Slipped Disc editorial: Fat should not be an issue in opera

Slipped Disc editorial: Fat should not be an issue in opera


norman lebrecht

May 19, 2014

Weasel words have been used by five male, middle-aged critics to describe a promising young soprano whom they deemed physically too heavy for the role. All five suggested she was fat, without actually using the ‘f’ word. The euphemisms were timid and dishonest.

The singer in question, Tara Erraught, may carry slightly more heft than  a size eight, but what has that to do with performance? We want to know from a critic how she sang the role of Octavian at Glyndebourne, how she acted and how she interacted with the rest of the production. None of the reviews told us that. As a result, the five critics have been pilloried before the court of public opinion.

The only national female critic at opening night, Fiona Maddocks of the Observer, contradicted her male colleagues. She tweeted: Ahead of full review: Tara Erraught’s Octavian is touching, innocent, beautifully sung, beautifully acted.

Among other responses, a prominent mezzo-soprano Alice Coote called for a more holistic approach to casting and more sensitive criticism than is permitted by the current obsession with body image (Richard Wagner or Gustav Mahler might well have agreed).

tara erraught

The Guardian newspaper, discomfited by its own critic’s judgement, has published not one but two commentaries of rebuttal. Slippedisc has flared white hot with debate all day and social media are rippling with the aftershocks.

So, to brass tacks: does excess body weight affects artistic performance on stage? Obviously not, as Luciano Pavarotti loudly demonstrated, Pavarotti and as a recent entrant to Britain’s Got Talent amply confirms (below).

Does excess weight affect opera casting? Yes, very often, as almost every singer will attest. Should it? No, of course not, but so long as mass media endorse body fashion there will be no end to weight discrimination in opera.

The issue here is not a proposed reform of opera auditions so much as the language of criticism. The role of opera critic, ill-paid and under-appreciated, is to inform and educate the reading public. Some do so faithfully, some magnificently. But when a critic, or a pack of critics, expresses an unpleasant prejudice – whether on race, sex or appearance – that is an offence for which they and their newspapers must answer. A public apology to the young singer is the least they can offer.



  • ruben greenberg says:

    Using fat singers is a way of bringing opera to a broader audience.

  • GEll says:

    I could not have stated it better. This editorial is required reading.

  • Well said Norman, absolutely hits the nail on the head !!

  • sdReader says:


  • Christy says:

    My heart breaks for this woman. What she must feel reading those words after years of hard, hard work to perfect her talent. If she reads any of this, I hope she knows that the nasty words of a few men don’t represent the majority of us. I hope those around her will convey this- and let her know of the support she has.

  • Christy says:

    Norman, on a largely off topic note, I wouldn’t have know about all of this discussion, if not for reading this particular article. Is there perhaps any way to have a comments feed so that one can see what is provoking discussion? Or even to see how many comments have been posted on each story without clicking it?

    Thank you, Norman, for all you do.

  • Anon says:

    Well said, Norman. Thank you for giving this matter the attention it deserves.

    I hate to say this, but I’m afraid the 2004 Deborah Voigt Covent Garden little-black-dress incident cast a lingering shadow internationally on perceived British physical expectations for female opera singers. The black dress incident didn’t happen at the MET, or at La Scala or in Vienna, where zaftig singers of both sexes perform regularly. It happened in London.

    Perhaps I’m mistaken, but it seems like a logical precedent for this Glyndebourne situation. Aren’t these critics also based in London, or nearby? They are all of an age to
    have direct 1st hand knowledge of the Voigt case, and to have been shaped by it professionally.

    Deborah Voigt’s dismissal at Covent Garden simply because of her size left a lot of people
    wondering about British performance standards. Is size really an issue? And now, at Glyndebourne, also in the UK, the point again is raised. It might appear to be a very important part of British opera standards, had you not written about it Norman, and encouraged others to come forth in support of the criticized singers. Again, thank you!

  • Bob Thomas says:

    I have never seen the young singer in question but I offer two thoughts:

    First, I find it very unusual that a multiplicity of critics would all zero in on the same problem; thus, I conclude that there may well be an issue here. Moreover, if a singer’s self-esteem is damaged by negative reviews, then she has more significant problems with which to deal than what a critic writes.

