‘Chubby’ critics refuse to come out on the BBC

‘Chubby’ critics refuse to come out on the BBC


norman lebrecht

May 21, 2014

Rupert Christiansen (pictured) has defended his right to insult singer’s body-shape in the safety of his own paper, but he’s too scared to do it on radio, live or pre-recorded.

The BBC’s World at One asked me to argue a case against critical offences. None of the offending critics was man enough to oppose it.

Shame. Nothing was ever gained by timidity.


Back to work, then.


  • Gary Carpenter says:

    Unbelievably, this is RC’s (say it quickly) online Telegraph biography: “After some fruitless academic research in American literature and three dreary years working for Oxford University Press, he vainly attempted to become a theatrical agent before turning to full-time writing in 1982.”

  • Halldor says:

    He’s a writer, and he’s made his position very clear in his writing. Why would he choose to be stitched-up by professional broadcasters in a medium and format that allows no real scope for serious discussion?

    • norman lebrecht says:

      Nonsense. A writer is not confined to pen and paper. He has to function in all media.

      • Halldor says:

        Eh? Since when? Come now, we all know how BBC news interviews operate, and you can’t blame anyone who chooses not to come on and be cast as the pantomime villain. He’s said his piece.

        • norman lebrecht says:

          Yes you can blame him. If you state a view, you must be prepared to defend it in every reasonable forum. Anything less is cowardice.

          • Peter says:

            If he appears on TV he can’t use a dictionary!

          • Hugh Canning says:

            I’d say it was very sensible. As we can see from the posts on this issue here, Rupert would be shouted down by a mob in “any media forum”. You can carry on baying for blood, but I’ll be surprised if you get any. Good luck, all the same.

          • norman lebrecht says:

            Thanks, Hugh. If you read more carefully, you’d know that I’m not baying for blood. I think they should apologise for an inappropriate bit of bullying. That’s as far as it should go. As for ‘doing your job to your editor’s satisfaction’, that’s no longer enough in our fishbowl world. We are all held to account for what we write before a very wide court of opinion.

    • Hugh Canning says:

      Several attempts – unsuccessful I am glad to say – have been made to stitch me up by professional broadcasters, so I have become very wary and choosy about what I do and don’t do on television and radio. But I don’t need the publicity. I think I have managed fine through a long career with “pen and paper” and if I was never asked to contribute to a radio programme again I would lose no sleep. I’m not the telegenic type – being a “chubby”, balding, middle-aged and white critic but that doesn’t stop me from doing my job to my editors’ satisfaction – so I’d rather avoid television studios. Rupert’s defense of his words and the right of critics to comment on the visual aspect of an opera production strike me as very sensible and forthrightly put. I hope I wouldn’t have used the words some of my other colleagues have to describe Erraught, but a singer’s physique and acting ability are crucial components of opera, which is as much a theatrical art as it is a musical art. The next time a short, curvy actress lands the part of Juliet in an RSC Romeo, I’ll have more time for this contrived indignation. She wouldn’t even get an audition. Over the years I have seen more womanly looking Octavians than most of you have had hot dinners. The vast majority were appropriately costumed and were convincing actors. At Covent Garden an Italian mezzo soprano in her forties, the wonderful Anna Bonitatibus with a physique appropriate to a singer of that age, made a captivating and utterly convincing Cherubino, a character on which Octavian is modelled but even younger.

      • Hugh Canning says:

        Norman – by “You” I meant what you describe as the “wide court of opinion” rather than you personally, but actually this is not a court at all, it’s a lynch mob. I don’t have any truck with lynch mobs of any shape or form. And neither should you.

        • norman lebrecht says:

          I agree mostly, Hugh. But don’t five crits abusing a young singer constitute a lynch mob?

          • Mike says:

            A lynch mob for whom? Not the singer but whoever cast her in that role surely.

