Opera singer ridiculed by ‘sexist’ critics

Taking Cover: Tara Erraught, left, whose casting has come under fire from critics © PA

Der Rosenkavalier is meant to be a comedy, but harsh comments about a ‘dumpy’ performer have generated fury. When did opera critics start caring less about voices and more about looks?

Octavian, a sprightly young nobleman, played by a woman, lies in bed with a married middle-aged princess when in walks a servant with breakfast. The young lover hides behind a curtain, and as one thing leads to another, ends up disguising himself as his sister. As the opera goes on, this female singer, playing a man, pretending to be a woman, gets into a series of comically ludicrous scrapes.

So begins Richard Strauss’s comic opera Der Rosenkavalier. However a new production at the Glyndebourne Festival in Sussex has not left everyone laughing. Various newspaper critics have torn into Tara Erraught, the female singer playing Octavian, for being too ‘stocky’ to play a dashing young aristocrat. Others called her a ‘chubby bundle of puppy-fat’ who is ‘unbelievable, unsightly and unappealing.’

This has encouraged a chorus of condemnation across the opera world. A leading singer responds that looks have nothing to do with singing and the critics show that ‘clearly overt sexism is still rife’, with another expressing her deep disappointment that the reviews are so shallow. ‘The classical world can’t stop fat-shaming people,’ lamented another.

Opera singers have often been large and opera’s most celebrated icon, Pavarotti, was as famous for his physical bulk as he was for his voice. And as the well-known expression says, a show is ‘not over until the fat lady sings.’ Some experts believe that singers need a certain physical bulk to support their powerful voices.

But in recent times operas have become increasingly visual, and some say this has created new demands on the physical appearance of singers. Danielle de Niese is one new star who has said she wants to change opera’s large stereotype. A critic of Erraught’s in the Telegraph says that while opera is 75% singing, an important 25% is appearance, and in this regard, Erraught was badly cast as Octavian.

Yet many say focusing on her looks is totally inappropriate and they are angry that critics could not simply appreciate Erraught for her voice.

Big song and dance

Some of Erraught’s critics continue to defend their opinions. One notes that Octavian is meant to be a tall young man and that ‘fat and thin can be equally beautiful, but one has to make an audience believe.' While the critics’ words were harsh, they simply meant that Erraught did not convince in the part she was playing.

Others completely disagree and say that music is the prime consideration in opera, so Erraught’s size is irrelevant. One study found 87% of girls aged 11-21 already feel women are judged more on appearance than ability. These critics are unlikely to make similar remarks about an overweight man on stage.

You Decide

  1. Were the comments of Erraught’s critics inappropriate?
  2. ‘We will never be able to truly eradicate sexism from society’. Do you agree?

Activities

  1. Form two teams and debate the proposition: ‘Britain in the 21st century is still a deeply sexist place.’
  2. Using the links in ‘Become an expert’, research the history of opera. What are the major changes in its history?

Some People Say...

“We have lost the ability to judge an artist by their talent. Nowadays, looks are everything.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I’ve never even been to an opera. Why should I care?
Even if you find opera inaccessible, the main issue is the debate over whether the opera’s critics were right to focus on appearance. It has implications beyond opera. Susan Boyle, for example, became a popular singer because of her incredible voice, but when she first appeared on a TV talent show, she was mocked for her looks. Most people would say this is wrong.
Why is Tara Erraught playing a man’s part?
Many famous operas, particularly in the 18th century, have male parts which can be played by women, as well as men with a high vocal range. When played by women they are known as ‘breeches’ roles. Richard Strauss adored female soprano voices and in Der Rosenkavalier wrote three brilliant parts for them.

Word Watch

Pavarotti
Luciano Pavarotti became one of the most successful tenors of all time over a 45-year career. At his death in 2007, Pavarotti’s estate was valued at over $475m.
Sings
The phrase in full — ‘the opera ain’t over till the fat lady sings’ — means that one should not assume something is certain before it has actually finished.
Voices
Singer Dame Kiri te Kanawa warns that young opera singers today feel pressurised to care more about their looks than their voices. She says singers ‘must have a bit of beef’ in order to help support their diaphragms.
Visual
From 2006, New York’s Metropolitan Opera House started broadcasting HD quality streams on the internet of its performances. Many other opera houses have followed, which has widened its access.
Large
de Niese thinks the image that everyone in opera is fat is sad. She says she wants the ‘young, cool faces’ of opera to fight the stereotype until ‘people like me’ become ‘synonymous with classical music.’

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.