Poll: Should Critics Review Opera Singers' Looks?

Saturday, May 24, 2014 - 10:00 AM

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."

What do you think? Should appearance be considered in reviews? Take our poll and leave a comment below.

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Comments [39]

Catcerto from Connecticut

Of course, looks do matter! Let's face it, if there is a choice between two equally good singers, the better looking one will get the job. And cher public, it always was like that! Opera is a visual experience too! The problem can become devastating for overweight singers, when a production involves a lot of agility and physical acting. I don't expect movie star looks and acrobatic abilities, but I don't react kindly, when a singer cannot move on stage at all. As a matter of fact, even parking on the stage requires some sense of drama. I think, every singer, regardless of girth should go through some acting and exercise classes. It is not true, that overweight people cannot move gracefully, they just have to get some proper coaching. Look at Leo Slezak in his late movie career!
But my main peeve is with the costumes, Costume designers of many modern and not so modern productions seem to have gotten their training somewhere in Eastern Germany circa 1960. No sense for cut and material, not a thought wasted on the effect on stage. They actually manage to make even singers with svelte figures look like frumps. Remember Jonas Kaufmann in his weird outfit as Sigmund? The same design on someone more portly will elicit giggles of derision from some more cruel members of the audience. Why should a singer put up with this? Or is it the director, who is afraid of flattering costumes, because the production might be perceived lacking in gravitas because of them?

Jun. 21 2014 05:51 PM
Carol from NYC

We opera goers are not dummies! Incompetence, incompetence, incompetence! INCOMPETENT critics - who should know about something about the music and voice and not just creating media hype. INCOMPETENT costume designers - who should know about enhancing a character in costume and not making them look ridiculous. INCOMPETENT stage directors and designers - who should read the librettos and composer's directions and not do their own thing...mainly because they do not know what's going on to do the right thing. INCOMPETENT opera house general managers - who think only of the bottom line and not quality of the singers. They all should be shocked to find out that all they have to do is follow the music, follow the composer's directions and throw a little light on it!! We opera goers and not dummies, we've known it all along!

Jun. 04 2014 01:29 PM
Carol Luparella from Elmwood Park, NJ

Hi Concetta,
Yes, I also enjoy reading all the comments about the different topics on the website. We'll have to look for another kerfuffle-worthy subject!
Best wishes.

May. 29 2014 09:26 PM
concetta nardone from Nassau

Hi Carol,Hope you are well. could not join in yesterday. Not really a kerfuffle. It is enjoyable to read all the comments. I have wondered whether Caballe's voice would have lasted a while longer. She suffered from poor health and the weight might have had something to do with it. Her voice was like velvet.

May. 29 2014 11:53 AM
HYH from Westchester County

Oh, good grief. The critic has the right to his opinion but, unless the criticism was directly related to the (un)believability of the character because of her weight, it is gratuitous and, irrelevant and mean spirited. Especially when you don't see that kind of criticism directed at male singers.In the picture here she seems quite attractive and not fat. All my life, there have been so many men (many of them famous and considered 'the best'of their time)who did not look like the handsome lover they were singing/portraying. I remember seeing Pavarotti sing Idomoneo at the Met years ago and he looked terrible -- very overweight and not able to move around the stage very well but he sang beautifully and after a few minutes, I simply did not care what he looked like. At the end of the day, I want the singing to be the thing. I'm not saying I don't notice appearance or even think for a hot minute that the singer is not attractive but if they can sing, I don't care and I've even found myself ending up finding performers to be quite attractive because of their talent and not their looks. Society and the media dictate that we judge by looks/weight in every other aspect of life, I really hope the arts will continue to demand that talent -- first and foremost -- be the most important attribute. It's great if someone is beautiful and 'looks' the part but, if the talent isn't there to back it up -- not as attractive. If the talent is there but not the looks, the talent makes that person all the more attractive!

