Alice Coote: What opera needs is a dose of tough love

Alice Coote: What opera needs is a dose of tough love


norman lebrecht

May 23, 2014

The mezzo-soprano Alice Coote was first into the fray when a young singer was critically savaged for her size early this week. Since then, she has been carefully considering the wider implications of the body-image furore. Here, exclusively on Slipped Disc, Alice calls on the opera world at large to reconsider its priorities if it wants the art to survive. Think about it.




Saying Opera is not all about the voice is like saying Ballet is not all about the body.
Those who disagree  ultimately misunderstand the virtues, value and point of these, admittedly rarified, art forms. Rarified because they take to extremes what the human body- and that includes the brain-  can communicate in the context of music, and yes, VISUAL theatre.

To get the message of Opera, even more so than ballet, is perhaps harder in the times we live in  – an inescapably visual age. But it means that now above all we have to unite and keep the faith if this art form, that has been for centuries challenging the human voice to the heights of achievement for our ears and hearts, is to survive.

To sell tickets for anything these days you have to reach an audience via the internet or film or television. Ballet and certainly Opera do not thrive in these media. They need to form a loyal audience that loves what they are likely to see and hear LIVE. If we are to sustain the existence of opera we must make the visceral experience of opera in the theatre one that the audiences crave to repeat. They need to be astonished, moved, changed or inspired by the singing.

There is a currently an expectation in the press that the taste for singers looking good over sounding good are justified in the context of our ‘new operatic value system’. Richard Morrison in The Times writes: “We have to acknowledge the huge revolution that has hit the opera world in the last 20 years(…) Above all they expect dramatic credibility. They get that in films, in TV dramas and in the spoken theatre and don’t see why exceptions should be made for opera. When they are paying up to £215 a ticket, as at Glyndebourne, those expectations are pretty high. ”

At a time when around the world news continually breaks of the closure of a company or threat of critically falling audience figures for opera in general… Shouldn’t we all be wondering just what benefits this ‘revolution’ has brought?

Isn’t this the time for all of us who love the art form to ask consider what we can do in our own small way to question, support. change, and share the issues that opera is facing in present times?

(Of course we would always hope that as humans we can be kinder to each other and more sensitive than to deliberately harm one another, and some opera critics have been rightly questioned this week for failing to do so. )

MOST important however to remember right now is that this issue is SO much larger than being critical of a critic, or a singer, or anyone. We need to harness our considerable brain power and common sense and also CARE as a COLLECTIVE to re -think and reassess the problem opera faces.

One of the critics under attack this week, Rupert Christiansen, is the author of a well thumbed book in my possession as a young singer “Prima Donna: A History”. Rupert is well aware of the fascination factor that the very greatest female  -and male- singers have brought to the culture of Opera since it’s beginning. This has been a healthy thing for opera, until now.

NOW we are now no longer talking predominantly about the tone, size, greatness of their voice, their singing technique, their use of words, their charisma, ( NB charisma is not a purely physical thing) their communication, their ARTISTRY. We are now spending far more time recognising or praising them for their ability – or crucifying them for their failure- to look good WHILE singing.

Before this so called “revolution” the Metropolitan Opera in New York, 20, or even 40 years ago was far more likely to sell out every night than it does now. Now there’s a threat that the legendary opera house could well be dark altogether ( closed) next season.This is not of course all about the size of singers bodies or how media worthy they are.. But on some level it is…

Consumer confidence will not be high if the audience that pays £215 OR £10 for a ticket to the opera and is promised -above all- dramatic credibility. That would pretty much wipe out the vast majority of the greatest operatic performances of the past centuries that excited such love and passion for the art form!

There is an invidious suggestion that for opera to be a successful venture from now on in needs to normalised or at least brought into line with theatre, film or television.


A Diva or a Divo is not a normal human being . To pretend they are is in fact a HUGE mistake.   An operatic performance is nothing “normal” either. Opera is an extraordinary, luxury experience.
Diva/Divo = a great singer and someone who has done whatever it takes to formulate with their body and the invisible source of the sound – the larynx- over decades, the ability to ride a huge opera orchestra (and sometimes sound-absorbent sets) without microphone to, with utmost artistic precision and physical mastery, project the most fiendish vocal music ever written.