    Second: the idea that how singers look is not important is so outdated as to be laughable. Sorry to disappoint you but live opera is both a visual and an aural experience. We don’t close our eyes when we enter the opera house and we care about more than just the singing. Otherwise, why are so many people outraged at new productions? In fact, why do new productions at all? If a singer’s looks detract from how their portrayal comes across, then it’s a problem and it’s worth a critical comment. BTW: Andrew Clark, in the FT (the one online entry I could find) balanced his view of her looks by saying the role was “gloriously sung.”

    • Patrick Power says:

      Bob,If you’ve seen the singer in question then it would be best not to assume. It is not too hard to see her. There is a lot of rave reviews from her work in Munich and some Bayerische Rundfunk coverage of her singing the most amazing Handel. The German critics and public adore her.She is a beautiful woman and an outstanding actress. She is not tall and not slender,but nor is she obese. She is certainly attractive. We expect critics of singing actors to give intelligent criticism of both singing and acting.Not irrelevant and offensive comments about the body. It would appear from photos of the production that costuming may have been a problem.But that is not the singer’s responsibility.Would it be relevant to my criticism of the critics’ dubious taste and intellect to point out that at least three of them are decidedly unattractive physically?
      A pox on all their houses!

      • m2n2k says:

        No, it would not be relevant. Critics are not supposed to recite their reviews to the audiences from stage, so their appearance is completely irrelevant. That of the opera singers is not.

      • m2n2k says:

        No, it would not be relevant. Critics are not supposed to recite their reviews to the audiences from stage, so their appearance is not relevant at all. That of the opera singers is.

    • Uri Golomb says:

      “If a singer’s self-esteem is damaged by negative reviews, then she has more significant problems with which to deal than what a critic writes” — Perhaps. But even so, her career chances could well be significantly affected by what the critics write — I don’t know how these things work, but I daresay a singer with good reviews to his or her credit stands a better chance of finding professional engagements than a singer who received bad reviews.

      For me, the stage appearance of the singer in opera IS important — more so than in Lieder or oratorios. But by this, I refer to their acting, not their physical appearance. If I were an opera critic, I’d find it acceptable to refer to a singer’s body LANGUAGE (bearing in mind, however, that this might well have been influenced by the stage director rather than the singers themselves) — whether their gestures were appropriate for the music they’re singing and for the characters they’re portraying. That’s not the same as casting aspersions on their bodies.

    • Mike Ziolkowski says:

      Bob, I’m taking my cue from your logic — quick gander at your photo I’m immediately discounting whatever you say.

  • Peter says:

    in the video of the pole-dancer it may have been a slip of the mouth to describe her as a ‘massive example’

  • m2n2k says:

    Voice may be the most important element in opera but it certainly isn’t the only one. Singers’ appearance is as much a part of the operatic presentation as sets, costumes, direction, and other visual aspects of the whole thing. Critics should be able to express their opinions about all elements of the production, but of course I agree that voices and musical side in general should retain their predominant role.

    • Uri Golomb says:

      Even in terms of visual appearance on the stage, however, opera singers’ acting is more important than their physique, in my view. This even applies to theatre actors — and even more so to opera, where the suspension of disbelief is greater.

      • m2n2k says:

        Fine, physical appearance may be less important than certain other qualities, but it definitely isn’t irrelevant in staged opera productions.

  • Edgar Brenninkmeyer says:

    Bravo indeed. Now I hope to read the apologies of each of those critics. And I fervently hope that Tara Erraught will rise above the insults and sing even more splendidly in the coming Rosenkavalier performances, if only to prove the miserly critics wrong.

  • I’m surprised no one has mentioned Deborah Voigt in this context. In 2004, she was removed from the role of Ariadne at Royal Opera House when she could not fit into one of the costumes, a “little black dress” the casting director, Peter Mario Katona, wanted her to wear. She was replaced by Anne Schwanewilms, a German singer of slimmer appearance. These new standards of appearance have become quite common. The mentality reflected by the journalists under discussion was initiated by the opera community itself.

    Voight later underwent gastric bypass surgery and lost about 100 pounds. She was later rehired by the ROH for the role she was fired from. Her performances have been well received.

    Casting agents in Germany (and I suspect elsewhere) also often reject women singers if they are too tall. The thinking is that they should not be taller than the hero. The standard line is that tall women should only do Wagner.

    So opera is changing. For better or worse, directors and audiences increasingly want to see roles filled using Hollywood standards of appearance, especially now that opera is most often experienced on video. This is especially true for contemporary opera which often strives for a stronger integration of music, text, drama, and theater. A new opera like “Anna Nicole,” for example, obviously requires a certain appearance for the lead role.