May. 28 2014 04:01 PM
Joye

In all my life I have never thought of an opera singer's looks until I read this article. Critics of any genre should be recruited like sportscasters - former players who have been in the trenches and know what it takes to win the game. Movie critics should be retired directors or actors or producers. The same should go for opera, rock, jazz etc. Opera takes a Herculean amount of work - the very word 'opera' means 'work'! It is the most difficult style of singing, requiring a level of concentration no other music does. These people stand for hours in 30 pounds of velvet and produce these otherworldly sounds, and some jerk who hasn't a tenth of their talent decides to dismiss a girl he decides is fat? This isn't junior high, where everyone is so insecure they force ridiculous labels on each other. We are adults, and mature people know that beauty and value come in many forms. These critics need to stop expecting every girl to look like Sailor Moon and grow up. And something tells me those critics look nothing like Clive Owen, Daniel Craig or Idris Elba.

May. 28 2014 03:16 PM
ardath_bey

If you have a truly great voice you can get away with it. If you're going to be fat you better sound like Pavarotti. If you're awkward looking too tall with a big chin you better sound like Joan Sutherland. It's not over until fat lady sings? The fat lady better be Montserrat Cabballé. Everyone else should basically look pretty darn good on stage.

Opera is show business, it's called "show" business because you show yourself on stage. No one wants to go to the opera to see unattractive overweight people with ok voices.

There's also the health aspect. There's the risk of heart disease, diabetes and low self esteem because no one wants to sleep with you. So just lose the goddamn weight. Callas didn't lose her voice because of the weight loss, she lost it because of poor technique and singing Brunhilde, Lucia, Tosca and Norma during the course of a few months. She should've stuck to Puccini, verismo and some Verdi, though I understand the fanatics love her Lucia and Norma, I don't.

May. 28 2014 12:52 PM
The Baron from Long Island City, NY

To the critics of the critic:
NEWS FLASH - Opera is a theatrical as well as a musical art form. Were operavores wrong to praise the acting ability of PERFORMERS like Maria Callas, Placido Domingo, etc.?

May. 28 2014 09:21 AM
Jason from here and there

Sorry but all of the people (except for the character Sophie) look deranged and ugly (owing to bad costumes and makeup), especially Baron Ochs (he looks like zombie Tommy Boy on speed).

See the link to the Glyndebourne photos for the production immediately below:
http://glyndebourne.com/production/der-rosenkavalier

However, Ms. Erraught is very attractive (see her website http://www.taraerraught.com/artist.php?view=bio). I for one would be very happy to walk into a room with her on my arm.

May. 27 2014 06:25 PM
David from Flushing

Well, Das Rheingold and Der Gotterdammerung are like a swimsuit event. Alas, the poor Rhinemaidens did not win the prize.

May. 27 2014 05:26 PM
Jerry Giarraputo

Since when is a performance at the Met like a Miss America Pageant with a swimsuit category?

May. 27 2014 04:22 PM
Carol Luparella from Elmwood Park, NJ

Hi Concetta,
Sorry I didn't see your post yesterday! Yes, it looks like we have another kerfuffle going. I'm not really as much into opera, but I don't think an opera singer's looks should be the most important thing; the voice should be the first consideration. Having said that, I realize that some singers do look more suited to their roles than others.
I remember attending a performance of Turandot where the soprano who sung the title role was a rather large woman and the tenor was kind of short and stocky. There was one scene where he forcefully grabs her arm, and of course she doesn't resist. I smiled to myself, thinking that if it had been real life instead of an opera, she probably could have crushed him!

May. 27 2014 02:10 PM
concetta nardone from Nassau

Saw Ms. Blythe as Amneris and she could not climb the stairs into the temple. Opera is theatre. A prior comment was about a Madama Butterfly who looked like a Sumo wrestler. Opera tickets are expensive and we do not need these kind of spectacles. Yes, I am shallow and Honest.