It doesn’t matter what size or shape they are, unless they can deliver this music they aren’t realising the reason why the Opera was written in the first place. And the deliverance of this music, this emotion, this pure message through sound has always been the thing that opera fans crave.
The need that we now have being hard wired into our expectations, and future DNA perhaps, is that these singers need to have bodies of a uniform and preferably slim frame and be ABOVE ALL ” credible” while doing it. The fact IS, is that there is a limited amount of things a singers body can do, and be, simultaneously while OPTIMALLY delivering the greatest realisation vocally of these roles. Yet that is where at its bottom (!) line.. the thrill and reason for opera exists. That’s the hook for the addict. And we want more of those – not less.

Are we REALLY are saying as a COLLECTIVE on deep, thorough and LOVING reflection, that we would rather sacrifice the vocal prowess of what we will hear at the opera for the believability of the characters on stage?
If so then that IS a game changer for Opera.  And it’s not for me or anyone to even guess where that will lead the art form in future decades, if it survives that long.

Yesterday however we had a “theatre critic” in the Daily Mail humiliate himself with his philistinism on the subject for public consumption.. his words will be widely read.. a loud, DEEPLY worrying, ignorant and above all UNCARING voice on the matter… Shame on his editor.

For those of us who love this Art and want others to love it too, what we have do to right now is to stop shouting at each other and listen.. Take this golden opportunity to UNITE and HEAR the message that opera is whispering to us..

If we don’t listen to its voice, it will be too late.

Maybe hoping for its health in such an age is a really REALLY tough call…

Maybe it calls for tough LOVE…

Are we tough enough?

(c) Alice Coote/


  • Laura says:

    This is spot on, and it articulates something that I always try (and usually fail to articulate) when I try to explain my own addiction to opera.

    Ultimately, opera appeals to me because it exists (or should exist) in a space outside of our cultural and realistic expectations. In the opera house, it is possible for artists to achieve musical feats that should be beyond human capability, and consequently it is possible for audience members to experience an emotional response that should be beyond what we normally feel. Opera invites us to access the biggest and most extraordinary emotional and spiritual parts of ourselves, and it continually baffles me that people trying to sell opera shrink the art form down to our cultural expectations instead of selling an experience that reaches far above those expectations. I believe it was the great Peter Sellars who said of singers: “To watch a human being become that beautiful is overwhelming. It is superhuman to be human.”

    He didn’t mean physically beautiful, not in the least. He means transcendently beautiful, like there are parts of us that we can’t reach in our daily lives that we can get to in the presence of great artists and great music. Maybe if we stopped trying to fit opera into the expectations that consumer culture places on our society and embrace its superhuman-ness we can get somewhere with audience outreach. Maybe that is terribly naive of me, but I do believe that we all long to transcend the boundaries that our society places on us at some level. If we tell people that opera is one way of achieving that, maybe we’ll get somewhere.

  • Stay Loose says:

    Well said. Opera lovers need to stop the shouting and arguing. Loving and caring for the survival of the art form.

    Our standard repertory operas were a form of epic theater — a heightened experience of life expressed principally through the sublime transcendence of hearing the unadulterated, unamplified human voice carrying over an orchestra of live instruments supported by a spectacle. When naturalistic stage directors from the theater were hired to direct opera productions, most of them didn’t (and still don’t) get it. There are some top drawer directors who stage the opera from the CD libretto and can’t read or follow a score. HD video has exacerbated the problem. The current trend will have us casting younger and younger artists in roles that don’t suit their voices, which will also lead to shorter and shorter careers. When it already takes about 20 years of training for most singers to attain the ability to sing the score as written, what will happen when audiences demand that singers who look to old are not credible. No more middle-aged singers performing La Boheme, the Ring, Romeo and Juliet, Hansel and Gretel. Audiences will demand avatars onstage, or CGI in HD. Gone will be the excitement of live performance with dazzling feats of live daring do in the singing.

  • Thomas Alexander says:

    I’m going to disagree slightly, and fully expect the wrath of my Opera friends by doing so.

    Opera is a complete story telling experience. It is not all about the music. The music and voice are the most import part of the discipline of being an Opera singer, but the magic of the performance is incomplete without the theatrical element.

    I well give a personal example…

    Years ago at the RNCM there was a wonderful performance of The Marriage of Figaro. Stephan Janski did the directing and Tim Reynish was the conductor. (I am choosing this performance because of the personal connection I had to the performers). The role of Figaro was played by Darcy Bleiker and the role of Susanna was played by Anna Ryberg. The production was brilliant and everyone in the production gave such a captivating performance that ENO would have been proud to have delivered it.

