Alice Coote: An open letter to opera criticsmain
The mezzo-soprano Alice Coote, who sings leading roles at the Met, Covent Garden and major concert halls and festivals, was outraged like many others at the slew of body insults hurled by British critics today at a young singer appearing at Glyndebourne.
On a train to her next engagement, she wrote this open letter for publication on Slippedisc:
We need to talk.
Its gotten really serious now.
We ALL need to talk.
Arts administrators, Directors and Conductors, Audience members, Conservatoires, teachers, Families, Friends, Singers and Press and Critics and Opera Companies… EVERYONE.
All you of you who have known and love Opera..and still do. All of you who know it to be the Art form that is about celebrating the human voice, the human voice at its most Olympian heights of expression. The art form when done right, meaning at its essentials – sung by a truly great singer- takes the breath away, moves the human heart soul and spirit, and creates excitement like no other.
This magic happens when a voice, maybe of recognisable or greatness of tone, that has been trained for decades as an athlete and musician, launches its instrument – part of the human body and identity- upon the greatest and most challenging music that has been written for the human singing voice.
It is not about lights, it is not about costumes, it’s not about sets, it’s not even about sex or stature… It is ALL about the human voice. This is the Olympics of the human larynx attached to a heart and mind that wants to communicate to other hearts and minds. It is something that is done without amplification and without barriers.. It is one human singing to another. LIVE.
All the visual messages that a production and costume brings to an opera does not alter ( even though they can try very hard) the fact that it’s true success in moving and making an audience love the Art form lies in the voice that sails across the pit to the audience and into their ears.
They are not moved by seeing a conventionally beautiful or attractive person walking around in a lovely or impressive costume or lights or environ. This they can get in the theatre (although I doubt that moves them much either) or in film or in daily life. Opera is NOT about that.. It is about and really ONLY about communication through great singing.
If you go back not too far in our operatic times, Pavarotti stood on stages and sang audiences into near hysteria. He became the most famous classical singer of our time.
I attended two performances of Bellini’s Norma at the Metropolitan Opera in New York last season in John Copley and John Conklin’s production. One cast was perhaps perceived in simplistic terms as more conventional looking and in today’s values “starry”. The performance was a success but I didn’t witness any big audience reaction or atmosphere of excitement.
The second performance was by a “second cast” by two of the ” greatest ” younger singers of our day, they perhaps were not physically slight as in a Grazia magazine cover , but boy could they SING. These were great voices that filled the theatre and hit the solar plexus. The audience were immediately gripped by what hit their senses and ears and a huge standing ovation occurred at the end.
I am a singer. And born of painters as parents – I am also hugely visually aware. The physical shapes that a Fonteyn and a Nureyev whom I saw as a child (and still watch) moved and move me, and excite me beyond description. I have always been fascinated by physical embodiment as a form of communication. But more than two decades as a singer watching other singers and witnessing too many performances to remember.. I know one thing for sure; (to steal Oprah’s catchphrase) OPERA is ALL about the voice.
Many of those who think they know me and may be surprised by this.. But it’s not an opinion, it’s a FACT.
Before it’s too late we need to REMEMBER THIS FACT. If a voice is right for a role and can sing it better than anyone else.. It’s more important to have that VOICE singing on a stage than any other.. Despite whether you like the way they look or not. We cannot people our operatic stages with singers that above all are believable visually or sexually attractive to our critics… That way lies the death of opera. This is not in any case a BELIEVABLE art form .. WHO are we KIDDING? But it is one that can move humans in ways that they cannot explain. And in ways that make them fall in love with great voices singing GREAT music. That is Opera in a state of health.
Opera WILL die if audiences have only average looking, average singing humans walking around in interesting ( or average) looking productions.. This will make them wonder ” WHAT IS SPECIAL ABOUT OPERA? Do I NEED this?
Our current Culture mistakenly thinks the reverse. They think that if a singer doesn’t look like a model or a “celebrity” then the audience won’t be excited.
Audiences aren’t idiots.. They can sense when they are being duped. They can sense when they are witnessing something OK and when there is something happening that is EXTRAORDINARY.
Singers and teachers know that being underweight is far more damaging to a singer’s wellbeing and performance than being overweight. Similarly I can tell you that if our stomachs are toned anywhere near a six-pack our sound will suffer. The relaxation needed for low breathing is not aided in any sense by an over worked out body. I know from my own journey that I began to sing with far more physical authority when I got beyond a certain physical weight.. Below that I just wasn’t a strong enough vehicle to launch sound from freely into large theatres and concert halls.
If young singers are pressurised into accepting a bigger emphasis on physical shape over sound and this becomes any more pressured onto them than it already is today.. then we are robbing ourselves of the great singers of the future. We are robbing ourselves of the singers that will hit our solar plexus. And we are robbing our entire human culture of the HUMAN VOICE. The Olympic Great Human Voice. And you may as well hammer that nail into the coffin of Opera right now. And not carry on with the sham of loving it.
Critics.. I beg you.
Be kind to young singers -you may change the trajectory of their lives and career if you wound them with your words. Be kind to middle aged singers. Be kind to old singers. Be kind to all singers. But above all.. If you hear a singer with a great voice listen. Look too.. But above all LISTEN. Without us it’s OVER.
PLEASE SAVE THE HUMAN VOICE
This open email was written to Norman Lebrecht as a result of personal horror and shared horror in the singing community over reviews of Der Rosenkavalier at Glyndeboune in the British Press.
(c) Alice Coote/www.slippedisc.com
UPDATE: What newspapers should do next. Click here.
Brava Alice !!
I have suffered far too many personal insults during my career about my height – or lack of it – from critics and managements alike – not much one can do about one’s stature!
One highly regarded conductor who shall remain nameless once said when approached by my agent for a role I was perfectly suited for – “Oh you mean that short fat soprano – no thank you! ”
Nothing about the voice or me as a performer!
I have never met this particular conductor and certainly never worked with them.
That remark affected me in the most damaging way at the time and it still hurts now even after a couple of decades – especially as at the time I was a size 10 !!!!!!!!!!!
We all need to speak out and brava to you for dong so xx
Kate – when you sang locally with Warwickshire Symphony Orchestra you sounded gorgeous…. Oh, and you looked gorgeous too!
Why thank you Peter xxxx
While I respect the sentiment, it’s not true! Opera is not all about voice, nor has it ever been! It’s kind of absurd to say opera’s not about lights, or costumes, or even stature–without the idea of societal stature, one could argue opera would not even have been invented!
That being said, no– critics should not mention looks in an article supposedly criticizing an opera.
Opera can be performed without light, without costumes, without sets, without makeup. Those elements can (when well done, which is increasingly rare) indeed support the music, they can enhance and create and improve the overall performance experience, but none of them are necessary for it to be opera. SINGERS are necessary. The orchestra is necessary. What is written in the score is necessary. There is no opera without great voices. This is not meant to downplay or insult the many talented directors and designers out there who add depth to the opera world. But it is fact. Without the singers, there is no opera. And until the voice is back in first place, opera will wither.
Well, that’s opera to you but those who have gone for most of its life really know that it’s all about the singing. Without the singing there are just things to look at
“It is not about lights, it is not about costumes, it’s not about sets, it’s not even about sex or stature … . It is ALL about the human voice.”
BRAVA, Alice Coote!
(sdReader = male)
Whatever happened to common politeness and good manners? I might be a working-class lout, but I was taught as a small child that adversely commenting on people’s physical appearances was the height of bad manners. To follow through on the implication of the critics, that any singer who is not tall, lithe and boyish enough to look like a 17 year old boy should not play Oktavian is preposterous. If Strauss/Hoffmannsthal actually wanted somebody who looked like a 17 year old boy, surely then that is what they would have cast? But they didn’t, did they? The privilege of writing for a broadsheet surely should not exempt anybody from having basic respect for the singers about whom they supposedly review. And in my view, an article that merely comments on the physical appearance of the performers is not actually a review.
Actually, personally I don’t think that the Oktavians and Cherubinos are meant to be all that willowy or androgynous–because the whole point of writing them for female voices is that the men should be getting a thrill out of watching 2 _women_ together.
[…] Alice Coote: An open letter to opera critics – Slipped Disc. […]
Well done, Alice! As a reader I was quite curious to see what these fussy middle-aged critics looked like themselves that they can be so extraordinarily critical of the appearances of female singers.
They are all 3 plain bordering on homely, mostly balding & definitely past-their-prime midde-aged geeks. Rupert Christian of the Telegraph is a peculiar looking bespectacled grizzled neanderthal type. While sexual preference is certainly not an issue, his bio makes it quite clear that he is not interested in women. No surprise he doesn’t like the way they look.
Michael Church still has most of his hair but it looks like he dyes it. He is very wrinkled and does not appear to be aging gracefully.
Andrew Clark is a pasty faced middle aged sad sack who is balding and looks very boring. He has the appearance of a distraught insurance salesman.
These 3 geezers should be so lucky as to spend the evening viewing attractive women singing and being able to write about it. They criticize flaws in appearance because it’s the closest they’ll ever get to women so talented and beautiful.
