Opera singers have been periodically lampooned in the media for their large girth or imposing stature. But earlier this week, when some British music critics singled out one mezzo-soprano for her appearance, several bloggers, fellow singers and opera pundits reacted angrily, accusing the critics of sexism and outmoded thinking.
The singer is Tara Erraught, from Ireland, who was called "dumpy" and "stocky" in reviews of her debut as Octavian in Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier at the Glyndebourne Festival.
Writing in the Financial Times, Andrew Clark referred to the singer as "a chubby bundle of puppy-fat."
Richard Morrison in the Times called her "unbelievable, unsightly and unappealing."
Andrew Clements in the Guardian wrote, "it's hard to imagine this stocky Octavian as this willowy women's plausible lover. Erraught is clearly a hugely promising mezzo, but she seems miscast."
"There is no doubt of the talent of this young Irish mezzo," wrote Rupert Christiansen in the Telegraph. "But she is dumpy of stature and... her costuming makes her resemble something between Heidi and Just William." (The latter is a plump character in English children's literature.)
Reaction to the comments was swift and vigorous. "The classical world can't stop fat-shaming women," wrote Anastasia Tsioulcas of NPR Music. "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."
Singers including mezzo-soprano Alice Coote responded that looks should be secondary. "It’s not about sets, it’s not even about sex or stature," Coote wrote on Norman Lebrecht's Slipped Disc blog. "It is all about the human voice."
The backlash over the reviews comes as a time when companies are eager to attract new and younger audiences by placing a greater emphasis on opera's dramatic and visual qualities. Some have argued that the vitriol should not have been directed at music critics but at Glyndebourne's costuming department, which portrayed Erraught in an unflattering light.
Christiansen later defended his review, writing, "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."
"As a critic, I must not only reserve but defend the right to comment on the visual aspects of a performance, and that includes germane matters of personal appearance, whether the singer concerned is male or female."
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