May. 27 2014 11:07 AM
Eileen from New York

And......has anyone judged Pavarotti in any role on his size? Ever notice it's mostly the women singers that always take the knock? It takes many years of hard study to encourage that precious instrument, why are we so wrapped up in the appearance - E.G. Debra Voigt does her svelte appearance now make anyone say oh she's thin now so let's go and hear her? I think not! Cone on opera lovers - quit being so shallow!

May. 27 2014 10:37 AM

I would just like to add that opera requires first and foremost a suspension of disbelief. So for everyone shouting it's theatre and requires someone to "look the part"; the notion is just flat-out wrong and imbecilic, and it's notions such as these that are killing this amazing art form! Such criticisms are what pressured Deborah Voigt to undergo gastric bypass (even if she denies it print) and go from a tour de force to a dud overnight requiring many seasons before she could sing even competently again! I would slit the throat (figuratively speaking of course) of anyone who made such criticism against Stephanie Blythe who, in my humble opinion, can sing anything she damn well pleases and the critics of her appearance be damned!

May. 27 2014 07:47 AM
steve l from morristown, nj

Critics should be reviewing ability to communicate, not looks. Does any intelligent listener really think that the ability to communicate is compromised if the singer is not aesthetically pleasing? Looks are generally not emphasized in discussions of great singing actors of the past (Chaliapin, Christoff, Callas, Gobbi, London, Robeson, etc. If critics want to harp on something meaningful, it should be the proliferation of untrained "singers" on reality shows who need microphones to project and will most likely have a half life of fifteen minutes.

May. 26 2014 11:20 PM
Adele (aka AF) from Nassau County, Long Island

I wonder what such critics would have said of Pavarotti when he first started out: maybe something like, "Will never make it; does not look believable as Rudolpho in Boheme."

For me it's all about the voice, the music, and the drama the singer puts into the voice when called for. In my most wonderful moments at live opera, when a special aria or moment comes, I close my eyes and feel the chills go down my neck & spine! If a singer also has good looks and/or looks that fit the part, that's fine, but for me, not essential.

Judging looks and onstage acting ability etc. fits Gelb's perception of what's important in opera--and look where that's getting the Met!

May. 26 2014 02:11 PM
concetta nardone from Nassau

Carol, looks like we have another one going. Will you join in?
Best wishes

May. 26 2014 07:39 AM

Addendum: If it's all about *the voice*, make a recording, not a performance on a stage.

DD~~

May. 26 2014 01:40 AM

@Bernie "Opera is NOT only about the voice."

Bingo! It's theater -- we need a full package. A full *believable* package. I saw Bergonzi late in his career in L'Elisir d'Amore. Ludicrous.

DD~~

May. 26 2014 01:32 AM
CastaDiva

It's the voice alone that matters, surely. A good singer will always be able to successfully portray a character through sheer vocal artistry, irrespective of appearance. Most people never thought about Sutherland's size and age when she sang the fragile young Lucia, or the tomboy Marie of Le Regiment. It is for the costume and wigs people and deportment coaches to suitably transform the singer's appearance. Glyndebourne seems to have failed to do this with Tara Erraught.

May. 25 2014 10:04 PM
Bernie from UWS

Alice Coote is off-base on this one. Opera is NOT only about the voice. If that were the case, we wouldn't bother staging them with scenery, props, costumes, lighting design, etc. If those ingredients were not part of opera, then I'd agree she has a point. But as long as we do bring dramatic trappings to performances, then it's reasonable to ask that the singers look at least somewhat like the characters they portray.

PS - Lee no need to SHOUT when you're leaving comments! :)

May. 25 2014 06:08 PM
LEE APT from UWS - NYC

IT IS ALL ABOUT THE COSTUME DESIGNER. AN OPERA SINGER WITH A BEAUTIFUL VOICE SHOULD BE JUDGED PURELY ON HER SINGING AND ACTING. THE COSTUME DESIGNER SHOULD GET THE "NAY" VOTE.

