Prominent singers come out in support of colleague attacked for stature rather than voice.
The opera community is up in arms after five senior critics made adverse comments about Irish mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught playing Octavian in the new Glyndebourne production of Der Rosenkavalier.
The personal remarks ranged from Rupert Christiansen in The Telegraph who labelled her “dumpy of stature” with an “intractable physique” to The Guardian’s Andrew Clements who described her as “stocky” and “miscast”. In one particularly blunt comment, Richard Morrison in The Times branded her “unbelievable, unsightly and unappealing”.
Many on social media were quick to leap to Erraught’s defence, and the fact that all five critics are middle-aged men has not gone unobserved. Meanwhile, three prominent singers have published scathing critiques of the opera media’s willingness to pander to what they see as modern society’s obsession with body image.
Writing in The Guardian, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnston asks: “How, then, have we arrived at a point where opera is no longer about singing but about the physiques and looks of the singers, specifically the female singers?”
Johnston also takes exception to the fact that “barely any mention of her voice, a gloriously rounded and well produced instrument, was made, and there was little comment on her musicianship, dramatic commitment or her ability to communicate to an audience and to move that audience to tears,” concluding that “If there is a line over which classical music and opera critics should not step, then it is into the realms of a singers’ personal appearance, an issue which is outwith their remit.”
Soprano and noted blogger Elizabeth Meister meanwhile tells critics: “I work in an industry that celebrates the most natural thing a person can possess: the human voice… If it’s the case that you simply don’t like the sound we make, just say you don’t like the sound we make. That’s entirely valid. But don’t make sexist and puerile remarks about our figures; at best, it’s childish, and at worst (for you), it dilutes the currency of everything else you have to say.”
Mezzo Alice Coote writing for Slipped Disc is adamant that audiences “are not moved by seeing a conventionally beautiful or attractive person walking around in a lovely or impressive costume or lights or environ… Opera is NOT about that.. It is about and really ONLY about communication through great singing.”
She goes on to draw attention to some hard physiological facts: “Singers and teachers know that being underweight is far more damaging to a singer’s wellbeing and performance than being overweight… I know from my own journey that I began to sing with far more physical authority when I got beyond a certain physical weight. Below that I just wasn’t a strong enough vehicle to launch sound from freely into large theatres and concert halls.”
Finally, she concludes with a plea to critics: “Be kind to young singers – you may change the trajectory of their lives and career if you wound them with your words. Be kind to middle aged singers. Be kind to old singers. Be kind to all singers. But above all… If you hear a singer with a great voice listen. Look too. But above all LISTEN. Without us it’s OVER. PLEASE SAVE THE HUMAN VOICE.”
Norman Lebrecht, writing for Slipped Disc, takes the critics to task saying: “The role of opera critic, ill-paid and under-appreciated, is to inform and educate the reading public. Some do so faithfully, some magnificently. But when a critic, or a pack of critics, expresses an unpleasant prejudice – whether on race, sex or appearance – that is an offence for which they and their newspapers must answer. A public apology to the young singer is the least they can offer.”
None of the five critics has responded so far.