          • Hugh Canning says:

            Critics do not work as a pack. We are individuals with our own opinions. Rupert Christiansen and Andrew Clark, in particular, never discuss the evening’s show with their colleagues, and Richard Morrison has to file his review straight after the show so he never has time for chitchat. Their responses are entirely independant of each other. Also they put their names to their criticisms, unlike the majority of posters here who hide behind the anonymity of made-up screen-names. Anyway, I’ve had my say, and thank you for giving me a platform for doing so.

          • norman lebrecht says:

            My pleasure, Hugh. Any time.

    • Hugh Canning says:

      Also, as you can see from the picture, he’s not chubby at all, so wrong picture for that headline. Should have used one of me, instead. Andrew Clark, Richard Morrison and Michael Church, my other “offending” colleagues are not exactly what I would call chubby, either.

  • Richard Naxos says:

    -Rosenkavalier is a comedy in which credibility is essential to the performance. There are at least 30 singers who could do justice to Octavian on stage, a critic is within his rights in commenting on physical suitability for a singer and question her casting in a venue with prestigious “director” heritage as Glyndebourne.

    -Pavarotti recorded a wonderful Butterfly with Karajan and Freni. When Ponnelle did the movie with the same soundtrack, he had Domingo re-record Pinkerton’s role and star in the movie of Butterly. Freni, Ludwig and Senechal, albeit not looking an inch Japanese, made it to the movie. Pavarotti was simply too fat to be credible for the role. I don’t recall public outrage at this.

    -Pavarotti did not became an opera star on stage but via recordings, he and his agents knew better.

    -When Jean Francois Borras made his MET debut in Werther replacing Kaufmann (en event covered by this very website), many reviews remarked his sturdy figure and suggested he was not suited (because too fat) to portray on stage the role. I don’t recall any scandal about this. Is this feminism au contraire?

    -Nowadays even conductors are scrutinezed for haircut, outfits and sweating, but we take for granted this is ok (although there is no direct effect on the music making, right?).
    When you put yourself onstage, in front of thousands of people, you must respond for every single inch of your personality. It sucks, maybe, but you have to live up to the challenge and know when to say no.

  • Anon says:

    If physical appearance in opera is so important to these 5 men, especially to this Rupert Christianson who has defended his views so heartily, why is it only this woman they are criticizing?

    Why don’t they go after male opera stars as well? Terfel, for example, is not exactly svelte,and Flores’ shortness has always bothered me. He is really too small in stature to be convincing as an opera’ s protagonist. And what about bald men? Bald heroes in opera are quite unappealing and wigs are always tacky and obvious on men. Can’t they just grow hair and stop being bald?

    Opera is full of male singers who have questionable physical attributes that might be distracting visually, yet why is it always women who are criticized? It’s a double standard and I would like to hear Mr. Christianson’s defense on THAT, please.

    • Leon Ferguson says:

      Terfel may not be an Adonis or have a gym toned physique, but at ENO in Figaro they put him into boots and britches and made him look handsome and sexy. I was pleasantly surprised, and like many large men he moves very well and has an attitude that convinces.

      • Anon says:

        You’re right. Terfel is a bad example. He’s kind of like the George Clooney of the opera world. Actually quite attractive in his rugged, masculine way. He has a huge female fan base.

        Women, I think, tend to be more forgiving of physical imperfections than men. I hate to generalise, but I think that gay men are more tuned into physical appearance than most sectors of your average audience. They are also often avid opera lovers (there is actually a book written about this connection) and are well represented in this group of 5 critics.

        The solution: publish more opera reviews by female critics.

        • Edgar Brenninkmeyer says:

          Anon, with all due respect, I happen to be gay and do not find myself both in your description of opera lovers and critics. Your stereotyping is outdated and boring. Why not try to be more creative in your thinking and attitude? It will do you and all of us good (irrespective of sexualities).

        • Halldor says:

          *sigh* The old ‘they don’t criticise male singers’ physical appearance’ canard again. YES THEY DO. Christiansen alone has described Pavarotti in L’elisir d’amore as ‘bloated’ and stated that Johan Botha’s ‘massive bulk’ undermined the credibility of his performance as Tannhauser.

