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.