While I agree entirely with the sentiments expressed in the open letter and the many comments, I feel it is really counter-productive to sink to the level of the critics and resort to childish mud-slinging.
Couldn’t disagree more – it’s good for these creeps to get a taste of their own medicine.
They should be fired, in fact.
The FT, the Times and even the Telegraph deserve better. I can live with the word “stocky” from the Guardian, although I don’t see how it helps describe Tara Erraught’s work.
In fairness, Brian, I think his point is that commenting on other peoples appearances while you are not exactly a sexy hot young thing yourself is the height of double standards.
That said, nobody, not even sexy hot young things, should be entitled to ridicule others appearances. Anyway the point is that it doesn’t really matter what you look like, its what you sound like that counts. If supposedly seasoned critics on established broadsheets don’t get that, then what chances has a less experienced audience member?
It is the height of disrespect, indeed insult, to the artist’s intelligence and art to have his/her outward appearance twitted like that. The critics are there to criticise the singer’s SINGING. Even the notorious G.B. Shaw of the sharp tongue never criticised a singer because he/she had a few kilos more on them. The critics mentioned deserve to be ridiculed – they asked for it.
Actually, the job of a critic is to “critique” the performances, not to criticize them, which is what has happened here. That aside, yes, Opera is a visual art form. It is mostly, as Ms. Coote so rightly claims, an art form that is based upon music and, specifically, upon singing. That is what makes it opera and not just theater, or not just an orchestral concert. It is the singing, and the kind of singing, that makes it OPERA. A critic may feel the need to comment on the lighting, or sets or costumes. That same critic may also feel the need to comment on the performances, either overall or individually. But to comment specifically on one performers appearance is an affront to responsible “journalists” everywhere. Appearance has no affect on the performance. And to pick out something like personal appearance does a great injustice to not only the performer, but to the audience as well. If an audience has come to see an opera, there is a good chance that they can see beyond personal characteristics of the performers to the piece as a whole. And if there is great music being made, great singing happening, if an audience can be reached by the performers, then is it an incredible insult to tell them that they should be concerned more with personal appearance than with the production.
This kind of comment says much more about the particular critic, and what is important to him, than it does about the poor singer. I realize that I am a late-comer to the discussion here, but the fact that someone can become so incensed after the fact should say something about the culture in which such a comment is made. Kudos to Alice Coote for taking a stand, for speaking out.
I don’t think anyone should be body policing.
the critics were in the wrong, but that doesn’t make doing it back at them the right thing to do.
Well, they shouldn’t have criticised anyone else about their personal apperance, because you reap what you sow.
If you don’t want bad deeds to come back to haunt you, avoid at all costs.
I think it is perfectly fine to bring up these three critics own outward appearance. The person who brought it up did not resort to any bashing, but just provided a realistic judgement from their profiles and behaviour.
These ‘critics’ today feel self entitled to judge another person when they are hardly capable of doing anything themselves. I would like to see any of these people attempt to run a country, write a book, dance, sing…they can’t, so they sit up in some posh magazine office nitpicking trivial things about people. It is not just women who are abused by these armchair Einsteins – if a man does not act like some manic brute, he is deemed to demi character roles in ballets and opera. I have seen it happen.
Childish mudslinging? Really? What did she say that was so awful? Critics, I beg you, be kind to singers? I would hardly call that mudslinging. She did not call names or even really hold these critics accountable for their pathetic, arrogant misogyny.
Thank you, Alice Coote. Well said.
We need more voices like yours, on and off stage.
I wonder if other sectors would allow this. I can imagine “well her numeracy skills are excellent, but she’s just not sexy enough or thin enough to really be good at her job as an accountant”
Ones looks do not affect how one does their job when that job’s skill set is nothing to do with their looks. I implore the critics to realise that ones larynx or vocal ability is not connected in ANY way to how pretty or thin we may or may not be. We are really edging dangerously close to physical discrimination here.
Sadly, this sort of thing does indeed happen to women in every field. No matter how accomplished a woman is, her appearance is always considered public property and her desirablity (as determined by any mouth-breathing basement dweller with an internet connection who wishes to contribute his scintillating opinion on the matter) trumps any actual accomplishments she may have made. Just refer to any comments section on any article about any woman.
That being said, it is still inexcusable. The critics who so viciously attacked the young singer on the basis of her looks should be ashamed both professionally and personally, especially since they could (apparently) find no fault with her actual singing. Where is the logic in attacking a person’s appearance? Where is the logic in saying, “I don’t like the way you look, so you must be excoriated?” If, and it’s a big if, there is criticism to be made here, should it not be aimed at the casting director?
I’m a singer, and I’m a big girl. I possess, as I like to say, an hourglass figure with LOTS of extra sand. Can’t wait to see the reaction to my first Orlovsky this fall, but I am looking forward to the role with relish.
Oh, and brava, Ms. Coote, for your eloquence and courage in speaking words the world needs to hear. There is only one reason for the ridiculous, homogenized standard of beauty pushed upon us by the media: to make people feel bad about themselves so they will BUY STUFF. It’s particularly rampant in America but sadly seems to be gaining a greater foothold in the rest of the world. The more of us who reject this standard, the better.
I saw that second cast Norma (and wrote about it on my little publication.) It was one of the finest performances by a Norma and Adalgisa I’ve seen and the two singers in question were even better a year before in Beatrice di Tenda at Carnegie Hall.
Bravo well said. We all like to look good too but it is the use of the voice and music that beguiled us all in the first place and then also the interpretative and acting ability with that. Body language is very important but it is the total package that matters – someone who knows how to move appropriate to the meaning and style not just physical jerks.
Brilliantly put, Alice. And Elizabeth Connell (my late sister) is surely applauding you madly from above….!
Bravo Alice! And well said!
The last decade has seen a disturbing trend become rule rather than the exception. Perhaps it’s the lure of the HD broadcast dollars? But honestly, what opera fan wouldn’t prefer to hear a great voice – even at the cinema for an HD broadcast – than a pretty face and svelte body that can barely get through the role.
I keep hearing that it is the way that opera companies are planning for the future. Marketing to a new generation that has grown up on MTV. I have spent 25 years in TV Marketing and
I regularly lecture high school students in the New York area about careers in the arts and I can say conclusively that the Opera companies are ALL MISSING THE BOAT.
The next generation of opera fans (at least in this country) could not care less about body size and shape. Rather, they “oooh and aaah” and watch and listen with reverence at recordings and videos of Sutherland, Caballe, Horne, et. al. — voices, real voices, the kind that are in shorter and shorter supply today. But in truth, I have no doubt that they are probably out there… but they are not getting the same opportunities that their more camera-friendly colleagues are being afforded.
I live in New York and the Met is the house I attend most often, but over the last ten years my attendance has dwindled (as has the Met’s overall attendance). I can’t see clear to paying the exorbitant prices they charge for the mediocrity that they consistently put on the stage.
I hope more singers will join the chorus, so to speak, because it’s really not about “making opera more relevant” to today’s audience — it’s about putting on great productions sung by great singers — always has been, always will be.
Thank you for putting this so eloquently. This music has the power to transcend all such considerations – that is its magic. Why those that cannot feel that bother even going to opera I don’t know.
‘And in ways that make them fall in love with great voices singing GREAT music.’
The Met ‘Norma’ performances with Angela Meade and Jamie Barton referred to here, heard on-line on a different continent, did that to me in a life-changing way. And I couldn’t see anything…although I do now have a photo of them from that production on my wall, and very lovely it is too!
I am so grateful for your Open Letter !! It was about time someone tells them !!
Thank you, Alice. This is so horrible. It breaks my heart. I can say with complete honesty, I have myself, over 20 years of singing, and at every weight I had from thin to post pregnancy not so thin, been more insecure and self conscious about my weight, than I ever was about any other aspect of my performance. Such cruelty is humiliating and even debilitating. For God’s sake, judge us on our singing and acting, our stage presence, our musicality. That’s part of the job. But don’t destroy our self esteem. And let’s not forget, as singers we are far too often forced to wear costumes that are unflattering for some theatrical motivation, and are nonetheless held responsible for it.
Here, here! I’ve been big all my life and have rarely met a costumer who knows how to clothe my body. I usually get to watch my skinny colleagues walk onstage in cute outfits before I walk on in Grandma’s curtains. The best I ever look onstage is when I wear my own dresses.
After my own experiences (I was once told that a conductor said he loved me with his eyes closed but not with his eyes open), I’m so glad that someone is speaking out about this! Thank you Alice Coote for being bold enough to remind everyone that opera is about the Voice and the emotion it evokes. Not about a skinny body in a little black dress or bare chested workout king!
Never have I found an article that resounds of every reason to LOVE opera…and every reason why “lovers” are killing it.
“This is the Olympics of the human larynx attached to a heart and mind that wants to communicate to other hearts and minds. It is something that is done without amplification and without barriers.. It is one human singing to another. LIVE.”
This is the truest explanation of the magnificent beauty of the operatic voice. The stratospheric heights one can achieve are truly unimaginable until one experiences the thrill of an opera’s climax in person. Sadly, the legend of opera that has triumphed for the past six centuries is being buried underneath a storm of pretension, vanity, and gross misunderstandings about what opera is and what it means to be an opera singer.
