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Body shaming in opera: At what point is enough, enough?

Features - Classical Music | Opera

Body shaming in opera: At what point is enough, enough?

by Sarah Ann Walker on May 20, 2014 (May 20, 2014) filed under Classical Music | Opera | Comment Now
An open letter from Harbour City Opera's Artistic Director, soprano Sarah Anne Walker.

Imagine for a moment that you’re walking down the street. Suddenly, you hear the most glorious music and the sound of singing coming from a house you’re about to walk past. You stand there listening and basking in this beautiful sound. Perhaps this voice, and music, sends you within yourself allowing visions and memories to arise. Eventually, a single tear rolls down your cheek as you submerse yourself in the moment.

As you peer in to see where the singing is coming from, you get a glimpse of the singer – a large woman. She isn’t what you thought she’d look like. She is nowhere near the ideal weight that society expects her to be. Has what you experienced just become less intense because she isn’t what you expected to see? Has the moment that she touched your soul been erased because she wasn’t a size 8?

There has been so much discussion over the last 24 hours about the reviews that rather blatantly pulled a talented young mezzo apart because of her body shape. My heart breaks for Tara Erraught as she is now forced to deal with an issue that has gone internationally viral, yet she must still get up on that stage and perform.

I’ve been reading comments on both sides of the fence from people who advocate on behalf of the critics and those who are against them. It’s hard to argue against people who are determined that the physicality of a singer is the most important factor, so I offer up this statement:

People who dance are called dancers

People who have photos taken in designer clothes are called models

People who paint are called painters

People who sell things are called sales consultants.

And, people who sing are called... models?

We have people in our industry constantly talking about the survival of opera, asking questions such as “How can we make it relevant and attract a younger demographic?” It’s a very valid question, but I fear that we are going down the wrong path by insisting that the way to do this is by having all opera singers conform to today’s body shape standards.

Firstly, I feel this is incredibly unrealistic. Secondly, if this is the road the industry is going to take, we are potentially missing out on some of the greatest voices the world will ever hear. Whether the opera performer comes in a package that is too thin or too short, too tall or too fat – place a phenomenal singer on centre stage and let the opera tell its own story. That is how we will get people interested in this wonderful and enduring art form. Not by losing the essence of what opera is, and has been.

We must preserve the art form. That’s what opera is all about: History. Preservation. Talent. It’s about enthralling our audiences with stories, not forcing our audience to merely appreciate good looks. The industry owes it to Opera. Enough is enough.

Sarah Ann Walker is Artistic Director of Sydney’s Harbour City Opera.

Readers can visit www.harbourcityopera.com.au to view a schedule of upcoming performances.