Cher Public

Breaking! And I don’t mean that in the newsroom “scoop” sense

Okay, folks, this thing has now officially surpassed brouhaha status and now has become offically a cause célèbre.

  • oedipe

    A few thoughts:

    1) The ire against the ugly old men of British opera criticism -who abuse of their position and who think that being rude in writing about female singers makes them look smart and witty- should not make us forget that the main responsibility lies with the costume designer, the producer and the management who approved this Rosenkavalier.

    In my corner of the world, the way a person dresses and behaves is considered more important than the attributes bestowed on that person by nature (and BTW, it is not considered clever, but uncouth for a journalist to ridicule such natural attributes in the media). There is no excuse for bad taste, especially when it is forced on an artist by an incompetent designer/producer team! All one needs to do in order to see the difference and get this message is compare the Carsen Falstaff costumes with this tacky Rosenkavalier. Bad taste is not a fatality on stage, it is merely a matter of poor choice.

    2) Great artists are package deals, they have that magnetism, that je n’sais quoi that makes them different from the rest of us; without such magnetism, without the capacity to charm and win over the audience, they are just mediocre, even if they have a good voice and a good technique. So yes, in that sense singers have to be “beautiful”.

    Pitting looks against talent, as if they were mutually exclusive, grossly simplifies things. It also confuses the issues by making it sound like artists’ appearance on stage is somehow unimportant. I detect here a tendency to condemn people who enjoy casts that “look their roles”, as if the only progressive thing to do is prefer casts that look awkward, act clumsily, but “act with their voices”. This kind of preference police makes little sense to me.

    3) Just because it is important to argue that artists should not be discriminated against on the basis of looks, age, etc., and it is legitimate to maintain that it’s OK to have overweight singers appear on stage, does not mean that being overweight is not a problem in itself. Being overweight IS a major health hazard, an epidemic as a matter of fact, arguably THE major health hazard in today’s world; it shouldn’t be encouraged.

  • Salome Where She Danced

    Voice vs. body. A case for the former:

    Look at all the lovely color snaps in the package housing a recent recording/production of Schreker’s “Der Schatzgraber” (Challenge Classics) recently staged by Netherlands Opera. (Ivo van Hove directed). The slim lead soprano looks fabulous in her anachronistic shortie Burberry, worn over Victoria’s Secret undies and f-me pumps and fishnets. Alas, she has no, I repeat, no vocal chops for the role (Els). Thin, wobbly, inaccurately pitched, it’s ultimatley a casting disaster for such ravishing music when you can’t actually watch her.

    • Buster

      I was lucky to see Manuela Uhl in this. She was indeed fantastic. Loved her singing too. Looking forward to her Chrysothemis with Herlitzius in Dresden. Did anyone see her Marschallin?

  • scifisci

    I think something else to consider, especially in large opera houses like the Met is that physical attributes can’t really be discerned by most of the audience who is sitting far away. Consequently, the illusion of a body type (from a combination of costuming, lighting, stage comportment, acting etc.) is really all that matters. And voice obviously. Voice can captivate the audience sitting in the furthest reaches of the auditorium but looks definitely cannot.

  • Superconductor (which has been busy with writing things like actual reviews of performances this week weighs in on this issue.

  • zinka

    This recent Covent Garden “fat Octavian’ tale brings to mind a topic we have often discussed, namely “How much do you suspend belief because it is opera?”
    In a lengthy (what else?) conversation today with the inimitable and inevitable La Cieca” (I give him proper credit when he brings up ideas, lest you think I am totally original.), we spoke for example of the:

    1. Starving Rodolfos of Gigli,Tucker, and Pavarotti

    2. Caballe with TB as Mimi

    3. The “kid” Melchior as Siegfried.

    4. The very pregnant Cherubino of Mildred Miller with the big bump in the cloak that covers her in Figaro act one, when she hides.