    In this fine performance were my friends. I knew everyone in the show, even though I had left the college years earlier. I was captivated by the storytelling and was completely involved in the plot, and I quickly found myself looking at a real event. There were not friends on that stage, but real 3D characters who I felt love or disdain for. I was lost in a soup of emotions for the duration of the show.

    As an audience member I could never have enjoyed that performance so much if I had not been able to let go my disbelief and emotionally believe that Figaro and Susanna had really just interacted.

    I just feel that it is a mistake to say that Opera is “all about the voice”, because (to me) it clearly is not.

  • Prewartreasure says:

    Alice Coote says: ‘What opera needs is a dose of tough love’.

    Prewartreasure says: ‘What some opera singers need is a little humility’.

    How dare anyone tell me just because I happen to disagree with their opinion – ‘Opera IS all about the voice’ – that I ultimately misunderstand the virtues, values and the point of that particular art form, or am I alone in believing that orchestral accompaniment, sets, costumes and stage lighting have a role as well?

  • David Howell says:

    It strikes me that the demands on opera are for it to be “like other forms of art” and “not just about the singing” – and that would perhaps be understandable if it simply referred to a focus on acting and direction rather than “merely” standing and delivering hugely demanding vocal performances that happen to tell a story.

    This last week has made clear what should have been clear for, at least, the last decade – that this “opera isn’t just about singing” trend is really code for introducing distressingly normative aesthetic ideals because that’s presumed to be what would make opera “relevant” again. Other art forms are already further down that same path, and their performers aren’t affected negatively by conforming to societally-approved aesthetic expectations. Opera singers – certainly those in certain fachs – quite possibly are.

    Instead of conforming to the idea of “plausibility,” why not shoot for confounding it?

  • Countervail says:

    I’ve been watching this series of posts, having wanted to say something in reply to the first in the series but figuring it wasn’t worth the bother, but this latest rant by Ms. Coote takes the cake.

    First opera ISN’T all about the voice. Art song is all about the voice, concert repertoire is all about the voice, opera is about much, much more. At the heart of any performing art is an expression of a story. Dancers tell a story through movement, musicians through sound, actors through language. Opera uniquely blends all these elements together into something more. And the most compelling presentation of an opera requires all of these things in equal parts.

    We’ve gone through a unique period in time where the legacy of opera was mostly cataloged though audio recordings. We knew of the most prominent performers of the past by how they sounded on a record and it’s driven this dogma that the voice trumps all. It’s easy to forget how the bravado acting of someone like Maria Callas overcame an agile yet marred voice. Renata Scotto would sacrifice beautiful sound to scorch the stage with the pathos of her acting. That is why you go to see live opera, to see all the elements come together presented by talented singing actors.

    In these series of posts, Ms. Coote is unwittingly asking the opera-loving public to accept mediocrity, not greatness. She’s saying that if the voice is there, screw the artistic integrity and presentation of the opera itself. Who needs acting? Who needs the performers to actually look like their characters? One must bow to this ridiculous idea of the divo/diva. It’s what’s forced an aging 300 pound Pavarotti onto the stage as the supposed dashing young lover, or the vocally beautiful but 46 year-old Renee Fleming as a young courtesan. It’s suspension of belief at its worst.

    And while patrons should be expected to stretch their imaginations some – this is live theater after all – opera can’t thrive in a vacuum. It’s surprising the art form has survived as long as it has for all the ridiculousness of it in an age of HD realism. The longevity is a testament to the majestic storytelling it can create. But Ms. Coote and all similar thinkers do opera no favor when they ask us to ignore the obvious. Amazingly, some critics, in a role that at a similar weight as a man would be as ridiculous, called a young female singer fat. Frankly it’s about time for that kind of honesty. I personally wish the Rome Coote plays the fiddle for of sad opera stereotypes, the fragile and necessarily overweight singer, would burn down already. Maybe then we’d finally get to hear something written after the year 1900 by physically appropriate performers. Maybe when we get out of the mindset of institutionalizing opera’s past we can finally get on with creating opera’s future.

