In 2014, The Classical World Still Can't Stop Fat-Shaming Women

May 20, 2014
Originally published on May 20, 2014 9:57 am

After a week full of discussions about gender and the newsroom in the U.S., a pile of weekend reviews arrived from London, courtesy of five older male critics writing about an emerging Irish mezzo-soprano named Tara Erraught. Erraught is singing Octavian in the Strauss opera Der Rosenkavalier at the Glyndebourne Festival, which opened Saturday night.

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. (Hat tip to Norman Lebrecht for compiling these breathtakingly gross comments on his site, Slipped Disc.)

In case you missed them:

  • Andrew Clark, writing for the Financial Times: "Tara Erraught's Octavian is a chubby bundle of puppy-fat." He adds, as an afterthought, that her performance was "gloriously sung." (As our friend Anne Midgette wrote last night for the Washington Post: "If [that's] true, surely merits more than an offhand mention?")
  • In The Guardian, Andrew Clements: "It's hard to imagine this stocky Octavian as this willowy woman's plausible lover." (Because relationships between people of different sizes is, of course, unimaginable.)
  • My erstwhile Gramophone Magazine colleague Michael Church, writing in The Independent: "This Octavian (Tara Erraught) has the demeanor of a scullery-maid." (He didn't bother to remark on her singing at all, though she was one of the two leads in the opera. One of London's foremost critics couldn't possibly have squeezed even a glancing mention within the roughly 250-word confines that the paper assigned him. Tough to write short, I guess.)
  • Rupert Christiansen in The Telegraph: "Tara Erraught is dumpy of stature and whether in bedroom déshabille, 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?" (Let's leave aside Christiansen's strenuous attack on English syntax, and just look what he himself is trying to say.)
  • Richard Morrison in The Times of London: "Unbelievable, unsightly and unappealing." (Short and to the point, at least.)

Bonus disgrace points to Christiansen, 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?

At this point, you may well be wondering: Were there any dissenters? Was there a single critic in the London pack who didn't mention Erraught's weight — or who perhaps even liked her onstage?

Huh. Can't put my finger on what's different about Maddocks...

Along with the Glyndebourne performances, Erraugh's future dates include a debut at the BBC Proms, performances at the Bayerische Staatsoper, a recital tour of North America and debuts at both the Washington National Opera and the San Francisco Opera.

Of course, double standards exist across all kinds of media and entertainment. And it would be seductively easy to dismiss this as an unfortunate but distant U.K. phenomenon, except for the fact that classical music, pretty much above and beyond every other musical genre, depends on transnational crosscurrents between artists, managers, labels, audiences and critics.

That's one reason these reviews are so dispiriting. I'm sure that certain people will question my own motives, but I find it astounding that across five widely read publications, not a single editor saw fit to go back to the writer and challenge what he had written. Yes, visuals matter — even more now, in the age of live broadcasts — but these critics have seized this as license to forget why anybody shows up at an opera house to begin with.

I also thought it might be instructive to look back through a few weeks' reviews to see how these same critics, writing in these same publications, treated male singers who are less than lean — not to shame those artists, of course, but to see if these critics have been equally awful to men. Let's take a look together, shall we? (I'm leaving Richard Morrison out of this sampling, simply because of the Times' paywall.)

  • May 4: Christiansen, writing about baritone Roland Wood in Julian Anderson's Thebes at the English National Opera: "The splendid cast is without a weak link, though a throat infection inhibits Roland Wood's Oedipus."
  • May 2: Clark, writing about a DVD release of Rossini's Otello: "John Osborn, Edgardo Rocha and Javier Camarena make a stylish trio of tenors."
  • May 18: Clements, on a Birtwistle's Gawain at the Barbican: "Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts was the terminally bored, emptily heroic Arthur." (Not exactly a rave, but no mention of weight.)
  • May 4: Church, reviewing Mozart's Nozze di Figaro at the Royal Opera House: "With the remaining parts in the safe hands of Christophoros (Bartolo) [sic], Guy de Mey (Don Basilio), Jeremy White (Antonio) and Timothy Robinson (Don Curzio) fine ensemble work is assured." (Not so fine, by the way: his and his copy editor's neglect to include the last name of one of those singers, Christophoros Stamboglis.)

It's somewhat heartening to see some pushback to the Rosenkavalier reviews. The Guardian published an editorial from blogger and "body image activist" Katie Lowe; Lebrecht's site hosted an open letter from English mezzo Alice Coote, in which she points out that Luciano Pavarotti sang leading-man roles for decades despite, I'd add, being visibly far more overweight for his height than Erraught, even to the point of needing assistance from beanbags and bystanders onstage.

The fact that we are having this conversation in 2014 — coming nearly on the back of several staccato outbursts against female conductors last fall — honestly makes me wonder if classical music doesn't deserve its stereotype of being silly, reactionary, outdated and out of step with the contemporary world.

Meanwhile, if you're interested in actually hearing and seeing Erraught in action, here she is at the Richard Tucker Opera Gala in New York in 2012:

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