“If a voice is right for a role and can sing it better than anyone else.. It’s more important to have that VOICE singing on a stage than any other.. Despite whether you like the way they look or not. We cannot people our operatic stages with singers that above all are believable visually or sexually attractive to our critics… That way lies the death of opera.”
Absolutely accurate! Unfortunately, many companies are resorting to using people with “aesthetically pleasing” features to draw in audiences with a more shallow and narrow-minded perception of entertainment. Both promoters and audiences fail to realize that all aesthetic limitations are dropped when an operatic champion uses his or her voice to reach immortal heights of greatness and, much like the fictional Zeus, strike lightning into the hearts of his or her audience.
As a college student a couple of years ago, I saw my first opera at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. The fact that I was sitting in the top tier, geographically as far from the stage as the Statue of Liberty is from Times Square, meant nothing once the first cries of the overture were heard. While it was difficult to make out the figures of those singing at times, none of that mattered when the singers of “Tosca” poured out their hearts and brought Puccini’s stunning score to life. Never in my life have I seen people – including myself – overcome with such joy and awe over something as I did that night at the Met. It is this experience that I try to relay to those unfamiliar or misinformed about the TRUE meaning of opera and why we singers do it. The physical means nothing without the voice.
[…] read it here. Then I went to read the reviews that caused her to write this. I won’t link to them. To […]
Alice Coote is talking real sense here. Couldn’t agree more.
This is a wonderful, heartfelt, passionate appeal, beautifully and so thoughtfully written. Brava! I have always loved opera as an art form, and even as a visual artist (an sometimes set designer) I wholeheartedly agree with all you say. Indeed, some of the best things I’ve seen have been in concert, with no sets or costumes or anything… Just glorious singing. I have read some shockingly unkind reviews by so-called-experts who like to draw attention to themselves by being caustic.
I have also become aware of opera performances sometimes failing to carry an audience away for all the reasons you describe.
I congratulate you on your courage and sincerity and for the sake of future opera lover, thank you.
I the campaign goes further and if you need supporters, count me in!
Alice, well said! About time someone protested against the ridiculous shrine of Size Zero, most particularly in opera. Please recall the Golden Age of opera, with glorious singers such as Melba, Tetrazzini, Schumann-Heink, Caruso, McCormack, Gigli and numerous others, none of who, thank goodness, were sylphs! Maybe if there were more singers built in the heroic mold with great voices and less mediocre Garancas, Kaufmanns and Netrebkos, opera in general would not be in the state it is in.
While I think the letter is well written I worry that the emphasis is a little off. Surely it’s not about advocating big singers over slim singers, and slim doesn’t equal ‘average’! Surely the point should be about picking the RIGHT voice for the RIGHT part and body shape shouldn’t even be a part of the discussion at all. Life is full of all shapes and sizes, and opera should reflect that. It is all about the voice, whatever shape that voice comes in
Mary, I promise to stand up for the opera singers whose excellent performances are slated because they are too thin or too pretty, but that hasn’t happened yet. There is no doubt but that the treatment of this particular singer is based on her physique alone. Most of the reviews themselves point out that she is a “promising mezzo” or that her role was “gloriously sung” or that she sings with “vibrant assurance”. In other words, she is the right voice, as you say. But they go on to say that her weight makes her unbelievable in the role.
“Slim” doesn’t equal “average” but “Slim” does equal “no abusive comments about your physique”. And so I have to conclude that Alice’s emphasis is bang on. This is all about physique and not allowing reviewers to disregard a powerful new talent because of weight.
We are actually in agreement about this Brid, however in Financial Times review it said ‘Kate Royal, an unusually slim, young Marie-Thérèse’ and in another it also made comments about her vocal troubles after having children. My point was not to take away for the original reviews which I found utterly distasteful but to question Ms Coote’s assertion that big singers are better than slim. I think that takes away from the whole point and does a disservice to the issue that’s been raised, that of attacking a persons physique, a factor that shouldn’t even enter the equation. I wasn’t disagreeing more questioning the tone
It takes away that it happens more often to fat performers. I think we can all agree that there is substantial privilege to thin performers. It doesn’t mean that individual thin performers don’t get a hard time, but it systematically happens to fat performers.
But did Alice say that big singers are better than small singers? I don’t think she did at all. She said that singers should be reviewed based on voice, not on appearance.
Brava Alice Coote,
Beautifully said.Maybe you should have a word with Mr Gelb who dropped the wonderful soprano Ruth Ann Swenson,after a major cancer operation and after she put on weight,and gave all the publicity to the singing and dancing Danielle de Niese,who to put it kindly,is not in Swenson’s league as a vocal artist,when she was in the second cast of Giulio Cesare.Oops!I think you were in that production!It’s especially interesting that you so admired for your acting and physicality should speak up for the primary importance of the Great Voice.
Great Article. I remember singing for a casting director in Germany, only to be told that for a production of Turandot, they were looking for ‘models who sing’! Singers come in all shapes and sizes, and the sound and the indefinable magic they create WHEN they sing is everything in opera. – It is what the art form is about – the design, direction and ephemera are just that, and should never effect the music and the sound.
Thank you Alice. That a fellow Irish mezzo has been attacked in this way is a disgrace and I am so pleased to see a singer of your calibre leap to her defence (and that of others). One such review actually said “There is no doubt of the talent of this young Irish mezzo, based in Germany, who sings with vibrant assurance and proves herself a spirited comedian. But she is dumpy of stature…” The idea that she should be disregarded for physique alone while executing the singing and acting parts of her job with aplomb is abhorrent to me. I sincerely hope the singer in question does not listen to these cretins and continues to acquit herself so ably on the international stage.
(On a side note, I think it is very wise, and commendable, that the singer’s name is being left out of this discussion by most people commenting. It means that the reviewers can be named and shamed without adding to the Google-searchable content on the lady in question.)
Well said, Alice Coote. These reviews are a disgrace to the writers and a shocking impertinence.
Brava Alice – one of our greatest voices. It saddens me when it appears we may not get the opportunity to hear some of the greatest voices around because of this prejudice. Are we not to hear Jamie Barton or Marie-Nicole Lemieux until they’ve dieted? Shocking stuff. And, I’m afraid, not helped by certain directors whose wacky productions positively militate against the voice whether by making singers do too much physical stuff for the sake of ‘authenticity’ or ‘releveance’ or nonsense costumes.
Bravissima, more people of us singers should be an ambassador for Singing like we do, this is a true, honest letter. Brava Alice!
Someone needs to research and publish findings on the correlation between male music critics of a certain sexual proclivity and the fixation with a certain female physique that is pure mysogynistic fetishism. These men would not tolerate homophobia directed at them or anyone but feel free to write about singers, women especially, in the most disrespectful manner, as we just read in the reviews of Rosenkavalier. There is a pernicious double standard that has to end. And yes, these men need to be fired immediately for their transgressions.
That’s an unfair assertion, unfounded too.
I cannot agree that opera is solely about voices.
Were that true, then operas could just as well be performed a cappella in the dark.
I do agree that when a singer’s appearance does not closely match the character as described in the libretto and/or score, then in evaluating the performance, primacy should be given to the singer’s musical and dramatic performance and not to the suitability of their appearance (though I don’t think that reviewers should be intimidated out of ever criticizing a performer’s appearance, either).
Nathan Gunn in Billy Budd, and Renee Fleming (and/or Kiri Te Kawana) in Capriccio certainly are cases where the comeliness of a performer enhanced the overall strong performances given. Also, some opera characters would not be well-served by performers who appeared to be undernourished, for example, Falstaff and Mrs. Quickly.
Entirely concur. Opera enthusiasts often claim pre-eminence for the genre by emphasising that it’s an amalgam of all the arts – costumes, music, voices, theatre, sets, etc – which is why such huge resources are devoted to a production (usually subsidised by the taxpayer) and tickets are so expensive. We expect quality in all those areas and critics rightly complain if they’re not up to standard. In film and theatre, casting takes account of physical appearance and its appropriateness to the character; why not in opera? If opera is only about the voice, sing it in recital, thus making it financially accessible to many more people. When a role such as Turandot or Cio-Cio San requires particular physical attributes it is surely legitimate to cast accordingly and to criticise a failure to do so. If the response is that opera is so unreal it doesn’t matter what a singer looks like, then we don’t need all the vastly expensive paraphernalia of stage presentation.
I have to say I agree entirely. Opera is a show, and despite what Alice Coote says it IS about ALL the attributes of the show. Imagine if you were to say the same thing about theatre or films. XX is a great actor and therefore should be allowed to play ANY part, no matter whether the actor looks right for the part or not. That of course would be ludicrous. For many years opera has got away with the notion that provided the voice is great then the singer/actor (for they are both) should be allowed to sing ANY part. When we watch opera we want to be carried away by the plot, the music and the singers. If the fantasy world created is destroyed by the fact that, for example, a very fat and aged male singer is chosen to play the part of a young and handsome lover would we not all be appalled?