    • MWnyc says:

      Absolutely, there are male opera singers who get criticized for being overweight. Johan Botha and Ben Heppner (newly retired) leap to mind, and Pavarotti got a lot of grief for his weight (and other indulgences) later in his career.

      Anthony Dean Griffey and Stephanie Blythe leap to mind as two singers who are very rarely criticized for their weight in print. This is mostly because they are excellent as both singers and actors, but it’s also because they don’t usually sing roles in which their figures would strain credulity.

      • Christy says:

        I don’t think Botha or Heppner are legitimate rebuttals. There is a difference between size 14/16 and size 22 and above. Men only seem to be criticized at the largest size (also wrong, in my opinion). Women are expected to be size 10.

        While neither men nor women should endure rude, unfeeling adjectives, those adjectives are employed far more quickly for women.

  • To Hugh Canning: … ” ..as much a theatrical art as it is a musical art”! Wow, what a statement. Find me one composer of opera who would agree with that comment! Or a conductor.. or a singer… The only opera professional who could possibly agree with such a statement is an opera director….Flabergasting!

    • Max Grimm says:

      This is precisely the reason I prefer concertante performances of most operas.

    • Would the name “Wagner” satisfy you?

      He came up with a little concept called “gesamtkunstwerk” which demonstrated that every facet of stage art is equally important, and that if they are not integrated then you don’t have art at all. Most musicians I know are well aware that an opera house is a theatre, not a concert hall.

      It is only some audience members who close their eyes. But that is mainly because they are asleep, not because they feel that what they are seeing is a distraction.

    • Theodore McGuiver says:

      @Derek: Not at all flabbergasting. Richard Strauss, Puccini and Wagner were great advocates of the dramatic. Wagner actually cast an actor who could sing a bit as his first Beckmesser.

      Opera is not just about the voice. If it were, it would be hellishly boring. And irrelevant.

    • MWnyc says:

      Opera composers who’d agree that opera is as much a theatrical as a musical art? I can’t speak for them, but I’d wager that George Benjamin, Jake Heggie, Tan Dun, and Nico Muhly would agree with that sentiment. And that’s just right off the top of my head. I could name another half a dozen who, I’d bet, see opera as a theatrical as well as a musical art, even if they wouldn’t put the balance at 50-50.

      • Hmm, I was pointing out that Opera professionals would rarely put the “Theatre of it all” on a par with the “Music of it all”. That point seems to be missed! 🙂

  • Mark Kendall says:

    -Pavarotti did not became an opera star on stage but via recordings, he and his agents knew better.

    Richard Naxos, you spoilt your clear-headed, historical point by spouting this nonsense. Pavarotti became a huge operatic star before he was very fat, ON-STAGE all over the world. He had a fabulous voice both in the theatre and on record and sang on the biggest operatic stages, decades before Nessun Dorma made him a household name in the UK…He was an ‘operatic star’ from 1965 and 1966 for his Rodolfo in La Scala and Tonio in Covent Garden. You know this. Why do you say otherwise?

  • Cambridge says:

    The outrage is ridiculous. Of course critics have the right to comment about a singer’s size and suitability for the role. For me opera is ruined as a spectacle when an inappropriate looking singer – male or female – takes part. Why I tend to listen to opera and not watch it!

  • Eli Bensky says:

    Has Rupert ever complained about an Asian or African American vocalist in an opera. Probably not because wants to be “politically correct”. He is not a reviewer; he is a cowardly bully

  • Edgar Brenninkmeyer says:

    How about a new opera based on Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata”, to poke fun at certain male critics? 😉

  • Theodore McGuiver says:

    Whether or not opera professionals woud put the theatrical on a par with the vocal is also irrelevant. Many are just as likely to just defend their own particular interests. Hence we have comments from singers like ‘It’s all about the voice’ while stage directors may overtly or secretly have little time for all those pesky musicians down there. Those are just two examples.