HOW MANY TIMES I HAVE WANTED TO RE-DESIGN WHAT I SEE OPERA SINGERS WEARING. ESPECIALLY ON THE CONCERT STAGE, WHERE THEY MUST DECIDE FOR THEMSELVES (AS A GENERAL RULE) POORLY).

MALE SINGERS GET AWAY WITH MURDER - COSTUMING -WISE. E.G. ROBERT MERRILL (WHOM I ADORED) IN TIGHTS IN CARMEN? NO COMMENTS THEN...

THE COSTUME SHOULD FIT THE PERSON AND THE ROLE.

May. 25 2014 05:14 PM
pdxbassoon

I am so tired of anorexic sopranos and mezzos who can't sing worth a damn. In another era, Tara Erraught would be considered a beautiful woman (see the paintings of Rubens if you don't believe me.) If she was not convincing as the teenaged boy Octavian, it was almost certainly the fault of the director and costume designer. All theater is an illusion, created for the audience. If the statuesque Renata Tebaldi could convince us on the stage that she was a 19 year old Japanese girl in Madama Butterfly--and I understand that she could--it was because she carefully coached to take tiny steps, move like a Japanese girl, and was costumed appropriately.

May. 25 2014 02:26 PM
JJ from Ramsey, NJ

I've got an idea -- Avoid the whole controversy and have our singers LIP-SYNC. That way we can have Tara Erraught's voice and Justin Bieber's body - a perfect Octavian. We would also have critics focusing on vocal performance at opera's (what a concept).
I'm 82 years old, and vividly remember having to close my eyes at one performance -- the voices were sublime and I thoroughly enjoyed the performances. However, I didn't -- couldn't look. Madame Butterfly had the figure of a sumo wrestler. Would I have gone if I had know beforehand? Yes! Her voice was heavenly. I remember that more frequently than the other.

May. 25 2014 09:43 AM
concetta nardone from Nassau

How could I forget, Jonas Kaufmann, VA VA VOOM. And he can sing.

May. 25 2014 08:09 AM
CONCETTA NARDONE from Nassau

Opera is theatre. Celeste Aida is Forma Divina. Turandot drives men crazy with her beauty. Callas lost her voice because she was singing roles not suited for her voice. Tebaldi's voice did not suffer when she lost weight and I never knew she was BEAUTIFUL. Florestan is supposed to be starving in the dungeon. Watched Falstaff a few weeks ago and had to laugh at the very large ladies in high heels. I recently viewed an Aida and the Amneris could not climb the stairs into the temple. THEATRE, THEATRE. When Traviata premiered, the audience laughed when the doctor announced that Violetta only had a few hours to live.

May. 25 2014 08:04 AM

I have seen many opera performances in which a singer's physical appearances was not the ideal for the part. That being said, invariably, their singing
made you forget anything but that. I believe that the current emphasis on
appearance in all aspects of life today is very unhealthy.
Of course it's ideal to hear and see a Siegfried who looks the part and can sing,like Jay Hunter Morris or the late Jess Thomas or Jonas Kaufmann,whose singing and appearance are very appealing. I notice that the men are aren't criticized for their looks.
That British critic was mean and insensitive, and frankly, should apologize to that young singer. In her photos, she looked perfectly fine to me. Critics should tell us what they heard and saw from a theatrical musical and artistic point of view, and stay away from petty comments on things like appearance. Shame on him!
Arden Anderson-Broecking

May. 25 2014 07:23 AM
Lawrence from Vancouver, BC

I don't understand why anybody would get so hung up on the appearance of this character. Octavian is always played by a woman in drag, and I've yet to see an Octavian who was visually believable as a teenage boy.

