I am about a month behind the times in commenting on this, but back near the middle-to-end of May, I saw an NPR post about a distressing batch of reviews responding to Tara Erraught’s performance as Octiavian in Der Rosenkavalier at the Glyndenbourne Festival.
As summarized by Anastasia Tsioulcas (from a compilation gathered by Norman Lebrecht on his blog Slipped Disc),
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. . . . Bonus disgrace points to [Rupert] Christiansen [of The Telegraph], 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?
Tsioulcas observes that the lone dissenting voice in this chorus of fat-shaming was a female opera critic; she also does a bit of counterpoint to see if these critics are as likely to mention issues of weight/stature when reviewing the work of male classical singers. (They’re not. In other news: water is wet.)
As tempting as it might be to reduce this controversy to some simplistic formula like “men critics are bad patriarchal meanies while women support each other,” that kind of reductiveness is not entirely what I see going on here. To shift to Maclean’s summary of the point-counterpoint:
Elle magazine accused critics of “fat-shaming” Erraught, who isn’t even particularly heavy by normal standards. It seemed to many like the culmination of at least a decade of unrealistic expectations for opera singers’ looks, especially among women. . . . Alice Coote, a star English mezzo-soprano, blogged on the music news site Slipped Disc to defend Erraught and remind critics that opera is “all about the human voice.” And Elle’s Natalie Matthews wondered “why bring up her weight at all?” finding the issue irrelevant to opera singing.
Others argue that it isn’t irrelevant at all. They fear that the view expressed by Coote and others could bring back the days when singers like Luciano Pavarotti were cast for singing alone, even in parts they were physically unfit for. “I don’t believe opera is all about singing,” says Wayne Gooding, editor of Opera Canada. “It’s all about music theatre. There are many reasons why somebody may not be appropriate for a particular role: wrong kind of voice, or wrong timbre, too old or too young, and yes, wrong look.” [Conrad L.] Osborne adds that “physical appropriateness, within reason, is a perfectly legitimate artistic consideration.”
(Okay, yeah, that passage also lends itself a bit to gender bifurcation, considering that once again the voices defending Erraught are female, and the voices defending body-policing are male. But that wasn’t what I was intending to look at. Move along, nothing to see here…)
Let me hone in on the pieces I wanted to chew over: the emphasis of opera as musical theater, and the tricky territory of artistic vision in creating a stage production of any show. As Anne Midgette summarized last week in the Washington Post*– the column that got me thinking that maybe, weeks later, it still was worth writing about this:
On one side of this debate are those who hold that opera is a musical experience and therefore looks are not as important as sound (witness the success of extremely large singers such as Luciano Pavarotti and Montserrat Caballé). On the other are those who aver that opera is also a theatrical experience and that appearance matters. Guess what. You’re both right. I’ve been at opera performances where the staging was awful but the singing was glorious, and nothing else mattered. I’ve been at opera performances where the production was so compelling that I was willing to overlook so-so singing. These things have to be taken on a case-by-case basis. Any time you make rules about what art “has” to be, you’re doing it wrong.
I do want there to be room for artists and creators and theater companies to be able to communicate a unique vision in their artworks, whether that be a painting, a poem, or a stage production. And it’s an uncomfortable truth that if your artistic creation has any focus to it, then there are likely other viable choices and representations that have been excluded in the creation of a particular emphasis.
Off the top of my head, I can think of three vastly different productions of Macbeth — one I attended, one was directed by a friend of mine, and the third had a friend as a member of the acting company. They all had fascinating “hooks” to them — one a meditation on ethnic violence with stagecraft that alluded to the Serbo-Croatian wars in the 1990s; one an all-female cast that thoughtfully turned the all-male productions of Shakespeare’s day inside-out; and the final one an exploration of the legacy of European colonization and of military dictatorship. Each one of these was a worthwhile lens through which to explore the original text, and there is absolutely no way that all three of those lens could have co-existed in a single production. So maybe it’s perfectly legitimate for a director to prioritize whatever he wants to prioritize in casting a show, whether it’s weighing voice over looks or vice-versa.
There’s a reason I used the gendered pronoun “he” in talking about directors, above. HuffPo: “According to Fandor, women make up a total of five percent — five percent! — of the directors in Hollywood, down from nine percent in 1998.” The Guardian: “Only 24% of directors employed by the theatres during 2011-12 were women. Looking at creative crews as a whole (directors, designers, sound designers, lighting designers and composers) only 23% of the total employed were women.”
To quote Midgette again:
The reason that “Taragate” has blossomed into such a focus of opinion and argument is that it encapsulates current flash points in our society: how we talk about weight and think about weight and how we look at and evaluate women and women’s bodies. . . . [T]here’s also a disingenuous way in which male critics (and the majority of performing-arts critics are still men) protest that it is perfectly relevant to criticize a woman not for what she does, but for how she looks. . . .
I will defend the right of critics to have strong opinions and unpopular opinions and to offer blunt and unflattering descriptions of performers. And I continue to aver that people would be even more upset if critics went away and there were no criticism at all. But it’s naive in a #YesAllWomen world to deny the implicit sexism of the discourse here. And to offer it is less an offense to our womanhood than to our intelligence.
Are there times that the emphasis on physicality can have artistic integrity to it, and if so, when and under what conditions? And when is that emphasis just another vehicle to reinforce patriarchal/misogynist cultural standards?
One of the reasons this all has been so top-of-mind for me is that I am trying to decide whether to audition for a show this upcoming week. It’s been a production/audition cycle that’s been on my radar since I first started thinking about community theater a month ago, and I still haven’t figured out what I’m going to do.
I’ve felt the pain of not receiving a part, knowing (and sometimes even having it acknowledged) that I was a better singer and actor than the woman cast, but also knowing that the woman cast was thinner and prettier than me. And so I wonder whether there’s any chance of goodness stemming from bringing my “overweight” body into the audition hall, or if that’s just such a set-up for judgement and rejection that it’s not even worth engaging in.
I’d better figure this out soon. ‘Cos if I’m going to do it, I need to choose in time to actually make the audition window. And if I choose against auditioning, I want that to be an actual conscious choice, rather than me dithering until the window of opportunity closes on its own and I never actually had to take ownership of my life and choices.
This lady’s still (and forever?) fat. Is she singing? The jury’s out.
* See, they do have some respectable journalists on staff!
Image credit: http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/it-aint-over-until-the-fat-lady-sings.html