I am thinking of the Met performance of La Boheme with Pavarotti and Joan Sutherland in the main roles. While the visuals were off (Joan being a strapping and tall woman and Pavarotti being, well, the magnificent Pavarotti) as they sang of starvation and poverty, there was seldom a finer performance of the role during that era. We seem to expect more of performer’s looks today, but to the detriment of many roles. Look at an opera singers’ physique. Look carefully. You have to have a rib cage that can support lung that create those golden notes; small framed in the business are far and few between. I say this as a teacher and a performing mezzo myself. Even in pop music, you usually don’t get the gigantic voice range and the powerful voices (at least ones that last) in tiny frames. Leave the singers be. Let them do what they have spent their entire life training to do–create magic with music. Critics, sod off.
” If the fantasy world created is destroyed by the fact that, for example, a very fat and aged male singer is chosen to play the part of a young and handsome lover would we not all be appalled?”
Speaking as an ardent Wagnerian, that pretty much describes most performances of Siegfried. And no, we aren’t all appalled. Siegfried is, ostensibly, a teenager who false passionately in love with Brünnhilde, and yet the role is so difficult that many singers don’t start to essay it until their 40s by which time middle-aged spread has set in for most of them. Wolfgang Windgassen was perhaps the greatest Siegfried of his generation, and he was huge. So was Lauritz Melchior. But the purity of their tone and force of their singing makes listening to them a pleasure today, even despite the monophonic sound and tinny quality of the recorded orchestra. Listen to Windgassen and Melchior sing “Notung! Notung!” and ask yourself that, if you had the chance to see and hear that live, would you be caviling over their less-than-Hollywood figures?
I am afraid Alice that opera these days is no longer about the human voice only. The days of “park and bark” are fading fast. I agree though that critics should be more discerning with their comments.
But Guus( Hi BTW xx) the one doesn’t preclude the other – or rather, to be the upper side of a size 16 does not mean that one cannot inhabit the character physically – we work with singers of all sizes at Co-Opera Co. and what we teach is based on the combination of voice, mind and body.
Perhaps what you mean is that casting nowadays is indeed based on looks.
I have to say from my experience both as a singer and as one who helps singers – that the ability to act does not come down to one’s size – be it small or large x
Hi Kate, casting has to do with finding out if a singer is able -with the inspiration of a creative team – to inhabit a role. Physical size is neither hear nor there. However, the human voice alone is no longer sufficient to assess a singer’s suitability for the stage. xx
I agree with Guus Mostart. It is not only about The Voice in the modern opera world. That does not mean we do not care for voices but the complete package is what counts today. Pavarotti had a great Voice but in his last years hè more and more gave concerts, without any staging. That was enough for many of his fans because they hate modern directors anyway. In Holland we have a great series of opea in concert on saturday matinees. There looks do not really matter and the concerts are great for Voice lovers.
I agree Guus – but I don’t think things have changed so much since our days at Glynditz.
Then why is it when that the last time the suitability of singers for roles was determined almost exclusively by what they could do with their voices (1950s and 60s) and how they expressed themselves with said voices the MET managed to be sold out most every night and it was considered the Second Golden Age of Opera?
Brilliant comment! The point always remains: would the public buy tickets to see pretty models walking around in some modern production without singing, or would they buy tickets to HEAR good, perhaps great, singing in a traditional production coming from performers whose size and shape might not be ideal, but which could be ‘disguised’ theatrically by those oh-so-clever directors, designers, etc.?
I would like to point out that singers do benefit from a healthy, active body. A singer who has a finely tuned relationship with all their musculature (including strong abdominals) has a more coordinated command over their instrument than one who may be vocally gifted but isn’t “in” their body. There is also a level of comfort and confidence that comes with an active lifestyle. This translates to both vocal energy and commanding, engaging performances. All this said, active and healthy people come in many shapes and sizes.
Wonderful letter. Although I do agree with Mary that it’s also very easy to miss the point here, which is that we shouldn’t be judging ANYONE on their physical appearance. I was at music college with a wonderful singer who was constantly told she was too thin (even though she had an incredible instrument and massive potential) and unfortunately she has now given up as a result of the criticism. It is about what is vocally appropriate as well as the artist’s musicality, interpretation, acting, communication and movement…i.e are you the best person for the job. One would be hypocritical to say that opera singers should only be larger-framed people, because that depends on the role/fach too. But size shouldn’t matter if you are capable of showing your skill as a great artist, just as the singer in question has done.
Ms. Coote as a former journalist I apologize on behalf of my former profession for anyone who would write a personal attack. It was unprofessional for an opera critic to talk about any performer’s size, and I’m sorry you felt attacked. But as a theatre historian and I very much object to your definition of opera. If opera is just about the singing … that is a concert. Opera is about the glorious combination/combination of performance, acting, scenery, lights, direction, orchestra, and singing toward the goal of telling a story. If someone is not believable in the character … that might be worth mentioning … but critics and their editors should ask themselves if the lack of believability is just the critic’s personal bias or integral to the production. It’s a fine line but one that should never delve into personal attack.
Nichole you are absolutely right – opera is not JUST about singing and, to expand, singing and performing as a singer in opera is not JUST about the voice – BUT the voice is the essential nucleus.
Yes we need to be believable in our roles and that is what we strive for – we are though at the mercy of designers and directors who sometimes seem to delight in conspiring against us.
But essentially we use our voices and our bodies – and our minds – to convey what the composer and librettist have set out for us. We are after all singing actors.
In this particular case – I wonder how many young 17 year old boys there are out there who are less than stick thin but who are actually still very attractive to the opposite sex – quite a few I would guess.
I think it says a lot about the critic’s “idea” of what a woman might find attractive in a young man – stereotyping is so wrong in this context – in my opinion.
Nicole, as a theater historian I feel your profession limits your view or opera. I would never comment on the essential values of theater as I am an opera accompanist and director. Opera is definitely about the voice. There’s nothing wrong with all the other things that people do on stage. It’s just that without the voice communicating the emotions then opera is dry and dead. That is really the point Ms. Coote is making.
Opera is all about voice? Sorry, I think you’re wrong. Without voice, opera is nothing. But if it’s all just about voice, while dramatic ability and stage chemistry are lacking, it’s still not good enough to keep the art form alive.
actually, the young mezzo in question has great comedic timing. Chemistry involves two or more people, though, and it can be hit or miss even between two accomplished actors.
Thank you, Alice, for speaking up for the true values of our art form so eloquently! The voice IS what we are about, and I speak as one who is also very visually aware. I like beauty as much as the next person, but would choose a glorious voice over physical beauty every time, ditto a true actor who communicates his or her emotion. Without the visceral power of the unamplified human voice, we are NOTHING!
I really hope this stimulates debate amongst all sectors of the opera world and that a corner can thereby be turned. Again; thank you!
Some of these unkind, unsavoury and unnecessary descriptions would come under the umbrella of ‘troll’ in Twitterland. Paid pros should be just that. Professional.
I was at the performance. Tara Erraught’s singing was so vibrant, so enthusiatic, so loving and her acting so convincing that she was beautiful. Beauty is not just physical — it is the whole package.
I’m sorry to be the voice of partial dissent here. But, while I fully uphold and support its noble personal intentions and dignified sensitivities, I disagree with much of the artistic premise of Alice’s letter.
The unpardonably offensive language and ad hominem attacks by these “critics” – too often the self-anointed arbiters of an erroneous, absolute artistic standard – are deplorable, and demand a published apology to the wonderful singer in question.
But – to Alice’s related argument – opera is NOT all about the voice, at least not from the perspective of the audience. To claim otherwise, and as a matter of fact, is a very singer-centric construct. Whether or not opera singers like it, storytelling – in the context of LIVE theatre, whether sung or spoken – involves our brain’s auditory AND visual cortexes. The extent to which an individual audience member will rely upon either cortex will vary according to the individual’s sensibilities and experience. But each member counts.
And storytelling should always be the ultimate goal. Opera, like most musical and literary art forms, is about narrative. The narrative is only served by the singing, and the singers ability – in Meisner’s words – to “live truthfully in imaginary circumstances.” But the narrative is not the singing itself.
The great baritone Benjamin Luxon, for whom Britten created the television opera “Owen Wingrave” in recognition of Ben’s sublime ability to fulfill Meisner’s definition of the actor’s craft, used to talk about the “opera singer” and the “opera actor”. Most pertinently, he insisted that they should not be distinguishable. The opera singer, by any other name, is an actor.
(I would welcome a related discussion some day on why the conservatories do not focus on real acting training for opera singers. Perhaps the misleading and limiting term “opera singer” holds the answer.)
Any actor preparing a role will consider the specific physicality of the role. There are famous examples of it, from De Niro in “Raging Bull” to McConaughey in “Dallas Buyer’s Club.” These actors accept, without self-judgement – and that is key – that their physicality belongs to the specificity involved in serving the narrative. However well Billy Budd sings to us over the orchestra, we must believe that his physical presence has lead to Claggart’s rage: “Oh Beauty, oh handsomeness, goodness, would that I never encountered you!” We must see as well as hear the cause of Claggart’s deadly resentment. However stridently Siegfried’s voice fills the hall for hours on end, this hero to end all heroes must bare the presence of such a hero, because he is there in front of our eyes, too. By “presence” I do not mean the banal suggestion of an action hero’s chiseled torso, but the physical baring of a hero in movement, authority and stature.
