Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught is talented and pretty - and chubby. What's sexist about expecting opera singers to look the part?

I went through a few years of obsessive opera-going in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s – exclusively at the Royal Opera House  and English National Opera at the Coliseum. I gave it up for a number of reasons. First, I forsook the ROH when, after four fruitless years, I realised that paying extra to be a “Friend” of Covent Garden didn’t mean diddley when it came to getting tickets to see productions featuring star singers such as Pavarotti and Placido Domingo. The thought of smug members of the great and the good – and their spouses, of course – enjoying productions from which we ‘umble folk would seemingly be excluded in perpetuity no matter how much extra dosh we bunged the organisation finally stuck in my craw.

One of the other main reasons for packing it in was the disconnect between the physical attributes of the principal performers and the characters they were portraying. I remember one soprano who was so fat that, when she hurled herself to her death at the end of Tosca, I fully expected her to bounce back onto the stage off the padding designed to cushion her fall (either that, or to hear a vast crash as she plummeted through the floor towards the Earth's core). A whole Ring Cycle was somewhat spoiied by the fact that Wotan was so short and round he’d have been more suited to playing a dwarf: obviously Wotan doesn’t have to be 6’6” – especially as he has to share the stage with giants - but 5’8” is probably a minimum requirement. (The other problem was that the singer playing Brünnhilde, who for some odd reason was dolled up in biker-chick leathers, appeared to be well on her way to a bus pass, and her voice was shot.)

I know how vulgar this sort of reaction will seem to many opera buffs, who’ll tell you that the only important thing is the quality of the music. And, yes, I have experienced performances where the vocal performance – usually enhanced by decent acting – has allowed one to ignore one or more of the principal singers’ comically obvious physical unsuitability for their role(s). But it’s hard to suspend disbelief and to allow yourself to be transported by the transcendent beauty of the music when your bum is totally numb and your legs are about to cramp because the seat you’ve spent five hours in was designed for a five-year old and your knees are acting as ear-muffs for the person in front. At that point, you’d really appreciate it if the Wagnerian hero and heroine producing beautiful noise on the stage below didn’t look like the sort of people you’re going to be rubbing shoulders with on the commute to work in the morning.

The reason this all came to mind was reading that charges of rampant sexism have levelled against opera critics who have been rather unkind about Tara Erraught, the Irish soprano currently playing Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier at Glyndebourne (read about it here). Comments ranged from “a chubby bundle of puppy-fat” to “unbelievable, unsightly and unappealing” – ouch! But it’s not the fault of the critics: it’s the fault of the person who cast a talented singer in a role for which her body made her unsuitable. I haven’t been to an opera house for years, but I’ve seen opera on television and attended a number of outdoor performances, and it’s obvious that casting directors now pay more attention to singers’ looks than they used to. I suspect this offends some purists, but I’m rather for it as long as it doesn’t lead to the casting in serious roles of any of those ghastly, high-earning, pseudo-operatic female warblers who use microphones in order to deliver well-known arias in a style (and at a level of competence) more suited to the musical theatre.

As for Tara Erraught, she evidently has a great future ahead of her. She has (to my untutored ears) a good voice, she’s an attractive young lady, and there are few operatic roles which (over time) she wouldn’t be able to carry off. The critics just didn’t think she was physically right for Der Rosenkavalier – what’s sexist about that? The many people who’ve rushed to Ms. Erraught’s defence here seem to have missed the point that – in this instance – it’s the producers who are really being criticised here.


  1. At base, opera is a story told in words and music. I don't agree with Alice Coote that it is 'all about the voice'. She conveniently forgets that there are many other elements contributing to a satisfying experience - drama and poetry, stage design, costume and, sometimes, dance. These complex elements have to be bonded into ingredient X and 'sold' to an audience. Der Rosenkavalier has almost the archetypal convoluted, serpentine mix of various lovers, disguise, panto' concealment and, to double-up the agony, the main 'bloke' Octavian is sung by a girl in drag. The audience (another element in the success or otherwise of the performance) need as much help as the producer can give them, and it would seem that in this case there was a dereliction of duty (yes, duty) by casting a well built, shortish Irish girl of no particular facial charm as the stud, and butting him/her up against a couple of lithe women. Yes, annoyed of Tunbridge Wells, I know that in 'real life' short men 'get' tall women (Bernie?), but there is usually a good reason for this (Bernie?).

  2. Bit late on this one but your mention of Lenny Henry - surely the greatest actor of our (or any!) generation - in another thread makes me speculate that it is now impossible for a white actor to play the title role in Othello. The same crowd which objects to blacked-up Othellos (no matter how brilliant) relishes the employment of fat, squat, badly dressed Octavians.