    What James did bring up was the fact that if this mezzo sounded like Rise or Jurinac, perhaps we could do the same kind of “suspension.” I usually do not care if a singer “looks the part’ of a singer..What Mme.Butterfly looks “quindici anni,” but through phrasing (except for the obnoxious Toti dal Monte),we know that no 15 year old could sing any of this music, and so it goes all thrugh the repertory.
    They giggled at the Rita Hunter and Jane Eaglen Brunnhildes, but they sounded gorgeous, and if Birgit weighed 400 lbs., I would not care!
    If CG hired a “chubby Octavian,” that is their problem. If she sounded like a Rise Stevens, would we care? I am not sure, but this is an ongoing controversy that involves this topic of “it is opera…so what!!.”

    • Krunoslav

      Since when is Glyndebourne (a private summer festival in East Sussex) the same as Covent Garden ( the Royal Opera House in London)?

  • arepo

    Possibly one of the more interesting things about this debate is the ones who are discussing it — obvious opera lovers and sometimes even experts — not exactly my idea of what a “target audience of opera” indicates.
    I would think the majority of operagoers don’t know a fach from a squillo and furthermore, to keep it in the Scarlett vein, frankly don’t give a damn.
    Peter Gelb is a business man first and an opera lover second (third?) and sees an entirely different view from the one we opera nuts see. He knows (or believes he knows) that today good looks along with killer singers are what will bring people to his seats and that’s numero uno with him.
    Truth be told, instead of comparing fabulous but fat or ugly singers with beautiful-to-look-at but only average voices, how about looking at the fabulous voices AND beautiful-to-look-at talents? Because today there is such a plethora of those around that one can take one’s pick — and that’s just what Peter Gelb intends to do.
    So maybe it is more like an “age problem” where the elderly (like me) don’t give a “fach” whether someone is a bit plump as long as they can “Camarena” the sound.
    But facing reality instead of purity, that’s not what today’s average audiences are about.
    I have brought 5 different couples to opera through HD who never cared before and in almost every case they choose the wrong reasons (to us old farts anyway) for loving a singer or a performance. And personally, I say that’s just fine. They don’t have to know or care what we need to in order to enjoy operas or a performance we might sniff at.
    And when you come right down to it, they’re having more fun being non-critical than we are.
    There’s something to be said for that!

    • Krunoslav

      An apt (strapping, hardy, manly, boyish, robust) conjunction of two lines of text:

      “Too Much Looking, Not Enough Listening?
      Anthony Tommasini, the chief classical music critic of The New York Times”

      To quote a vanished poster:

      “Hey, it’s not as if he were discussing something vital, like his desire to cradle the boyish, vulnerable-looking Paul Lewis during an all-Ades recital”

    • Camille

      I have brought 5 different couples to opera through HD who never cared before and in almost every case they choose the wrong reasons (to us old farts anyway) for loving a singer or a performance. And personally, I say that’s just fine. They don’t have to know or care what we need to in order to enjoy operas or a performance we might sniff at.
      And when you come right down to it, they’re having more fun being non-critical than we are.
      There’s something to be said for that!

      And a great big BRAVO DIVO to you! Who cares what the hell attracts them in the first place? You are right, they are having fun and they are just getting their gateway experience. Somewhere down the line they may turn into crotchety old farts like us, but does it matter? What matters is they are enjoying themselves and helping to keep this endangered species of musical entertainment alive, that is ALL!

      BRAVO E BIS!

  • none

    I have been reading about the English opera critics making disparaging remarks about a singer playing Octavian at Glyndebourne. I agree that this is unpleasant. I have just read a review from The Independent of Tosca at Covent Garden at the moment, and Oksana Dyka is described as a dumpy washerwoman, which I think is even more insulting.

    • Cicciabella

      Michael Church on Oksana Dyka: This Tosca comes on less like the diva we expect than a dumpy washerwoman who has been taught a few stock operatic poses – arms flung wide, fists to temples – with which she rings the changes in a curious kind of semaphore.
      I’ve been biting my tongue on this issue, but I’m going to let fly. This dichotomy of “dumpy” versus “willowy” has a very classist undertone to me. Tall and lean is patrician, short and round below stairs. For many professional critics and parterre posters this is a given. Some examples: Bartoli was good as the maid in Cenerentola but not believeable as a princess, Camarena was better disguised as the valet than as the prince, again Bartoli fine as Despina but not acceptable as Dorabellla. Now Dyka looks like a “washerwoman”. The sheer class prejudice dripping from these commemts, compunded by the licence to jeer at short and/or plump singers with impunity, is simply mind-boggling.