None of this is intended to relate specifically to the Glyndebourne production, but to refute Alice’s general claim that opera audiences do not use their eyes as part of their cognitive engagement with narrative flow. They do. We all do. Nor do I mean to imply that all opera singers need to spend half the day in the gym. Not at all. What I am saying is that all opera singers, male or female, should consider the totality of their physical instrument as it relates to a specific role. From role to role that may mean working on established acting techniques to find a specific physicality, it may entail shrinking or growing, tucking it in or letting it all hang out. But to deny the audience member his or her visual cortex, to hide behind the voice alone, is to offer a singer’s world view only, and to deny a substantial and inescapable proportion of the bio-neurological mechanics of human perception.
I applaud and deeply admire so many opera singers and directors today who have gone beyond the old values of “stand and sing” opera to recognize these essential values of the singer as actor. And while I miss some of the great voices of yesteryear, and listen to them every day, I hear and see many complete vocal actors on today’s stages. I was mesmerized, for example, by the production values of San Francisco’s recent “Moby Dick”, not least by its creative collaboration with the cinematographer. The layered physicality of Jay Hunter Morris’s Ahab was every bit as mesmerizing as his singing. His voice WAS his body, and his body served the narrative perfectly. The whole cast matched his “total vocal actor” ethic. This should be the standard for opera in the 21st century as the great storytelling art form that it is, and central to its perpetuation and evolution. It is not all about the voice.
If opera really were just about the voice we wouldn’t be engaged in this thread. That said, the critics were out of line and their comments inappropriate, particularly since they appear to unanimously acclaim Terra’s acting. I can’t count the amount of performances of opera and straight theatre I’ve attended where the performers’ performances have rendered their catwalk suitability redundant. If Octavian’s dramatic rendition was as good as the critics in question say then their fatuous comments are even more risible and we shouldn’t be getting into a tizz about the bees in their own bonnets.
Sorry: Tara’s acting.
I believe it was Ms. Voigt who said she believed the problem in opera overall was not so much a focus fat vs thin but on concept vs music. In other words, the productions themselves now are often by directors perhaps not steeped in either opera knowledge or tradition. These productions therefore focus on the visual, the drama and the sometimes crazy requirements of their concepts as opposed to music. “You can’t sing a concept” is the quote I remember.
Very useful and fruitful discussion for both singers, critics, opera lovers and all others involved. Ms. Coote proved at least her starting position to be absolutely true, a fact: we need to talk!
Some ten years ago the complete Mariinsky Opera troup had a guest appearance in Split, Croatia. Alas, the theater was too small and too poor to host the stage and to be able to afford a stage performance, so we got the concert performance of Onegin. The superb orchestra on the stage, Gergiev in front of them, and the singers all sitting on the ramp, with both the orchestra and the conductor behind their back. And never looking back.
What a miracle it was! The moment they sat there, in their regular concert suits/dresses, the way they sat there, looked at us and barely to each other, they were not the Mariinsky soloists, they were nor concert nor opera singers, they were Tatiana, Olga, Onegin, Lenski, Gremin… they were “only” sitting, standing and singing out there, using the body language in the most minimalistic way, but my God were they acting, too! Although I’ve seen quite many performances, including Onegin, in the Mariinsky itself, this one in Split is also one of the most memorable I’ve ever seen. And I don’t think about it as a concert, but simply as an opera performance.
Why were they so believable in their roles without a stage set, lighting, costumes? Because of their superb voices as instruments of their whole beings, intellects, emotions, body statures, skills and knowledge. You can call it also souls and hearts if you wish.
But, even with only those few and extremely limited movements and gestures they were still acting, too. And, sincerely, today I don’t remember physics of their bodies at all. But I remember very well all those sensations and impressions opera can create, which Ms. Coote described in such a great way showing much more talent for writing than many media professionals.
Of course, opera is not only about the voice and nothing else. But, the fact is also this: without great voices, so well trained, controlled, inspired and filled with inner passion, such a performance would have been nothing but a dull, boring concert even with the top models singing.
To conclude: in opera great voice can substitute and cover not so perfect or compatible to a role physical appearance, but never the opposite!
I have just been to a wonderful ‘concert’ performance of Der Rosenkavalier at Birmingham Symphony Hall with Alice Coote in the title role. The entire cast, chorus & orchestra gave a stunning performance which transported the whole audience and we stood and cheered at the end. The best opera performances require singers who can also act well, but they do not need to be a particular shape or age to inhabit the part and convey the character through their acting and singing skills. Some of my favourite performances have been on the concert platform where we can also all appreciate a view of the conductor and the orchestral musicians who also contribute enormously to great Opera. Opera is the ultimate musical art form combining great singing, acting and orchestral performance. Thank you Alice Coote.
I think you’re absolutely right to call these critics out, but despite your good intentions and your obvious passion on this issue, you’ve (unintentionally I’m sure) marginalized a whole group of people who are mostly in your camp. Your statement that opera is “all about the voice” is not at all fact – it is an opinion, albeit one that we may all share. I think the human voice is certainly the crown jewel of opera, but to take your statement that opera is “all about the voice” at face value (unintentionally, again I give you) demeans the work of hundreds of designers, crew, pianists, orchestra musicians, librarians, stage managers, supers, and countless other artistic and technical staff working ungodly hours towards the preservation and advancement of our art.
You are right to compare singing in opera to an Olympian event. But it is a team event, perhaps THE ultimate team event in the artistic world. For so many people of different backgrounds, disciplines, training, and opinions to come together in one art form to present something to the world is truly Olympian in scale and effort.
Perhaps it’s just semantics, but I think we’d agree that the way things are communicated can make or break relationships between everyone – family, friends, colleagues.
All that being said, I still think you’re right to be angry. I certainly don’t feel an ounce of compassion for critics when they choose to debase the community for the sake of sensationalism and readership. If I knew that the intention of these critics was to start the conversation as you have clearly succeeded in doing, I might have cut them some slack.
Thank you for calling on us to talk this out!
LET’S BE CLEAR
I would hope it’s an absolute given, that opera is about story telling and the ability to act and communicate to a very high level on a stage, physically and psychologically- and that great theatre and story telling is about a whole visual world that the designer of sets and that of lights and the costume designer and director collaborate ( hopefully ) to create.. In which a story can be told. OF COURSE that is essential and if it’s great then the chance of the resonance a singers performance and that of the orchestra also has is likely to be more significant as an interpretation of great works. Opera is indeed a collaboration a massive one.. That involves hundreds of people…. no one appreciates these people of incredible talent and hard work to create world of the story and the orchestras that create the entire sound world of those pieces more than I. But this will ALL fall flat and the entire collective effort will not realise a completion artistically unless the singers on the stage ride the crest of that artistic collective and deliver the music to its utmost realisation.
I am NOT advocating big singers.. I am advocating the best vocal and artistic talent WHATEVER shape that comes in.. That in the right combination is a voice and personality and mind and heart that can musically and VOCALLY assume those roles the best.
Everyone who works in Opera houses as I have witnessed- gets VERY excited when a great cast or a great singer sings works they know very well BETTER than they have ever heard.. It means that they know there is a chance that something truly special can happen. Ripples of excitement run through an orchestra when in a rehearsal they get to hear a singer who can fly musically WITH them and take the piece to its greatest summits. I witness stage hands and designers and costume makers and administrators who all know and love this music so well and who also realise that unless your singers deliver, ALL efforts are ultimately thwarted.
I am afraid without the voices, it’s an endeavour with a hole it it’s core.
Bravo! Beautifully said, I couldn’t agree more. As a conductor, I only care about the voice. Any conductor who doesn’t is an absolute idiot. My voice teacher, Albert Lance, was a little bit overweight, so what? Who cares? He sang with great passion, great squillo, beautiful phrasing and set the hall on fire. Besides, if critics think overweight people are not supposed to be lovers, it is downright discrimination! Anybody can be Romeo and Juliet because everybody has experienced these feelings. Let’s all concentrate on our EARS!
Just a couple of thoughts. If opera is ALL about voice why bother to stage it in the first place? Glyndebourne has, as far as I know, always tried to match singer to role. It is a smallish house with the singers clearly visible to all the audience. Would, for example, an 18 stone Violetta, a 50 year old Rodolfo or a black Butterfly work there?
“Would, for example, an 18 stone Violetta, a 50 year old Rodolfo or a black Butterfly work there?” Are you kidding me. If they have the vocal chops I can assure you that audiences would be thrilled with an 18 stone Violetta, a 50 year old Rodolfo and a black Butterfly. Take you head out of your fundament. I agree with Ms. Coote. Opera is about voice – the rest is necessary window dressing – you need it but without the instrument, who cares.
Opera is about voice – the rest is necessary window dressing
FYI, Leontyne Price was a tremendous success as Butterfly when she took on the role. Are you saying that we shouldn’t have any colour-blind casting at all? In that case, why not say that only 14-year-old Japanese girls are “allowed” to play Butterfly?