    • Mon coeur s'ouvre a ta voix says:

      The voice ought to be the sine qua non in opera. If opera is to represent human nature, the actors should look like us. All of us.The idea that opera should be “relevant” ought to make clear what notion of “relevance” should be operative. It goes against the increasingly bizarre stagings that sometimes contravene the story lines they are supposed to convey, in the interest of making plots “up-to-date”. Truth is, opera has always portrayed the human condition. The specifics of this portrayal are only incidental to this truth. Opera is singing and acting, not mises-en-scene that are a danger both to the story and to the performers. Speaking of the performers, who remembers that bio-pic of Sol Hurok, in which the tall, handsome male lead was voiced by an invisible Jan Peerce? (Cyrano de Bergerac, anyone?) Who remembers that Richard Strauss’ favorite Oktavian, the tiny Lola Artot de Padilla (a singer of wit and intelligence), barely came up to the shoulder of her two ostensible love interests? A singer’s size should be a matter between the artist and the physician. So, shut up and listen!

  • George Heymont says:

    Over the course of five decades attending live opera performances, I can’t remember anyone who bought a ticket to a performance starring Rita Hunter or Montserrat Caballe worrying about what they looked like. Even Martina Arroyo was able to joke about being cast as “Madama Butterball.” It was the voice that made the magic.

    George Heymont

  • michaela karadjian says:

    So well said, thank you! It is about love for this art form, the musicians bring a score to life, and those putting it on scene “with love” for opera, should give performers a comfortable environment, safe scenery, costumes thought for people who are they need to breathe, move, dance, hear, see, and somebody who knows their ” metier” can always help and alter things to make you beautiful, or at least help to improve some things etc…as to be free to deliver their best. I’ ve seen and experienced real love in the mastery and craft of those who really love opera and singers, as much as experienced the contrary alas. I hope a day will come, – and there are already some- that more singers become ” intendant” at opera houses, and care more about the ” Opera”. Theatre, movies, musicals are different from opera and so are the requests. There must be a difference, let us cherish it, in this world where to many things, in different countries e.g. are alike. What is so wrong of being different, that is :Opera is about singing in the first place, no mics, it is an atlethic call for a performer, whatever bodyshape you have, it is a life of discipline, study, study and study, selfreflection etc…years of patience, it does not fit in this society of fast and furious, easy and cheap succes for 15 min.So it is good that audiences and people know what is needed to be able to perform, and that we need the love of those who surround us as to be able to give this energy to audiences, who come to see and hear us, and that they may leave transformed out of a performance. In the end it is really about love, a flood of energy that crosses the stage and just wants to find a way right into the hearts of our public, for a second or more, to be rememberd perhaps for a lifetime.This is rare and unique.

  • Brian says:

    Marked as evidence “A”: Debra Voigt. End of discussion.

    • Mon coeur s'ouvre a ta voix says:

      I write just after the publication of “Debbie”‘ Voigt’s new book, in which she addresses the weight problem, explaining that it was symptomatic of other life situations. That she could address these issues successfully is admirable. We like having her around.

  • Sam McElroy says:

    I’m all for tough love. The evolution of the art form can only be situated within the broader evolutions of societal taste and technological delivery systems, so honest analysis and contextualization are essential.

    But there are too many non-sequiturs floating around this debate. Central to the discussion should be the crucial distinction between “physique” and “physicality” on the opera stage, as they relate to narrative credibility today.

    Sorry to repeat what I have said elsewhere, but Stanford Meisner rightly defined acting as “living truthfully in imaginary circumstances.” The great baritone Benjamin Luxon used to talk about, and live the creed of, the “opera actor”. It was just a given to him that opera singers deliver text and narrative through the singing voice, and are hired to do so in an environment which requires that voice to possess all the skills and subtleties demanded of the art form, as rightly outlined by Alice.

    But recognizing the undoubtable primacy of the voice in opera ought not lead to the limiting conclusion that opera is “all about” the voice. It simply is not. Nor can the metaphorical complexity of an actor’s physicality be summarized by the the superficial observation of his or her “looks”.

    Heroism does not belong to a specific physique, nor does seduction, vengeance, innocence or power. Fathers and kings, mothers and maids, seducers and servants, come in all shapes and sizes. It is up to the “opera actor” to manifest the qualities of fatherliness, kingship, motherliness, seduction or servitude by finding an apposite physicality within their given physiques, so that they may “live truthfully in imaginary circumstances”. It is up to the casting director to cast the actor who can best embody that creed, presuming that such an actor has already proven he or she possess the highest level of vocal skills required to inhabit the opera stage. And it is up to the critic to analyze the actor’s effectiveness within those more considered parameters of “imaginary circumstances”.