      • I think “dumpy,” though it is defined as “short and stout,” carries a connotation of lack of grace and heavy, clumsy movement. What Church seems to be objecting to is not the fact of Dyka’s being a little thicker than the fashion ideal (she is not all that heavy) but rather the way she presents her body: how she walks and sits and stands and gestures. His expectation (and he clearly defines it as such) is that Tosca, as a trained stage actress and “diva,” would move with great elegance and fluidity, and Dyka moves in a completely different way.

        Women can be fat without being dumpy: no one could ever call Jessye Norma, even at her most massive, “dumpy.”

        It is not an unreasonable expectation that Tosca’s movement should be elegant and graceful. A critic would be just as much in the right criticizing a mezzo singing Filippyevna if her physical performance consisted of delicate gestures and fleet movement.

        • Cicciabella

          La Cieca, you are right, of course, that Church was mostly referring to Dyka’s bearing, but I wish critics would stop using this word to describe singers. It is very hurtful, and women invariably take it as a criticism of their physique. As oedipe states below, it is, at the very least, “boorish”. I’d say words like “stocky” and “dumpy” are cruel. He could have used other words to express his dissatisfaction with her portrayal of Tosca.

          • I don’t think stocky is cruel. It’s a good way to describe a particular body shape — short, compact, somewhat wide. It also happens to be one of the most frequently encountered physiques in opera, particularly among tenors. I mean how else would you describe Richard Tucker or Jussi Bjorling in terms of physique?

            • Cicciabella

              Burly? Sturdy? Or maybe not describe it at all if it has no bearing on the character they’re portraying?

          • You should be happy that critics are not allowed to use sticks and stones.

        • Camille

          Without wading very much further into this gunky morass, I think that this sentence has great importance: how she walks and sits and stands and gestures., which La Cieca has mentioned somewhere above.

          If one has an idea how to “move” for the stage, a lot may be mitigated. Also, if the costume works. Now, in Miss Erraught’s case, they seemed to have worked overtime to make her look worse. And what was she to have done about it? Take up the Golden Shears of Beverly Sills and shred the costume in front of the costumier in her dressing room? I think a 27 year old singer is hardly in a position to contest the costume or the wig.

          I’d be mighty surprised if Tara Erraught kept the part of Oktavian in her active repertory after all of this mess, and I hope she would look to getting hired in parts that require her to wear a skirt, in ALL three acts. Poor girl, what was she to do? Say no to Glyndebourne at her age??

          oh YES, I remember that in the FIRST biography of Dame Joan, there was a little innuendo or something or another about her not going back to the very same Glyndeborne as it were, because of her very, very BAD teeth. So bad, in fact, that she went to whomever, David Webster mebbe, and got the money to have her teeth fixed.

          Glyndebourne is a small theatre. One will see the flaw all that much easier, as it were….

          • manou

            The Glyndebourne programme seems to indicate that Tara Erraught will still be performing Octavian (although it appears this will be in concert…..)

            By the way -- the same programme contains a very interesting essay entitled “Strauss’ love affair with the female voice” by one of our esteemed Parterrians.

            • Camille

              Concert would be just fine, let her go ahead and do it, so long she has the role. I would just rather not see her go through another baptism by fire, and for what? I heard the late and lamented lady, Elizabeth Connell in breeches for a concert version of Fidelio, e.g.

              Did you have a pleasant day at Glyndebourne? I hope the ride up was not too long and there were no bees on the lawn, hungering for one’s just desserts or stinging one as reward for wearing a particular fragrant or flowery parfum!

            • manou

              You are very kind to enquire, Camille. It is always a special treat to go to Glyndebourne, even though it does take just over two hours to drive there (in a Biblical downpour on Saturday). It was a perishingly cold day, so my guess is the bees stayed in the hive.