As some of you have pointed out, opera is not only about singing, it is a package of singing, acting, scenery etc. But is it about compromise? Too many of our singers, while undeniably good-looking, have mediocre voices. That is not to say being full-bodied is a prerequisite for a good voice, but do opera impresarios choose singers first and foremost because of their physical beauty? Because that is darn well what it looks/sounds like!
I quit opera because of this. Other reasons, too, but this was a big one. Nobody liked the way I looked but my teachers told me I was vocally gifted enough to make it. But when it came down to audition time, I was passed over. When it came time for YAP’s, I wasn’t even given auditions. Not to sound rude or bitter but watching people less qualified surpass me in every way was complete agony. I endured much cruelty and heartache until finally I decided to hang it all and I’m not looking back because the opera world isn’t going to start hiring fat girls in an age where it’s all about the HD broadcasts and the promo pics. It just isn’t worth it.
As a singer I was trained to listen NOT to look. I grew up watching Sutherland, Pavarotti, Horne, Connell, Marton and many others, not a size 10. I buy CD’s to listen to and would only buy a DVD to listen to a great voice not watch a thin singer with an average voice or the production – don’t take that personally directors. THIS HAS TO STOP, I agree. The pretense that audiences want thin singers is rubbish. It’s managements and critics that want them. If it were true then opera wouldn’t be struggling but it is. Audiences want great singing and great voices because great voices stir your inner soul. I don’t go to the opera now because I miss hearing real voices.
We have become a society of voyeurs wanting to watch androdginous shaped artists. Have we all lost the power to listen? Opera is dying, because audiences aren’t being thrilled often enough by the most extraordinary instrument of all – the voice. The corporate world and producers have taken over where once the conductors and great opera lovers ruled. THE ART HAS GONE OUT OF THE ARTFORM.
I’m broadly a fan of Rupert Christiansen but this is surely a lapse of judgment which says something telling, and a bit depressing, about trends in opera. Making an effort to ensure that characters are believable is one thing but one can take it too far. After all Sutherland and Pavarotti were unlikely ever to be offered modelling contracts, but that didn’t stop them being two of the finest, most rewarding artists – in any art form – in the second half of the 20th century. And Tara is one of the most talented, passionate and most exciting young singers in Europe, who should NOT be constrained and limited by the fact that she doesn’t look like, say, Elina Garanca.
Alice, thank you so much for writing this letter. I tried to become an opera singer and failed, for many reasons. I had the voice, but struggled with the technique. I have a very large voice and found it hard to control, and never really nailed down a technique that worked consistently for me. I noticed along the way that many singers (sopranos) with smaller voices than mine began competing with me in the same fach, when I was maybe in my early 40’s. Sopranos who had perhaps large lyric voices going for dramatic soprano roles. I had one friend who finally got an agent and he urged her to do the larger repertoire, although to my ear her voice was clearly unsuited to it. Why? Because she was smaller (than me, for sure), and I think he thought he could “sell” her. I knew this would ruin her voice and told her as much. I learned when I was an apprentice at the Santa Fe Opera that NO ONE cares about a singer’s voice and technique, and you’d best come prepared, because if you are given the wrong role (too big, too early), no one takes into account this could ruin your voice. Singers a dime a dozen to management, and there’s a long line of singers behind you waiting to jump on the chance to sing if you fail. So you HAVE TO PROTECT YOURSELF. Having to deal with size-ism, on top of it all, is just another nail in the coffin. And yes, it will be the death of opera if this trend continues. The only art form entirely about the voice, and yet, now we are being pressured more and more to be anorexic-looking in order to sing “Mimi”, or to appear “sexy”, etc. It will end only if people come to their senses, or when the art form dies. So very sad.
If only Peter Gelb would read this and actually pay attention.
To Mr. Gelb’s credit, he is the man who cast the “not physically slight as in a Grazia magazine cover” singers in Norma at the Met, when they would be unlikely to be cast in the UK. He has cast those same singers, plus others with incredible voices who would fit that description, in new productions and HD transmissions. His Met may have many faults, but size-ism is not one of them.
Tara Erraught is a wonderfully talented and attractive young mezzo. Just watch any of her many Youtube videos. Thank you, Ms. Coote for your invaluable insights and comments. I also very much enjoyed your recording of Schubert’s Winterreise.
In theory I agree with you, but in practice the communication of the story is done through many more things than the voice. Granted, I’ve often seen one cast in a production blow the audience away, and then the cast may change in the next revival. Suddenly the voices aren’t as impressive and the feeling from the public just isn’t the same. Clearly it is the human voice that is making this difference, so in a way you are right as in this case the sets/costumes/props/blocking has remained the same between the two. On the other hand, I’ve seen great shows with not so great singers, where the production has really excited me and the story has carried my imagination away. In these cases, the voices were in the background of the success of the show.
I know your are a Mezzo, so you probably aren’t elbowing the tenor out of the way to get down stage centre, but I urge you, next time you are there, take a peek over the lip of the stage. There are fifty or so people in a pit below who will probably disagree with your main point in this article. Are the orchestra not working as hard as the singers? Next time you’re at the Met or Covent Garden, you should ask them… Opera is definitely about the music, and in 200 years time, it probably won’t be the skinny singer or the visionary director that people still talk about, or even the poor violin players who as a child had mastered the suzuki method while most singers were still in front of the mirror singing the latest hits from Bananarama. It is the composers that are the real masters who have inspired us all to keep working on this strange artform, the people who marry a compelling story with music appropriate enough to garner an emotional reaction from all those who come in contact with it. Don’t believe me? Look at pretty much any opera poster and tell me whose name is at the top. That is who the audience want to hear.
Thank you, Alice Coote, for an excellent open letter. Yes, performers need to act, move, and inhabit the character. It is theatre after all. But what separates opera from spoken and musical theatre is, as you say, the Olympian demands on the voice made by the music itself. Opera singers must be able to vocally inhabit the character and bring them to transcendent life through the individual, unamplified vocal instrument, riding the wave of sound from the orchestra. Voices that do that with ease, beauty, artistry, and authority, make opera thrilling. They come in myriad physicalizations, and always have.
Debates about “why can’t we sell tickets?” have made the mistake of going down the ‘visual trumps aural’ pathway. That’s why people go to movies or musicals, not to operas. Small wonder opera companies are foundering when they have been focusing on “Opera Worth Seeing.”
An individual voice can transform and elevate the energy of a room, a theatre, an audience, through its vibration. We’ve all heard it and been there when the production “takes off”. I will never forget Eaglen’s first full RING at Lyric Opera of Chicago — at the end of Götterdämmerung, the audience exploded and I was surprised the theatre didn’t levitate. That was great, transcendent singing and artistry, on an evocative set surrounded with an excellent cast and orchestra, led by a brilliant conductor. That was opera.
Ms Coote pleads with critics to ‘be kind’. Unfortunately, they are customarily neither kind nor consistently intelligent or perceptive. My favourite horror tale of critical idiocy dates from 1928, the first English performance of the first Stravinsky/Balanchine collaboration, “Apollon Musagete”:
‘One might have expected the music critic of London’s leading serious daily newspaper, The Times, to find something to admire in Stravinsky’s score, which heralded a new “classical” period. But no: “It used to be said that the Russian Ballet would not be much without Stravinsky; his latest production makes us fear that soon it will not be much with him … the work was applauded doggedly by a large audience, whose faithfulness was to be rewarded later with the popular *Firebird*…” The choreographer got it in the neck, too. “*Apollon Musagete* [sic] is a very solemn matter. It was not meant to please, like *Cimarosiana*, or to be exciting, like the *Firebird*.”
“Balanchine remarked in 1977, “I could not read English in those days, so I never knew or cared what the critics wrote. If I *had* been able to read them I should have committed suicide.” – Richard Buckle, DIAGHILEV, p.502.
But pointing out that the professionally opinionated are (besides possibly influential) frequently obtuse and ill-mannered is not enough. The visual aspects of opera, always an important factor in its history, are an issue now compounded by our image-dominated Zeitgeist. Those who sign up to ‘don’t-care-how-it-looks’ are being thrust on the defensive. Praise be for audiences that ‘doggedly applaud’!
I think that Alice Coote is 100% right. Opera is all about voices, singing and music playing. And I experienced so often that i.e. a female singer who isn’t a dashing beauty becomes physically beautiful not only because of her singing but also because of her acting. What I mean: If she herself and her partners act and react as if she were beautiful then she really physically visually becomes a woman of astonishing beauty. This is one of the ways opera is working – if performed on a vocally high level.
El teatro en búsqueda de su desnudo total fue capaz en aquella obra sin autor, ni texto, ni actores…, de prescindir de todos los elementos menos del público. Manteniendo a este (aunque sea imaginado) y voz humana directamente a su oído ya tendríamos ópera.
Lo que se dijera de las múltiples dimensiones y riquezas de la voz cantada resultaría falso y rechazable cuando nos las quisieran vender al peso, en altura del que cante, en miles de dólares para el escultor, electricistas, acomodadores, enmaquetado del tique, servicio de reventa, correveidiles o para conseguidores de patronos.