    Only when the narrative requires a certain physique can physique itself be the target of analysis. Amongst other examples, Falstaff, that “huge hill of flesh” “sack of bombast” who “lards the lean earth as he walks along”, is an embodiment of excess. His physique, sometimes aided by costume, must reflect that. Billy Budd’s appearance must contribute to Claggart’s deadly jealousy: “Oh Beauty, oh Handsomness, Goodness! Would that I never encountered you!”

    But please, critics and singers. Enough about physiques, and more about the craft of acting. Because that is what opera singers are: actors who sing their lines, albeit with voices that soar and transcend.

  • Sarah says:

    “Saying Opera is not all about the voice is like saying Ballet is not all about the body” – both artistic expressions require an orchestra, choreography, lighting, etc. – so please, stop saying that opera is ALL about the voice – and ballet is not ballet without the music either. Each plays an equal role – some are less highlighted than others, but all are necessary for the production to be a success.

    Stick to the point at hand – review the performance, not the person. This is where this argument should start and end (and it’s an excellent point!). Let’s not redefine opera. Opera would not survive without the orchestra, or the maestro, or many other components – it’s this marriage of artistic media that brings opera to fruition. Great singers are definitely key, and I value them deeply – but there’s absolutely no point in saying that this art form is ALL ABOUT one thing – it is just not.

  • Nick says:

    I entirely agree with those above who do not agree with Ms. Coote’s comments that Opera is all about the voice. Patently it is not. Yes, I agree that opera needs a loyal audience to “see and hear (it) LIVE”. But that is largely the job of managements and presenters, a job many seem not particularly good at in troubling economic times. And yes, audiences “need to be astonished, moved, changed or inspired by the singing.” But the opera experience is the sum of many elements of which singing, no doubt the most important, is only one.

  • Mike Schachter says:

    There is no need and no excuse for offensive personal critiques of singers. But the analogy with ballet is, with respect, nonsense. There are minimum physical requirements for dancers, who are unlikely for either gender to weigh 20 stones.That however is obviously compatible with with being a famous and at times great singer eg Pavarotti. These comments on singers’ appearance go back at least to the early 18th century, and as now focused on corpulent 50 year old lovers and 40 year old globular teenage maidens. This is a specific operatic problem, not many directors of Hamlet would cast a 50 year old Ophelia.

  • pdxbassoon says:

    Visual “realism”, especially as defined by American film and television offers little or nothing more than actors who “look the part” according to popular cultural ideals. In the few instances when I’ve seen current television and film, I am appalled by the lack of real acting, the creating of three-dimensional flesh and blood characters-by these supposed paragons of culturally accepted beauty. To impose these standards on opera, a format that is musical, is positively perverse.

    In opera, the singer sound like the character. Heroes, heroines, and lovers come in all shapes and sizes, but a Rhadames who doesn’t have a heroic ring to his voice, or a Rodolfo who can’t sing like an ardent lover is no damn good.

    The young singer in question, Tara Erraught, is a beautiful young woman who does not fit the anorexic ideal Hollywood has foisted upon us. Fiona Maddocks in the U.K. Guardian praised both her singing and her acting where other critics savaged her for her weight. I suggest these other critics take a course not only in basic opera, but in theater, which was never about “realism” but about illusion.

  • David Nice says:

    Some good points here. But surely the argument still needs refining? Let’s concede that you can have some implausible looking figures on the stage, but the second they open their mouths, the magic happens. Anthony Tommasini put this point very well in the New York Times, citing Tebaldi and, was it, Bergonzi acting through the voice. Jane Eaglen did that in her prime, too, even if she couldn’t move across a stage with the elegance of Jessye Norman (another singer makes the point that, whatever size you are, staying fit is a must. Sitting in a chair in a staged production, viz Botha in Tannhauser, isn’t on).

    Anyway, Alice is in the enviable position of being not only one of the world’s top voices, but also one of the most plausible actors (let’s not limit it to ‘actresses’). I don’t know if it’s a false compliment to say she was the most plausible boy I’ve ever seen in the Met Hansel. But she gave us the best of both worlds at Symphony Hall Birmingham on Saturday night – easily the best Octavian in my experience, but as it was a concert performance she could adopt dress that stressed her femininity, too.