Opera singers have been outraged by negative comments made in several national newspapers about the body shape of a female singer appearing in Glyndebourne Opera’s production of Der Rosenkavalier. Singers Elisabeth Meister, Jennifer Johnston, Christopher Gillett and Alice Coote have written public responses to the reviews, defending the singer and criticising the authors for their ‘cruel’ language.
Controversial comments about the appearance of Irish mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught were printed in many of the broadsheet reviews, suggesting that despite the quality of her musical performance, her size and stature made it implausible for her to be cast in this trouser role (in which a woman plays a man).
The 27 year-old was described as ‘dumpy of stature’ (The Telegraph), ‘unbelievable, unsightly and unappealing both as boy and girl’ (The Times), ‘stocky’ (The Guardian) and a ‘chubby bundle of puppy-fat’ (Financial Times). The Telegraph caused further anger by his description of soprano Kate Royal, who played the Marschallin in Strauss’s opera, having been ‘stressed by motherhood’.
Today, The Telegraph has stood by its review:‘Opera is a visual as well as an aural experience, a form of theatre: it may be 75 per cent about the voice, but it is also 25 per cent about the ability to act well and create a convincing character.’
The write-ups unleashed anger among readers, many of whom commented on the articles online, and musicians – who have spoken out against the critics.
‘If there is a line over which classical music and opera critics should not step, then it is into the realms of a singers’ personal appearance, an issue which is outwith their remit,’ writes mezzo Jennifer Johnston in The Guardian, going on to say, ‘All singers need self confidence to perform, and so it is on this level that it is particularly cruel and irresponsible of this set of critics to be so completely disparaging of a singer’s appearance.’
Fellow mezzo Alice Coote wrote an open letter, published on Slipped Disc, saying: ‘[Opera] is not about lights, it is not about costumes, it’s not about sets, it’s not even about sex or stature… It is all about the human voice. This is the Olympics of the human larynx attached to a heart and mind that wants to communicate to other hearts and minds.’
Photo: Bill Cooper