Nos consta la excelente contribución a ese arte de la voz directa en ópera y en música de exelentes profesionales y al caso, de magníficos comunicadores, con oídos, documentación, trabajo y saberes enormes. Quizá por eso en el post de al lado, enfurecido, un vecino increpa por aquí: ¿quién ha llamado crítico a ese hijo de Albión?
Thank you for putting your head above the parapet and writing this letter Alice! Brava!
I think it is so incredibly important that the tone and content of these particular reviews falls under scrutiny and am delighted to see such debate sparked here. For a reviewer to comment on the sights as well as sounds of a show seems very reasonable to me – I believe an operatic production is a joint effort between performers, designers, creatives and crew – but when it comes to commenting on and critiquing the SINGERS, surely their VOICES should get top billing. Or maybe their acting, or maybe their stage presence if we’re really pushing it.
I find the comments made in these reviews about body size unnecessarily personal, unkind and hugely disrespectful. And, I may be wrong, but I don’t see the male singers’ figures getting the same attention. There is a line between negative critique “I didn’t believe this singer in this role I’m afraid, I wasn’t convinced” and being downright mean. This line has been crossed. Shame on you.
It is not “all about the human voice”. It’s theatre.
I once saw a production of La boheme where Mimi was at least 300 lbs. Sorry, no.
Physical casting for an entire opera is never perfect. Some are better than others. But the illusion must be maintained or the production is marred. To maintain otherwise is to admit that the visual, dynamic part of opera is completely irrelevant, and that is just indefensible.
Actors and dancers look extraodinary. Singers look like normal people (all shapes and sizes) and sound extraordinary. I agree with Ms. Coote: singers who are too thin have a “too thin” sound and look — it’s painful to listen to and to watch. Isadora Duncan said about Wagnerian singers: “Many of the singers of Bayreuth were of enormous stature, but when they opened their mouths their voices issued forth into the world of spirit and beauty where live the eternal gods. This was the reason why I maintained that these people were unconscious of their bodies, which were probably, for them, but masks of tremendous energy and power to express their god-like music” (from MY LIFE, p. 152, by Isadora Duncan)
I can only say that I agree wholeheartedly.
One of the greatest Sop voices I have ever heard is that of the sublime Claire Seaton (Glyndebourne & everywhere else) – a mesmeric, haunting, astonishingly beautiful voice that has to be heard to be believed. She always reduces me to tears.
Claire is not a fashion model. But she is a model for the human voice, and a model for Opera at its best. I wrote (as a Librettist) a part specifically for her as a “Matriarch” for Paul Mealor’s “The Farthest Shore” recently.
She hobbled out onto that stage with MS and a stick (having arisen from her wheelchair) to completely devastate the audience into awestruck silence (in Wales, Scotland, England and all over the world with a live BBC broadcast).
THIS is the kind of role model we need. Bravo!
P.S. I am a Coote too, and with such an unusual name, I suspect we are related both by our forbears, and by opera!
High quality of voices is the predominant requirement in opera but it is not the only one. Visual aspect should not be ignored.
Anyone kind enough to share the link to the Rosenkavalier review?
I absolutely agree with the criticism of the kind of language used by the critics in this case, however I would add that saying it is “all about voice” protests a little too much. After all, have we not reached beyond the “canary fancying” of say, Handel or Bellini’s days, to a position where we like our operas to be well acted and produced too. To add the term “realistic” to the list begs all kinds off problems, not last what is “realism”, though it will certainly apply to some operas, however I don’t think given our 21st Centuyr expectations of opera it is beyond possibility that sometimes, physical stature/appearance might at very clash with some of those expectations.
This line of undervaluing the importance of physical fitness is contributing to the increase in childhood and youth obesity. There are too many children and young people who spend hours on “the voice” while ignoring their bodies. A “great voice” will not prevent Type II diabetes and hypertension. I am not saying that all fat singers are not healthy but encouraging young people to ignore their bodies is irresponsible. Yes, I do believe that being physically fit contributes to better, healthier voices.
Wow!!! The glorious Alice Coote has really provoked an outcry!!! I agree totally with her moving letter! It gets all too quickly forgotten that the very act of singing is to expose your elemental self! Critical remarks about singing most professionals can handle ( within reason!!) but personal observations can be quite devastating!! I know!!!
Ironically, and now unbelievably, I once got fired from a high profile Ulisse in Zürich because according to Mr. Ponnelle the marvellous director, I was too thin!!! ( I’d just lost a great deal of weight!!!)
I think it is absolutely ” prima la voce”
when you are casting the great bel canto operas—- the rest of the repertoire is variable on that point I think. Anyway, since most of the reviews appear long after the event itself, the ultimate critic is the audience and their opinion DOES matter!!
My goodness, I don’t often rush to the keyboard but this time………..
Cheers for Alice Coote ( whose beautiful, heartbreaking “Power of Love ” CD would be very very high on my desert Island!!
I’m sorry, Alice, but I found your well-meant open letter misguided, sentimental and … well, just plain wrong. As someone who has made my life in theatre, as a director, actor and writer about music (and yes, I do review for Opera Magazine) you have rather raised my own hackles!
Your anger about the Glyndebourne reviews is understandable, but opera is NOT “just about the voice”. It never has been. That is as untrue historically as it is untrue today. I agree with you, that it is about personality as much as physicality, but people have been making snide remarks about fat and dumpy sopranos – and tenors, for goodness sake! – for hundreds of years. Getting agitated about it in the way you have, with loads of capital letters to indicate your spleen, merely confirms the general public’s opinion, that the performing arts have fallen into a slough of political correctness which is throttling them.
And by the way, I deeply resent (think capital letters here!) your statement that my own art form, straight theatre, should be taking on all the “beautiful people” you – rightly – deem unnecessary for opera. Those double standards diminish your credibility still further.
Opera would of course be more “about the voice” these days, if only there were more great voices to populate the stage. Great voices are in short supply compared with earlier decades, for reasons which it would be tiresome to go into here. But that is one of the reasons why opera is less “about the voice” than ever before.
Your indignation is understandable on behalf of your colleague, who should indeed be judged on her performance not her physique: but that performance has to be about personality and physicality as well as vocal prowess. If the result struck those critics as ludicrous, which it clearly did (sexism has nothing to do with the response of this lot, I am sure!) then the director was at fault for not melding her physical reality with the characterisation she was projecting.
You have COMPLETELY ( oops there I go again!) misunderstood me and what wrote. I was not implying that the theatre should be “taking on the beautiful people” nor did I say that. I was acknowledging that it is easier for the current culture to people our straight theatre with ” celebrities” or film stars and sell shows on that premise now.. But that I doubted that the audience would have a great and meaningful experience under those criteria alone either in a theatre unless they were witnessing a great actor. I also meant that it’s easier to get away with having the good looking requirements filled of our modern society’s body obsession in a straight play as there aren’t the requirements for a specific singng voice and the athletism and strength internally that it requires in the body ..
But I was saying the REVERSE to what you seemed to have read into my words.. That theatre deserves better too! It must always be about the performers highest integrity for the job being the reason they are employed.. And so the audience can have the most powerful and complete experience that they deserve.
I really hope that this clarifies… and I hope MORE that we all come together on this matter and discussion and unify as humans rather than attacking each other..
Theatre and Opera is a mirror on us all and it shood include us ALL.
I REALLY think your shouldn’t have held back with the caps in your response .. It’s FUN!
Thank you for taking the trouble to reply to me, Alice. My apologies for misreading what you had to say, and yes – we have much more “common ground” than not, when it comes to opera and ‘straight’ theatre. Great actors – like great singers – have come in all shapes and sizes, from the tiny Eileen Atkins to the mountainous Richard Griffiths, and it would be almost unheard of for an actor to be criticized directly for her or his physical characteristics.
Still, opera is what it always has been: a fantastic melange of music and theatre. I suppose both “sides” need to keep pulling on the rope to keep the tug of war equal! It takes a Wagner to see (and say) that you can’t the one without the other…
To focus on the specific cause of anger here, I really do think that it is no coincidence that these (usually fair-minded and scrupulous reviewers) spotted independently that “something was wrong”. They may have been guilty, in short journalistic space, of describing the symptom rather than the cause; because, as I said, it is the stage director’s responsibility to make sure that a singer’s physicality is working FOR rather than AGAINST their character.
And there, I have used a couple of capitalised words for you!
Best wishes, CW
I think it’s been all but forgotten that Strauss’ choice for the original Octavian was Lotte Lehmann who was in no way lithe & boyish, but a hardy (now days she would be considered overweight) Prussian girl. Time for a reality check. If you can find an Anne Sophie von Otter- great! But singing comes 1st. An audience won’t even listen if the singing isn’t there. A body has to be costumeable. That is all!
Here in Canada we heard about these outrageous remarks on tonight’s CBC As It Happens programme. Alice, your letter lances the boil of my disgust. How well you write, and how courageously. I cheered aloud as item by item you point out so much that should be obvious, especially to “critics”. Thank you for taking up this injustice.
