Snarky Opera Critics Spark Furor Over Fat Lady Singing

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Here's just a few of the remarks the British press - all male -- aimed at Irish opera singer Tara Erraught after her debut as "Octavian" in Johann Strauss's "Der Rosenkavalier" at the Glyndebourne Festival.

  • "... a chubby bundle of puppy-fat." -- Andrew Clark, the Financial Times
  • "It's hard to imagine this stocky Octavian as this willowy woman's plausible lover." -- Andrew Clements, The Guardian
  • "This Octavian has the demeanor of a scullery-maid." -- Michael Church, The Independent
  • "Unbelievable, unsightly and unappealing." -- Richard Morrison in The Times of London
  • "Tara Erraught is dumpy of stature and whether in bedroom dshabille, disguised as Mariandel or in full aristocratic fig, her costuming makes her resemble something between Heidi and Just William. Is Jones simply trying to make the best of her intractable physique or is he trying to say something about the social-sexual dynamic?" -- Rupert Christiansen, The Telegraph

The mezzo-soprano is a member of the ensemble of the Bayerische Staatsoper and won the praise of the international opera community in 2011 in the title role of Ravel's "L'Enfant et les Sortileges."

Watch Tara Erraught sing at Lincoln Center.

The singer's publicist Laura Grant told ABC News: "Tara Erraught is currently focused on the music and preparing for her upcoming performances. There will be no further statement at this time."

Erraught is scheduled to sing at 11 more upcoming performances at Glyndebourne, according to Grant. She will also do a recital tour of North America and will debut at both the Washington National Opera and the San Francisco Opera.

"She's not fat for an opera singer. She is not thin, but she is lovely and has shape," said Kathy Kessler Price, assistant professor of voice and director of the Presser Voice Laboratory at Westminster Choir College of Rider University.

"It seems incredible that these [critics] would risk their own reputations to comment so harshly on her appearance," she said. "I understand they didn't even comment nearly as pointedly about her singing."

The American press was outraged.

"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," wrote NPR Music's associate producer, Anastasia Tsioulcas

Jezebel's Erin Gloria Ryan wrote, "Thankfully, others in the opera community are circling the wagons around Erraught...The problem isn't that she's an unskilled singer; it's that she's not thin enough...Opera reviewers: forget the body shaming and focus on the singing."

The comic three-act opera by Johann Strauss premiered in 1911. The character Octavian is male, but in opera, young men are often played by a female with a lower voice, according to Price. One example is Mozart's Cherubino in the "Marriage of Figaro."

"Generally, they like some straight boyish-looking figure, but it is written for women who are mezza-soprano," said Kessler Price. "Strauss wrote the operate in the time-honored tradition of the roles of teen boys being sung by women."

The recent trend in opera to meet the expectations of a more "visual world" is to cast singers who look like the roles they will be playing, said Kessler Price. "A young svelt person might, as in this role, play a young man. ... Of course it's always lovely if the voice fits the character."

"The problem is they are insisting everyone be thin, thin, thin and everyone is not predisposed to be skinny," she said.

When an opera singer is too thin it can sometimes cause the quality of their singing to deteriorate, acclaimed opera singer Alice Coote said of Erraught's critics in a response to the furor on the classical music website SlippedDisk.

"Being underweight is far more damaging to a singer's well-being and performance than being overweight," said Coote, who sings leading roles at New York's Metropolitan Opera, Covent Garden and major concert halls and festivals. "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.

Westminster's Kessler Price explains why.

"In the past, opera singers have compared their body types to athletes," she said. "They have to endeavor to carry more weight to have the strength and stamina to sing large," she said. "They don't have to be fat or obese -- and who defines what that is. But men, and more so women, try dramatically to reduce their weight and the weight shift affects the instrument their voice] trained muscularly. The no longer have it. It may take months of years, but they can't relearn to sing with the new body size."

But says, Kessler Price, the culture is changing, albeit slowly.

"It all started in the 60s with Twiggy and extreme thinness is still present in our culture - airbrushing photos to make women look thinner than they are," she said. "But I do feel like we are at the very edge of the beginning of the turning of that tide."

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