The opera community is in what I assume is a very in-tune uproar after critics responded to one mezzo-soprano's performance with tacky, tacky cracks about her weight.
Irish singer Tara Erraught debuted as Octavian in Johann Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier at the Glyndebourne Festival on Saturday Night, according to NPR. But critics soured on her performance. The problem isn't that she's an unskilled singer; it's that she's not thin enough.
Slipped Disc has a depressing rundown of all the dude abuse hurled Erraught's way from the likes of Michael Church at the Independent dog whistles his critique of Erraught's looks, lamenting what he calls "perversely distort[ing]" casting of the "dumpy" woman, despite the fact that he later admits that Erraught's singing "successfully ris[es] to the challenge." Richard Morrison at the Times calls her "unsightly and unappealing." Andrew Clark in the FT calls her a "chubby bundle of puppy-fat" who sings "gloriously."
Thankfully, others in the opera community are circling the wagons around Erraught because, honestly, who the hell cares if the best singer for a role doesn't give middle aged opera critics a boner?
Since the first round of stupid, point-missing criticism hit, backlash has been swift. Over at The Guardian, Katie Lowe points out that Erraught's body is actually perfect for the sexy role she's supposed to be depicting, since during Strauss's time, heavier women were viewed as sensual rather than obscene.
But the best response came from formidable opera singer Alice Coote, who responded with a powerful open letter to people who confuse the purpose of opera — singing beautiful enough to move an audience emotionally — with the purpose of art that's meant to be sexually arousing. In fact, for many singers, being too thin causes the quality of singing to deteriorate. The whole thing is worth a read, but here's the best bit:
Singers and teachers know that being underweight is far more damaging to a singer's wellbeing and performance than being overweight. Similarly I can tell you that if our stomachs are toned anywhere near a six-pack our sound will suffer. The relaxation needed for low breathing is not aided in any sense by an over worked out body. 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.
If young singers are pressurised into accepting a bigger emphasis on physical shape over sound and this becomes any more pressured onto them than it already is today.. then we are robbing ourselves of the great singers of the future. We are robbing ourselves of the singers that will hit our solar plexus. And we are robbing our entire human culture of the HUMAN VOICE. The Olympic Great Human Voice. And you may as well hammer that nail into the coffin of Opera right now. And not carry on with the sham of loving it.
Critics.. I beg you.
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.
In other words, if you don't have anything to say about the singing, then shut the fuck up.
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