The looks debate

22 May

Being of the fuller figure myself, I hesitate to enter the debate sparked by recent reviewers of the Glyndebourne Rosenkaverlier and their comments on Tara Erraught’s Oktavian.  I’m going to see it on 12th June and will be better placed to comment then.  For readers who have not been following the controversy, there has been universal praise for Ms Erraught’s singing but visually, apparently, she does not conform to most people’s conceptions of the role – a number have commented that she is more Just William, or even Billy Bunter, than Sir Lancelot.

What has been interesting is that singers have been fighting back – see, for example,Alice Coote at Norman Lebrecht echoes her and demands a public apology from the critics.  Those of us who have read his comments on the looks of a number of individuals in Covent Garden: The Untold Story  (Lilian Baylis is “Stout, bespectacled, thick lipped and almost execrably ugly”) may diagnose a strong case of pots and kettles.

The essence of the argument has been that what is really important is the voice and the way people sing rather than their looks and that, in some way, critics should ignore physical appearance for fear of offending the singer.

I don’t condone offensive remarks.  Equally, I suspect that critics may well have been giving voice to what was going through the minds of a number of people in the audience and I think that it is wrong to ignore this.

The fact is that opera is about the only art form where the tension between looks and voice arises.  When was the last time there was a Juliet or Romeo who caused critics to remark on their size or physical unsuitability for the role?  That has nothing to do with theatre critics being politically correct or politer and everything to do with the fact that casting directors can pick and choose on looks.  Indeed, I seem to remember that when Simon Russell Beale did Ariel the comments were that he managed to be convincing despite a less-than-classically Ariel-like figure.

Opera asks for a massive suspension of disbelief for audiences.  We have to accept that people sing rather than speak and we have to accept that singers will take roles which, ideally, would call for people significantly younger or more conventionally attractive than they are.  And I don’t think that we would be human if we weren’t aware of this.  It has also been an occupational hazard for singers to receive comments on their physique.  This applies to men as well as women: I’m guilty of finding Joseph Calleja a rather comfortably proportioned Faust (and I’m not the only one) and Pavarotti and Sutherland both had to cope with this (it’s a danger that must apply to any averagely proportioned Mimi or Violetta), let alone Rita Hunter and Deborah Voight.  It does require some artistry to get over that: I never saw the mature Pavarotti, Bergonzi or Gedda as Nemorino but I remember Mirella Freni convincing me that she was teenage Tatyana and, when Anja Silja did Emilia Marty at Glyndebourne, I felt that she could go on as Juliet whenever she chose, but these were exceptional performances.

Also, it’s a regrettable fact that, if you put yourself up onstage as someone whom it is right for people to pay large sums of money to hear, then you cannot censor their thoughts.  It is all very well for Alice Coote to demand that critics be kind to singers and, like all of us, of course they are human, but critics do nobody any favours if they gloss over the duff performances that singers can put in.  And I think that they are entitled to comment on how convincing a figure that singer presented.  This doesn’t mean that the singer has to be classically beautiful or to meet the conventional demands of the role, but the singer does have to convince you that they are right for the role.  And a critic does nobody a service if he or she ignores what may well be going through the minds of fellow members of the audience.

I’ll be better placed to comment when I see it, but I suspect that Dame Kiri te Kanawa got it right on the Today programme when she suggested that the real problem was with the costuming and the direction rather than with the singer’s figure – men and women come in all shapes and sizes.  Maybe the criticism ought to been more forcibly placed in that direction.




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