May. 25 2014 06:27 AM

OK, this is funny: "... Florestan has been kept in chains for two years, starving. ... Finally the pile stirred, and started to sing! It was Johan Botha, a huge pile of flesh, starving for two years ... "

I'm reminded of sopranos (theoretically) dying of consumption.

DD~~

May. 25 2014 01:27 AM
Jon Johanning from Philadelphia

Not being fabulously wealthy, I have seldom been able to go to live opera performances; lately, with the appearance of satellite broadcasts to theaters, I have been seeing some of my favorite operas that I have heard on recordings and radio all my life. I also have a few DVDs of operas.

However, I find that it’s the sound that is still the essence of opera for me, perhaps because of my life experience with music--I don't belong to the YouTube generation, for sure. The visual aspect is nice, but I think everyone would agree that bad singers, a bad orchestra, and/or a bad conductor will ruin a performance, and no amount of visual glamour will rehabilitate it. Some people find a particular staging or the appearance of a singer ruins a performance for them, but my personal opinion is that they are missing what opera is all about. They are like the people who rage against orchestra concerts because the musicians come on stage somewhat “dressed up” instead of in informal, chummy dress, rather than concentrating on the music. What’s really important here, I want to ask.

And by the way, I think Pavarotti looked just fine.

May. 24 2014 08:14 PM
David from Flushing

The ideal opera singer would have a great voice, the looks of a movie star, fine acting ability, and be the equal of Fred Astaire on the dance floor. Unfortunately, such a package very rarely comes around.

May. 24 2014 05:59 PM
Judith Moore from Charleston, SC

I'm sure I'm not the first to point out that all three "critics" were men.

She's lovely.

May. 24 2014 05:53 PM
lam from NJ

I voted for “Critics may comment on looks only if it really affects the character.” Why? Some time ago (2002, actually) I saw a Met Opera production of Fidelio. Johan Botha sang Florestan. The second act opens in a dark (very dark, in this production) subterranean cellar where Florestan has been kept in chains for two years, starving. It was hard to see anything on the stage, and nothing was happening. There seemed to be a big pile of something in a dark corner. Finally the pile stirred, and started to sing! It was Johan Botha, a huge pile of flesh, starving for two years… I have since never been able to see or hear Fidelio, or Botha, without getting serious giggles…

May. 24 2014 05:41 PM
Robert St.Onge from Cochiti Lake,NM

Maria Callas began her career as a hefty woman with a fabulous voice and musical temperament to burn. However, she succumbed to the desire to please those with a 'lookist' attitude toward opera. What happened? She became a slender glamorous woman with a voice that soon fell apart with musical temperament to burn. Who won?

May. 24 2014 04:08 PM
George from 40th T

The voice is the ONLY thing that matters in opera. If people go to the opera for singers' looks or for a director's gimmicky "concept" pf a masterwork, maybe they should look to a different art form for satisfaction. Phooey on these critics...can any of them carry a tune?

May. 24 2014 03:34 PM
Richard Braun from New York City

I don't think the more enlightened critics in the U.S. would get away with such blatantly sexist and hurtful characterizations. Wasn't it the Brits who ignited the "little black dress" imbroglio which led to one great singer undergoing surgery? Opera is one art form where the only body type that matters resides is in the larynx.

May. 24 2014 02:35 PM

If appearance was reviewed would we have had the pleasure of Joan Sutherland, Martina Arroyo or Luciano Pavarotti.

May. 24 2014 01:57 PM
catspaw from Virginia

No, no, and no. If the person's appearance detracts from the character, it's probably the fault of the producer. Think of the fabulous singers of the past who we would have missed if they were judged solely on their weight. And it is weight we're talking about here, not general appearance. Good Lord, no one looked worse than Pavarotti but so what? There's enough stress on singers trying to make a living without adding the pressure of looking like movie stars or models, a standard that seems not to apply to men. It's happening with instrumentalists too - the women have to look sexy and glamorous- just look at their album covers. This is soooooo wrong.

May. 24 2014 01:52 PM

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