              We had a very nice dinner in a dining room, having long forsaken the doubtful pleasure of eating a chicken leg whilst shivering under a car rug. There is always the added bonus of checking out what people opted to wear -- I am sorry to say that all the men seemed to be in black tie (even though I have assured people before that this was not the case), except two people sporting velvet Mao jackets. The women….Mamma Mia! Glyndebourne is the last place where you can find self proclaimed fashionistas in extravagant confections rubbing (naked) shoulders with doddery dowagers still wearing the old curtains. There are also immaculately turned out ladies who are invariably not English. The footwear needs a separate post all its own…

            • Camille

              It still seems a privilege and a pleasure to me, even with the rain and all.

              What kind of footwear, if you please? Would they be fancy stripy and glittery high-heeled shoes, or sensible Birkenstocks to tread the lawns in and dodge the cows? Louboutins? Lanvins? Ferragamo? or Jimmy Choos, or my fave Robert Clergerie, or even the grave Gravati???

              Please do elucidate when you are once more awake as I am a great lover of les chaussures.

              Glad to hear that The Parterrians have even reached the preserve of Glyndebourne!

          • oedipe

            I think that this sentence has great importance: how she walks and sits and stands and gestures.

            And the appropriate way to describe this is “like a washerwoman”? When referring to an Eastern European working in Western Europe in the CURRENT environment?

            • Is there some sort of law that only Eastern Europeans can be employed as laundresses these days?

            • Camille

              I’m sorry, dear œdipe, I do not know what you are getting at here.

              I was using La Cieca’s descriptive phrase out of context, as it were, as I believe very deeply that people need to be trained how to move and look and walk, etc., on stage. There are fewer stage animals than one might suppose.

            • oedipe

              In case you haven’t heard about it yet: Eastern Europeans are being allowed to invade Western Europe, all the way to the shores or Britain. They are ready to take menial jobs, they commit crimes, they threaten the well-being of the civilized Western countries.

            • armerjacquino

              I have to agree with oedipe here- it’s a massive failure of sensitivity given the number of Eastern Europeans, particularly women, who are employed in menial jobs in the Western part of the continent.

              And it’s such an archaic word, anyway. I think in this case it’s as much a matter of bad writing as it is of insensitivity. There are ways of describing a lack of physical grace without sounding like something out of TOAD OF TOAD HALL.

            • Camille

              Oh, THAT, œdipe!

              Yes, I recall very well all the Italian complaints about how the Bulgarians were being allowed to sing too much, almost thirty years ago. It was said they paid more to the agents and that is why they got in.

              I also recall how the “marocchini” were referred to and treated and how they were relegated to all the kinds of work the Turkish people did in Germany, e.g.

              It’s always the same, and it is always wrong, and it will never be right.

            • Guestoria Unpopularenka

              It makes you wonder how much money those singers were left with since they were obligated to give a hefty percentage of their income to the Bulgarian government in order to be allowed out of the country.

            • oedipe


              What I am getting at is the fact that European countries have just had elections to the European Parliament and a significant number of Western Europeans have voted for extreme right wing parties with anti-immigration programs, many of which are aimed at Eastern Europe.

            • phoenix

              also in the news: Berlin voters just rejected a referendum planning to convert Tempelhof Airport, presently an open area park (about the size of NYC Central Park) into a new housing development, most voters complaining that Berlin was already overcrowded.
              -- But this is nothing new -- I remember in the 1960’s & 70’s when I was in Berlin I would overhear almost daily folks complaining about the ‘people from the east’. When I used to ride the train back & forth from east to west Berlin, many times I had to put up with dirty looks & negative comments from die ursprünglichen Bewohner, but the mix of people from all over the world was the very quality that made Berlin the fascinating metropolis it was and still is, same as it is in NYC in USA.

            • Guestoria Unpopularenka

              Eastern Europeans are natives in Berlin :P

      • oedipe

        I don’t think your “dumpy” versus “willowy” dichotomy applies to Dyka, though. Dyka is NOT short and round, she is a stunning woman, tall and sexy; I would call her buxom, not round.

