Berger

    Ahem. You’re aware it’s spelled “confident,” and that a “confidant” is something entirely different, right?

    Also, you’re a ridiculous idiot. :) Happy New Year to you too.

  • Eliiiiise

    Opera singers don’t use microphones, period. He does, he’s no opera singer. So simple even you should understand.

  • balance_and_reason

    Bugger off Igor…your points are nonsense as well.

  • balance_and_reason

    Why because it is (truly) driven by a combination of its stars, a bunch of prima donna’s and management by a cabal of queens consisting of rich menopausal women and super effete homosexual’s….recipe for total foul up on a regular basis…..and very occasionally something wonderful.

  • mamajeanna

    Mary-Jean O’Doherty is the 1st Prize Winner (Female) PARIS OPERA WARDS 2013. The jury composed of: Sherrill Milnes, Martina Arroyo and Daniel Lipton.
    Mary-Jean studied in Cardiff at the “Cardiff International Academy of Voice” under Dennis O’Neill CBE.
    Opera singers are athletes and Mary-Jean has 10 years of dance training, including classical ballet.

  • GeeBee36_6

    Well I cancelled my subscription to the Spectator two weeks ago 9i subscribed for over twenty years), for precisely the reason that it has imported ‘edgy’ (i.e. dull, vulgar and most importantly talentless writers) such as this jerk.

    Keep on insulting your core, loyal supporters among intelligent, discerning and civilised people Speccie, and you won’t for much longer be ‘the oldest magazine in continuous circulation’

    Igor whatever is yet another chippy, talentless, know-nothing tick, and I’m done with ‘contributions’ by his like.

    • shanganagh

      I have subscribed to the Spectator for half that time but have yet to see the name of ‘this jerk’ in the publication. But then I’ve been an opera goer for much longer and have never even heard of Russell Watson . . . .

  • Helen Miles

    and his sound engineers use autotune to give the impression he’s singing in tune when he’s not! He’s a fake. All his music is in lower keys – which may sound impressive but he’s always cheating.

    • The Masked Marvel

      Lots of opera stars have their arias transposed down. It’s quite common and has been happening for centuries.

  • Benny Stiebel
  • tubamirum

    Oh dear Igor, perhaps it’s you that needs to find a darkened room and calm down a bit! Russell Watson is not an opera singer, which I define as someone who appears in a dramatically sung role in a piece of music theatre as a character quite separate from their own selves. That’s not what Russell does is it?
    Your final paragraph was also the most egregious bollocks I’ve read in a long time. To pass off the works of Rossini, Verdi, Wagner, Berlioz et al as sclerotic and on its last legs makes me wonder whether you really have any bloody clue at all!
    Opera singers in fact are the most critically censured of all performers. Every performance they give is open to review either in the printed media or on the Web. And, sure, pop and film actors get plenty of opprobrium aimed in their direction. But quite a few of them over the years have been pretty fat and ugly too….
    It’s facile to think it boils down to whether singing opera may or may not be more difficult and thus more virtuous. What it certainly can be is more virtuosic, in the unique way a performer has to combine their musical, vocal and dramatic talents to produce a rounded, balanced and believable characterisation.

    • mightymark

      “Opera singers in fact are the most critically censured of all performers. ”

      Worth adding perhap that the fact that they are singing roles that have been sung before and will be again many times, means they are directly comparable with past “greats” – and perhaps, the known potential for future ones – adding to the critical pressure. Only classical actors might be under this pressure, though, in fact it doesn’t seem to be as great perhaps because recordings of their work are not as readily available as in the case of opera.

      • The Masked Marvel

        Instrumentalists and conductors are under similar pressure of comparison to past or contemporary performers of the same repertoire. Some also get criticized for their attire, or physical gestures. It’s not on the level of that faced by opera singers, of course. Opera has its own unique version of star worship and animosity, with a long history.

  • The Masked Marvel

    This is a rant against the opera crowd, not a defence of Russell Watson. The thing is, he isn’t an opera singer, is he? He doesn’t perform in operas, doesn’t perform the music according to the intended style, isn’t involved in the opera world or art form at all. He’s a singer who does a few numbers from operas, in a popular style. One may quibble about cultural value judgment and placement in a subjective hierarchy, but the author goes far beyond that.

    Would you call Liberace a Classical music concert pianist because he threw in bits of famous repertoire? Would the author be equally outraged at the jazz world for not wanting to refer to Yo Yo Ma or Jean Pierre Rampal as jazz musicians simply because they performed the music of Claude Bolling? Yngwie Malmsteen wrote a whole concerto for electric guitar and orchestra, and is wont to perform Flight of the Bumblebee. Will the Today Programme be introducing him as a Classical guitarist any time soon?

    There’s certainly nothing snobbish or poncy or insecure or exceptionalist (so many pejoratives, eh?) about any of that. If Watson and others like him brought new hordes to fill opera houses, then perhaps the author might have a tiny point about it being wrong for the opera crowd not to want him to help their allegedly dying art form. But that’s not the reality, is it? Baz Lurhmann did better with his Broadway-style La Bohème. Instead, the reality is that opera is reaching more people than ever before thanks to the internet and people paying good money to watch live simulcasts in movie theatres. On its last legs? Not likely.

    A low point for the Spectator. This kind of cultural relativism is baseless, and out of line. The bit about the opera people claiming to be “less deserving of the kind of critical censure that pop and film gets regularly” was not only gratuitous, but seems to be something the author made up out of whole cloth just to demonize his subject even more. No wonder you’re looking for a new arts editor.

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