May 23, 2014

Weighing in on opera singers' weight

Tara Erraught
Mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught's appearance as Octavian in the Glyndebourne Opera's Der Rosenkavalier has brought about a tsunami of Internet discussion thanks to a batch of caustic reviews from a handful of opera critics in the London dailies. This post is basically one more drop of water added to the tidal wave. It's unlikely to change anyone's point of view, but hey - I'm a blogger. You didn't think I'd opt out, did you?

In case this is the first you've heard of this issue, here's a thumbnail summary. Tara Erraught is a gifted young Irish artist whose first career break came when she was signed to a contract with the Bavarian State Opera. Audiences in my neck of the woods will have a chance to hear her in person when she comes to the Washington National Opera to sing the title role in Rossini's La Cenerentola next season. The consensus is that she sings beautifully and has a talent for acting as well.

Those critics I mentioned were generally in agreement about her singing and acting; it was another facet of the performance on which they attacked her like a swarm of nasty hornets.

They didn't like her physical appearance.

While none of them used the term "obese" (which would not have been accurate in any case), they still managed to convey their repulsion in shockingly barbed descriptions: "Unbelievable, unsightly and unappealing", sniped the Times; "a chubby bundle of puppy-fat", sneered the Financial Times. Another critic wondered if the artist might be recovering from childbirth. Still another called her "dumpy".

The tsunamic reaction has been instantaneous and outraged. The distinguished mezzo Alice Coote published an open letter to opera critics in which she pleaded for the focus of opera commentators to settle on actual singing over any visual aspect of the art, including body types. Facebook, Twitter, and too many blogs to mention (of course THIS blog should ALWAYS be mentioned, granted,) have bewailed the condescension of the London critics, speculated on their physical appearance and generally vilified them.

What says Dr. Opera? I'll be brief, but I do have a take to add to the burgeoning mass of reactions.
Margarethe Arndt-Ober, the first Octavian.
Not what you'd call a "hard-body".

Pardon me, but I don't see why common sense can't apply here. I don't see anything complicated about the issue of an opera singer's physical appearance.

It's about balance. On the one hand, if one feels an artist has been miscast in their role - for any reason, it's fair to take note in one's review. On the other hand, there's never a need to be insulting and offensive about it. Critics who go out of their way to be snarky and cruel in finding fault and then say they are "just being honest" as claimed by critic Quentin Letts are falling back on facile rationalization. Cruelty at the expense of professionals doing their best is never justified.

While I can't argue with anything Ms. Coote says about the voice being the most important element in opera and the secret to its enduring appeal, it's also true that opera is not a concert.

It's theater. Is it a form of theater in which the action often defies any standard of logic or realism? Yes. Do mortally wounded people sing robustly for twenty minutes? Yep. Do exchanges of clothing constitute fool-proof disguises? Well, yeah. So what? Opera creates its own version of stylized "reality" and it IS theater.

This has always been the case, but in the last 40 years the visual aspect of "opera-as-theater" has gained more significance with the advent of videos, DVD sales, YouTube, and live transmissions into movie theaters. Accompanying this phenomenon has been the related phenomenon of the rise of the Stage Director in power and influence.

In the "olden days" when figures like Toscanini, von Karajan, Beecham and their baton-waving brethren ruled the opera world, the Conductor was Emperor; his priorities became the management's priorities. Stage Directors were glorified hired hands; service providers, if you will.  But in recent years Stage Directors have been imported from Broadway and Hollywood, applying the values of those genres to the art of music drama. It should surprise no one that, in this climate (which isn't going away anytime soon), we won't often see a matronly middle-aged Italian diva portraying Puccini's delicate fifteen-year-old geisha girl.

In those "olden days", 95% of opera-lovers experienced the art form via radio and recordings. So it didn't matter what the artists looked like. Speaking personally, I still count physical appearance dead last in my own concerns about casting, but face it: the "olden days" are not coming back.

I part ways with Ms. Coote when she comes close to suggesting that sets, costumes, and other visual elements are sort of irrelevant to the appreciation of opera. Again: this is theater. And the fact is that the reason Jonas Kaufmann is at the top of the heap among today's tenors is his happy combination of a thrilling voice with matinee-idol good looks. It's really cool when Siegmund looks like a demi-god and not uncomortably otherwise. But to begrudge Lauritz Melchior because, visually, he was no Kaufmann is indeed to miss the point of what provides most of the greatness of opera and always will.

The pathetic thing about this Rosenkavalier is that I've seen the production photos of Ms. Erraught as Octavian and there's really nothing to complain about there. Put any woman in proper wig, makeup and costume and she can easily be accepted as a man. Where does it say Octavian must resemble George Clooney, for God's sake? Holy crap, should Birgit Nilsson not have sung Salome, one of her signature roles? And how is it that a generation of opera fans embraced Pavarotti as a romantic leading man? He made Erraught's Octavian look positively athletic.

Speaking of athleticism, this is another point: opera singers are not just "actors"; in a real sense, they are athletes. Singing is an athletic activity. The blissfully ignorant public is generally unaware of the enormous physical strength and stamina required to sing a demanding principal role in a full-length opera. Are you of the opinion that only svelte figures can be fit and strong? Nonsense. There are some gigantic men playing on the offensive line on NFL teams who are "fat" by Hollywood standards but of Herculean strength, stamina and quickness. The great mezzo Marilyn Horne once defended her body-size by comparing it to space travel, saying "it takes a big booster rocket (i.e. physique) to get those space capsules (i.e. voice) into orbit." Very true. It's generally agreed that when Maria Callas slimmed down, her singing suffered.

But back to Pavarotti. To the London critics: at the end of his career, Pavarotti was a semi-crippled, unweildy cement block of a man who was mostly stationary onstage. So why was he cast in leading-man roles like Cavaradossi in Tosca? BECAUSE HE SOLD OUT THE HOUSE, YOU IDIOTS! Opera has enough troubles making ends meet as it is in our culture of "Amerian Idol" and "The Voice". Box-office appeal is not limited to those performers who don't bring out your caustic, snarky side.

Got it? To review: you can mention whether a performer looks the part they've been cast in, but you can't be a JERK ABOUT IT, OKAY??? It's the Golden Rule, people. Don't be cruel and then say, with wide innocent eyes, "I was just being honest".

And if the REAL reason you use your wit to attack people personally is that you sense your readers are amused by it, how about being honest about THAT? Don't worry, your papers won't fire you.

The truth is, they love it. It sells papers.

In conclusion, this whole tzimmes reminds me of how the musicologist and composer Walter Kaufmann described music critics: "goddamn dropouts".

For those Faithful Readers residing in my corner of the world: Tara Erraught will appear in the title role of Rossini's Cenerentola on May 11, 15 and 17 in the Washington National Opera production at the Kennedy Center. For information, go to this link.

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