        It could well be that -contrary to the storm of protests in defense of Erraught- no one (not even women) noticed the rude Brit critics’ description of Dyka as a “dumpy washerwoman” because she is, you know, a mere lowly Ukrainian, and not a Western European…

        • oedipe

          At the same time, I think Dyka should not be cast as Tosca on any major stage. But that’s not an excuse for publishing boorish remarks about her.

      • Batty Masetto

        Also, not entirely sure about the class content of “dumpy.”

        The following is only from US English (I don’t have access to a corpus of UK English), but here’s one dumpy lady who’s definitely not a washerwoman:

        — Consider the first meeting of George IV with his bride to be, Caroline.
        — She’s this short dumpy thing who is a stranger to toothpowder and washing.
        — George went on a three-day drinking binge that ended when he stumbled down the aisle.


        At home, women’s legs were always covered up; one never saw them. A dumpy body could be set off by a sari, but Jenny’s legs were taut, smooth, pale, and enticing.


        Lady Helen Maddox was a short, rather dumpy woman but made every attempt to compensate for her lack of graceful figure by expensive dress.

        • Batty Masetto

          Also, though “dumpy” may be more commonly used for women, it’s not unknown for men:

          Mikkelson is a tall, strong woman; Dreyer is her opposite, a short, dumpy man.


          One was obviously the doctor, a short and dumpy man clutching a worn black bag, his bald head beaded with sweat.

          • manou

            Thanks Batty for all this research -- and let us not forget Queen Victoria:


            oedipe -- you say “It could well be that -contrary to the storm of protests in defense of Erraught- no one (not even women) noticed the rude Brit critics’ description of Dyka as a “dumpy washerwoman” because she is, you know, a mere lowly Ukrainian, and not a Western European…“, but although most of the critics disliked Dyka, Church was the only one who described her appearance in a derogatory way. In the case of Erraught, five different critics had a go at her size, which is what spurred all the comments.

            Anne Evans wrote a long article in the Sunday Times (entitled “The Show Must Not Go On With Dumpy Divas”) where she says that she was constantly watching her weight. She said she was told by Nicholas Payne and Brian McMasters “You cannot do Fidelio looking like that”. She goes on “It put me right into dieting -- straight away -- and by the time I did Fidelio I was looking good and ready for it”.

      • DellaCasaFan

        “This dichotomy of “dumpy” versus “willowy” has a very classist undertone to me. Tall and lean is patrician, short and round below stairs.”

        Cicciabella is right on this point, at least for a society in general. Fussell brilliantly satirized it in his Class (in the US). Thin is “upper classy,” fat is “prole.” Stupid stuff but the status-seekers buy it, both figuratively and literally, and the (diet etc.) industry cashes on it.

    • Camille

      Part of the problem, at least from the bits I have gleaned from our English-speaking U.K. correspondants right here on parterre, is that these descriptive words can and/or may have a different meaning or context in various countries.

      I do agree that “stocky” is a perfectly viable descriptive term but probably more aptly applied to a man rather than a woman. Be that as it may, it would probably be considered a nice term if applied to, say, Ernestine Schumann-Heink or Kate Smith, if one follows the drift.

      However, perusing the Met Archives once again this afternoon, the old-time critics said some pretty awfully politically incorrect things--to put it mildly--so this is nothing new. If one exhibits one’s self for public pay-per-view, either learn to deal with the heat coming from Hell’s Kitchen—or get the hell out!

      • Cicciabella

        Camille, you are very tough! Although reading old-time critics can be amusing, I’d like to think we’ve evolved as a society and no longer consider humiliating remarks about performers’ looks to be the zenith of critical wit.

        Re stocky men vs women: I am yet to meet a woman who would just shrug her shoulders at being described as “stocky”. Applied to a man it can imply physical strength and elicit a neutral or even positive reaction.

        • Camille

          Yes, dear, I am. That is how I have survived all the harrowing misadventures of my life.

          Old age is not for sissies. Neither is the operatic stage, a fact I learned from Monsieur Camille numero uno, an opera singer and a constant dieter, too.

          • Guestoria Unpopularenka

            Que edad tienes? :P

            • Camille

              !Otra vez, sinvergüenza!

              Ya lo dijé, yo nació en mil ocho cientos veinte!!!!!!!!