Sincerely, Janet Baker (not the Dame, mind you…)
It is far easier to comment and write an article on someone’s appearance (just look at the number of popular image-based publications) than it is to write a knowledgeable, informed, well-constructed review of a performance. Particularly when the performance is one that involves the many different facets that are involved in an opera production. What a shame when so-called professionals have to hide their own inadequacies with such shallow journalism. Don’t they realise that if they continue to devalue true performance qualities that reach out and truly touch and move the hearts and souls of audiences, performace will come to be only about visual gratification? But then, maybe their literary skills and intellect are only capable of ‘reviewing’ shows at the local lap dancing club….but those seats were already taken….
Thanks for posting this. I’m a young singer and it really makes me sad to hear that this is what awaits me when I graduate from school. It’s devastating to think that after six or more years of collegiate training, a critic is going to tell me that I have no business singing unless I’m a size four. Honestly, I’d rather be a bigger girl and have the weight to support my sound rather than a model who sounds strained and unsupported.
Put an Opera singer to sing in front of a group of children and you will understand they judge you by your voice, not how you look. And they know they are in front of a very high human expression.
If we keep treating Opera like a Broadway show, people will go to those shows, or even to see a movie at the cinema, we need to give them real singers, and the old fashioned Opera.
I brought people to see Opera, to make them know Opera and love Opera, and they told me, i was expecting old dresses and fat people singing, if i wanted to see this i go to broadway (textual).
As a young singer I was often told I would have no success if I did not lose the weight. So I quit because it broke me to know my voice alone wasn’t good enough. Maybe someday things will change and I can come back now that my voice has machined in my 30’s. But it hurts to have given up and lost so much for such a crappy reason. Thank you for advocating for the voice.
Sarah, you should go back to singing and not let anyone discourage you. Those of us who attend operas to listen to terrific singers will all be there rooting for you!
I know that sounds very discouraging, but at grass roots (and indeed higher levels such at the RNCM) I have personally attended auditions where better female singers have triumphed over those who are subjectively “more attractive”. Whilst this disturbing trait will no doubt continue for some time (Did I say Classic FM?), I pay for tickets to listen to singers (Mezzo – Sop etc.) who will take me to heaven and back with my eyes… closed. Don’t, whatever you do, stop. There are hundreds of thousands of people out there just waiting to hear your voice. All the best, Ben.
Brava, Alice. It’s about time someone said the things you did. I know who those two singers are that you enjoyed so much in Norma and I think that they’re two of the finest young singers to come along in decades. In fact I think the mezzo-soprano is THE finest young singer to come along in decades. I don’t care what singers look like. I want to hear wonderful voices.
The fatal flaw in Alice Coote’s “open letter” and in your comment is that the mezzo to whom you both refer was not taking on the role of a 17-year-old boy. My guess is that Ms Barton and those who discuss her plans with her have concluded that she can happily leave Octavian and Hansel out and pursue any number of other star parts where critics and other operagoers alike will not even give a thought as to her physical incarnation, let alone feel terrorised into keeping silent even if they wanted to.
Jamie Barton is very beautiful and has a glorious voice, but Ms Coote’s inference that she should be able to do the role of Octavian without anyone daring to make any comments about whether or not she is a convincing teenage boy is preposterous.
I look forward to being able to make up my own mind about Tara Erraught when I see the production in June.
There are countless opera roles where looking slightly older or bigger or otherwise not having the supposed “ideal” physique either does not matter or it does and, because of incredible “star” voices, no-one cares. There are a few roles where it does and we do care – Octavian is a rare but important example.
Well said Alice. I am 69 and as a baritone have done 55 good roles in pro/am fringe opera with a full time job and a family. Fulham opera did Die Walkure in German a few years ago, in a church, with piano, a few props and bits of furniture, surtitles on the back wall and bikes for the Valkyries. I sat there with 31 in the audience and it was breath-taking in its quality of singing and the brilliance of the acting and direction. I had never before been to a live Wagner opera; put off by the many ugly and shot voices I have heard which give Wagner a bad press. I was won over by this production. You do not NEED effects or huge funds. You NEED good talent. The rest helps.
I don’t see what the fuss is all about,Marilyn Horne said she wanted to sing the likes of Cherubino and Octavian but due to her small DUMPY figure was not correct for the roles in question, nothing to do with the voice.Martina Arroyo said to Horne she could walk on, then back off. There are certain roles that require a physicality that is not needed in other operas, Octavian is one of those roles. Miss Coote makes a lot of valid points but voice is certainly not the most important factor in casting an opera as we have seen over the last 40years as a professional opera singer.Male singers have been given the same treatment over many years, but maybe we have thicker skin.
Brava Alice! I am so happy you wrote this important letter. Human voice is an instrument and it needs energy to sing. If we, singers don’t eat, we won’t be able to sing. Callas ruined herself by losing weight we all know it. Let the directors teach models to sing and I’ll see how many will make through….save opera and know, that opera is about voice first , then the rest, but whatever comes after should not ruin the main thing! If today people want to see models, they can go to modeling shows, but if they were coming to see Pavarotti and were willing to pay high price for tickets, they all knew that Pavarotti was overweight, but they still came to see him ! It is time to go back and think what is lost that people do not want to go to opera, but let me assure you that it is not the looks that is going to change things around….
Neither the production nor the critical appreciation of Opera is ONLY about the voice of the singers. It is about the totality of the response of an audience listening-and-watching (note hyphens) to a composite four-dimensional experience — the audience has also to ‘feel’ the time-era in which the opera is set, or re-set to. Directors were young people once. It takes no great effort to suggest to a young aspirant that her (it is invariably a her) “voice is very expressive, but this particular role requires also being convincing about a lamenting old widow”.
“Opera should deploy the full resources of musical composition and not be restricted to any kind of model, including a model of what is lyric singing,” Charles Wuorinen’s on his opera “Brokeback Mountain”, based on Annie Proulx’s gay love story.
You answered your own question about the lack of great voices these days, Christopher.
It’s because of the silly emphasis on everything that opera is not about-looking good, acting well and having gorgeous costumes. These things only detract from the vocal production.
Fascinating debate, and very few opera lovers would disagree that the greatest thrill in going to opera is to hear world class voices. Sadly, such a small proportion of the population has experienced it, and so it is perhaps unsurprising that opera companies often feel that the way to reach the unconverted, who might be more used to realism in television and film, is to take the televisual route in casting. This might play well on opera DVDs but even there the ability of a great singer to inhabit a role vocally and physically (not necessarily in a realistic way) will far outweigh a more pallid vocal but physically realistic performance. A great example in my view is the live performance of Norma at the 1974 Festival d’Orange by Caballé and Vickers – such an immersion in the vocal and dramatic facets of the roles that one soon overlooked the fact that it was very windy and they didn’t move very much!
I hope anyone and everyone who said something derogatory about Tara Erraught’s appearance is afflicted with a medical condition that causes them to gain 100 pounds.
Your open letter certainly elicited a grand discussion!
Two points: (1) Many people in many cultures think they have the right to judge or critique others. This is an issue which is bigger than opera! (2) We need to call it “feedback” so the receiver can discern the information given and use what is helpful and toss the rest! Discernment is a skill which everyone needs to develop for everyone for self-confidence and peace of mind. The point is not about arrogance but about knowing oneself!
Our granddaughter is studying opera in graduate school. My prayer for her is the world will one day hear her voice and passion and those who teach her and give her feedback will make her gift even better!
Unfortunately we are living in very shallow times. More and more the emphasis is on the appearance of opera singers and not the beauty of their voice. I have heard some people say that pavorotti could not act! His voice did the acting for him, that’s the whole point of opera isn’t it, or else we would go to a play instead. The expressive qualities of that voice created more drama on stage than anything I have ever witnessed. Good voices are often wrecked by directors getting their singers running around like lunatics in an attempt to make them act like a full on play. There are limits to what singers can do on stage!
The opera houses don’t have the courage to stick on ugly or fat people with great voices for fear of not getting bums on seats. The modern lead romantic singer is expected to have a toned body with a six pack. This quite often has the effect of stiffening the diaphragm and producing an inflexible sound often accompanied by a wobble. I have worked with singers who gym it and have noticed the negative effect on their singing. Yoga is good for singing, certainly not Pilate’s or sit ups! This lack of knowledge is very surprising and seems to get worse the higher up you go in the profession. The sign of our times is the inability to see true beauty within. Everything is on the exterior facade.
Look at the great ugly singers of the past, Caruso, yussi byjorling, Joan Sutherland, gigli, just to mention a few. But they were truly beautiful people who expressed the truth with their voices with power and dynamics! Pretty much gone now. How depressing.
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I agree. I am now 66 and was bound for a great career but I was short and on the heavy side.I was once reviewed for a Butterfly I did that I was a short Caballe. But when I went for auditions I was always told I was to short for Opera. I gave up after being told this one to many times, and now I regret not having the career I should have had. No one should have to go through what I went through.
I’m still learning from you, while I’m making my way to the top as well. I certainly liked reading all that is posted on your site.Keep the posts coming. I loved it!
I believe it is for this very reason that I have never been hired to sing nor won any competition…I have a youtube channel under my name, Robert Lee as a countertenor. Studied languages, technique, style. None of it ever mattered so I did my own concerts and invited people. It was the only way I’d ever get to sing in any venue.
YES thank you Alice!