    Opera’s focus on the bel canto voice is one of its greatest achievements. It’s also one of its greatest failings. As we move forward toward more theatrical forms of music theater, journalists will need to comment on all aspects of theatricality, but they need to better consider their language. In the meantime, there will still be a big market for good old fashioned bel canto opera.

    • Anon says:

      William, I also thought immediately of the Voigt little black dress incident at Covent Garden. I think that unfortunately it may have set a powerful precedent, giving critics like these 5 men the green light to attack the physical appearance of women singers.

  • Brian Joyce says:

    The cruelty exhibited by the five middle-aged boorish “critics” is inexcusable. They should be fired or forced to resign in favor of critics who would faithfully help us understand the quality of production and performance. I have now taken the time to listen to some of Ms. Erraught’s work and it was magnificent: lyrical, plaintive and a joy to the heart and ear. Bravo Ms. Erraught! I for one can not wait to enjoy your efforts at a live performance!

  • Simon S. says:

    Norman, I fully agree with you that a) there’s no need for top models on stage, but for good singers, and b) that it’s a shame what the mentioned critics wrote.

    However, as you mention Pavarotti, for me there’s one caveat: In a staged performance, a singer should be physically capable of acting – and, I’m afraid, the old Pavarotti was not. Around 2003 or 2004, he performed as Cavaradossi at Deutsche Oper Berlin, and one (friendly and respectful) review had the headline “Der Sänger sitzt.”

    That said, I enjoyed two performances with someone (a singer in one case, a theatre actor in the other) acting in a wheelchair, in both cases due to previously suffered on-stage-accidents. Most impressive in both cases! The physical capability of acting is thus neither bound to physical appearance nor to (the lack of) physical disabilities.

  • TH Makeig says:

    Though we must recognize that opera is show business and a svelte figure never hurt ticket sales, I find it disturbing that even in a TROUSERS ROLE a female singer can’t catch a break from the critics. How many male suitors in worlds real and imagined have been permitted some pooch without being demeaned for it? Even by the most sexist of double standards, this singer cuts an appropriate figure for the role. And anyone who thinks a lady’s size should be a filter for whether she gets to perform this challenging repertoire at the best houses just doesn’t care about great singing, which comes in every size and shape and is always in short supply.

    • Richard Halley says:

      Actually, I believe it was largely due to it being a trousers role that these critics raised the issue. She sang the role very well, I thought, and I expect she would make a lovely woman on stage. Yet I have to agree that I found the portrayal of Octavian the least credible I have seen in performance, partially because you could not forget that she was a woman. This is hardly her fault, but it was all the more noticeable when placed next to Kate Royal, which I suspect is part of the problem; they simply were too difficult to accept as a couple. She worked splendidly as Mariandel, but the first act in particular was less convincing.

      This is hardly her fault, and I think the production team could certainly have done a better job to find a way to make her look the part of the dashing knight. Nevertheless, I think it fair enough to mention that it was hard to take seriously the romance between her and Ms. Royal’s Marschallin, as this–as well as Octavian’s capacity to come across as somewhat dashing in Act II–forms a basis of the underlying stage drama of the work.

      Though some (though not all, I feel) critics expressed this badly, I suspect this was what they were ultimately getting at, and this is something I do think they were fully justified in commenting on. I do feel, however, that some could certainly have commented in a less offensive fashion. Had I written a review, I would probably have mentioned this aspect, as it did impact the production. However, I would certainly have worded it in terms of the dramatic credibility of the relationship as opposed to anyone’s particular body type.

  • Mark Stobbs says:

    Is this the same Norman Lebrecht who, in his book “Covent Garden: The Untold Story” described Lilian Baylis as “Stout, bespectacled, thick lipped and almost execrably ugly” and Harold Rosenthal as “an exceptionally ugly man”? Irrespective of the issues, he is surely in no position to comment on this. Pot, please meet kettle.

  • Mrsblobby says:

    I entirely agree with your comments, but I feel it was the casting director who was at fault in casting her as Octavian, the amour of the slender, and taller, Sophie. I found the romantic duo quite distracting, and mentally likened it to watching a school play, with the disparity in heights of talented lead children having to be accommodated on stage. Unfortunately poor Tara Erraught has had to contend with unkind critics’ comments on her physique, when she shouldn’t have been put into this invidious position by the director in the first place.

  • David Smith says:

    I applaud the OPEN letter sent by Alice Cootes to all critics.