In 2014, The Classical World Still Can't Stop Fat-Shaming Women
After a week full of discussions about gender and the newsroom in the U.S., a pile of weekend reviews arrived from London, courtesy of five older male critics writing about an emerging Irish mezzo-soprano named Tara Erraught. Erraught is singing Octavian in the Strauss opera Der Rosenkavalier at the Glyndebourne Festival, which opened Saturday night.
What is stunningly apparent is just how much a woman's body matters onstage — way more, if these five critics are to be believed, than her voice, her technique, her musicality or any other quality. (Hat tip to Norman Lebrecht for compiling these breathtakingly gross comments on his site, Slipped Disc.)
In case you missed them:
Bonus disgrace points to Christiansen, by the way, for going after the other lead in Rosenkavalier for having the temerity to be a working parent: "Kate Royal ... has recently sounded short of her best and stressed by motherhood." Kudos for pinpointing motherhood as the source of Royal's putative shortcomings. She couldn't possibly have been overbooked, or feeling under the weather — couldn't have been any other reason, right?
At this point, you may well be wondering: Were there any dissenters? Was there a single critic in the London pack who didn't mention Erraught's weight — or who perhaps even liked her onstage?
Ahead of full review: Tara Erraught's Octavian is touching, innocent, beautifully sung, beautifully acted #DerRosenkavalier @glyndebourne— Fiona Maddocks (@FionaMaddocks) May 19, 2014
Huh. Can't put my finger on what's different about Maddocks...
Along with the Glyndebourne performances, Erraugh's future dates include a debut at the BBC Proms, performances at the Bayerische Staatsoper, a recital tour of North America and debuts at both the Washington National Opera and the San Francisco Opera.
Of course, double standards exist across all kinds of media and entertainment. And it would be seductively easy to dismiss this as an unfortunate but distant U.K. phenomenon, except for the fact that classical music, pretty much above and beyond every other musical genre, depends on transnational crosscurrents between artists, managers, labels, audiences and critics.
That's one reason these reviews are so dispiriting. I'm sure that certain people will question my own motives, but I find it astounding that across five widely read publications, not a single editor saw fit to go back to the writer and challenge what he had written. Yes, visuals matter — even more now, in the age of live broadcasts — but these critics have seized this as license to forget why anybody shows up at an opera house to begin with.
I also thought it might be instructive to look back through a few weeks' reviews to see how these same critics, writing in these same publications, treated male singers who are less than lean — not to shame those artists, of course, but to see if these critics have been equally awful to men. Let's take a look together, shall we? (I'm leaving Richard Morrison out of this sampling, simply because of the Times' paywall.)
It's somewhat heartening to see some pushback to the Rosenkavalier reviews. The Guardian published an editorial from blogger and "body image activist" Katie Lowe; Lebrecht's site hosted an open letter from English mezzo Alice Coote, in which she points out that Luciano Pavarotti sang leading-man roles for decades despite, I'd add, being visibly far more overweight for his height than Erraught, even to the point of needing assistance from beanbags and bystanders onstage.
The fact that we are having this conversation in 2014 — coming nearly on the back of several staccato outbursts against female conductors last fall — honestly makes me wonder if classical music doesn't deserve its stereotype of being silly, reactionary, outdated and out of step with the contemporary world.
Meanwhile, if you're interested in actually hearing and seeing Erraught in action, here she is at the Richard Tucker Opera Gala in New York in 2012:
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