The hole at the heart of Rupert Christiansen

The hole at the heart of Rupert Christiansen


norman lebrecht

May 21, 2014

When Grace Bumbry stepped onto the stage at Bayreuth as Venus in 1961, opera magazines and conservative media were poleaxed by perplexity. Here was a beautiful young American singer, 24 years old, appearing in Tannhäuser, opposite Victoria de los Angeles and Wolfgang Windgassen, luxury casting even by Bayreuth’s standards.

Just one problem: Grace was black. Wagner was race-pure. The media wanted to know what the hell was she doing in these hallowed halls.

The audience provided the answer. It gave Grace a half-hour standing ovation and 42 curtain calls. Game over.



When Matthew Bourne put on an all-male Swan Lake in 1995, reactionary media gave him the same reception. Tchaikovsky wrote for ballerinas, didn’t he?

Bourne’s Swan Lake went on to become the longest-running ballet on Broadway.

Opera and ballet are all about illusion. That is why the Telegraph critic is utterly wrong when he argues: Fat and thin can be equally beautiful, but one has to make an audience believe. There are times when physical absolutes make this impossible.

Wrong, wrong and wrong again. We go to the theatre to have our preconceptions challenged. We want to see something different, to have expectations overturned. We want to hear great singers, regardless of colour, race, shape or whatever. We want the experience to override physical absolutes, as it did with Grace Bumbry, as it did with Matthew Bourne. That’s the way great art goes forward.

Rupert’s way leads only to the grave.


  • basia jaworski says:

    That’s exactly where I was thinking about!
    Thanks, Norman!

  • Michael Smith says:

    Very well said, Norman. Opera is not a naturalistic medium.

  • whatever says:

    Pardon my sense of history, but haven’t all the great singers been, um, well, a bit generously sized? Can’t think of single one who was size 0. Even Maria Callas wore a corset. . .

  • sdReader says:

    It is amazing that Rupert Christiansen has been published so long and is so stupid. Even his 75%/25% breakdown today shows he doesn’t grasp the basic principle Alice Coote correctly asserted.

    Separately, he mentioned that Tara Erraught “has been upset.” Is her reaction known?

  • Brian says:

    It has been a challenge to read of this furor without responding and I know that I’m going to upset more than a few.

    You write, Norman, that “we go to the theatre to have our preconceptions challenged. We want to see something different, to have expectations overturned. We want to hear great singers, regardless of colour, race, shape or whatever. We want the experience to override physical absolutes, as it did with Grace Bumbry, as it did with Matthew Bourne. That’s the way great art goes forward.” The collective “we” in your argument is becoming more and more a smaller cadre of opera aficionados. The art form is speaking little to the contemporary audience as we’re sitting here arguing about a role in an opera that’s over 100 years old.

    I’m all about suspending reality–to a point. In the summers I read a great deal of fiction to escape what has been a challenging year. I attend the cinema for many of the same reasons, but am trying to imagine any director of repute casting individuals who did not at least *look* the part. And that’s the problem with opera: we’ll dismiss all other attributes for the sake of “the voice.” We need to face facts and admit that, for all of his ability, Pavarotti was a large (I can’t say “fat” can I?) older man cavorting on stage with women young enough to be his daughter. AND, he didn’t go out gracefully…..that fat lady sang a long time ago.

    • Leontynes Weave says:

      It’s interesting that this conversation has devolved into a voice vs theatre discussion, when having heard Erraught in Avery Fisher at a Tucker Gala I was less than impressed. I will say that if the physical appearance of a woman is described in such a crass manner it should go for the lads as well, hence some of the outrage over sexism. In any event Erraught has become something of a champion of “voice” fans of opera somewhat by accident I think, but speaking more generally I firmly agree with Coote and Lebrecht. The dramatic element in opera is primarily experienced through the singing. It does not mean they just stand and sing, they have to express also. There are hundreds of magnificently nuanced performances on Youtube with singers barely moving followed by the audience going clinically insane. People seem to have equated “opera is about singing” with “standing and making nice tones with no dramatic intent.” But no great opera singers do that and they never have. Do people forget that vocal lines have dramatic weight? If a singer can execute the music properly, in their voices with a properly balanced tone and mean the words as they sing them they are already about 90% of the way there, and this generally reads much more in a theatre than whatever psychological trauma one tries to unearth to relate to a character in an acoustic setting while singing. Instead we have seen the rise of more physically attractive “stars” who seem to be mediocre singers when compared to the greats, though they do seem to have mastered the art of acting like they’re acting. Jonas Kaufmann’s voice has precious little squillo and doesn’t have much presence in large halls. But didn’t he just brood so well as Werther and Faust? Anna Netrebko’s voice is monochromatic, generally uncontrolled above the staff and she has no coloratura. Meh. She’s such a sex symbol and she has that “x” factor, right? I hate to partake in some of the hyperbole that has been thrown around since this “controversy” began, but to me picking lesser singers because of their appearance or even mentioning it in a manner that suggests that the singing is not paramount sounds like the death of great opera.

      When we think of the greatest opera singers of the recorded era, there are some of them who were dashing or beautiful (Corelli, Callas, Wunderlich, Shirley Verrett, Kraus, etc.) and some of them were just average looking. But I’d really hate to think we could have missed out on Kirsten Flagstad because she looked matronly or on Gigli because he had a potbelly. To that end I don’t think anyone is seriously advocating that singers stand in dark theaters and sing a capalla to let audiences revel in the glory of the human voice, but is it really that controversial to assert that singing is the nucleus of the art form? If a woman looks like a model and sings like Kirsten Flagstad, no one is suggesting that she be turned away. But is it really so outrageous to say that if she doesn’t look exactly like what the libretto say but sings the part exquisitely she should get priority over a lesser singer who is more physically attractive or “looks the part?” The idea that people are too impatient to appreciate opera for what it is (people expressing themselves through singing in an acoustic theatrical environment) despite the superficial appearances of the performers shows a profound disdain for the intelligence of those who consume this art form. I have shown videos to countless “lay people” of great singers from the 60s and earlier and they don’t say “man those people should act more.” They say “man those people could fucking sing.” Is that not the thing that makes opera what it is?

  • DLowe says:

    I agree with much of what was said, but I take exception to “go to the theatre to have our preconceptions challenged. We want to see something different, to have expectations overturned.” Yes, it’s good to see something different, but I would rather see the same traditional production of say, La Traviata, ten times than to see ten different modern/post-modern productions. I go to the opera because of the beauty of the music, not because I specifically desire my preconceptions to be challenged.

  • Mike says:

    Why not dispense with the theatrical element entirely if it’s only the voice?

  • Edgar Brenninkmeyer says:

    Here is a suggestion: stage a Meistersinger production which takes a serious and funny look at all the issues in this debate. Walter as drag queen and Eva as tomboy – reverse things so that the show can be a mirror for all – hopefully, something can be learned by all.

    • Gerhard says:

      Hasn’t this been done yet? What a surprising oversight! But I’m sure some cutting edge opera director will pick up your suggestion soon, unless he considers it to be too boringly close to the intentions of the score.

  • Vivian says:

    When Deborah Voigt couldn’t fit into that chic black dress, the outcome probably lengthened her life. (OTOH, IMO Kaufmann the Brooding Voice-Forcer would last longer by acknowledging the lyric aspect of his voice, thus permitting the richer colors to come through.) But I’m perfectly happy to suspend disbelief when the singing tells me more about a character than a simple reading of the libretto and the score would. As for Christiansen, if he wants verisimilitude, he should begin by replacing the cherubic-cheeked photo that accompanies his column with the world-weary, acerbic aspect with which he deigns to festoon his bio.

  • Vivian says:

    (Should have said: singing AND ACTING) (Sorry!)

  • Vivian says:

    Again speaking of verisimilitude, YouTube provides a clip of Taa’u Pupu’a, a 6’5″ tenor (once a defensive linesman for the Baltimore Ravens, until he broke an arch and decided to pursue a lifelong interest in singing). It is from Tosca, Cavaradossi singing “Vittoria!” His voice is suited to the role, but he is head, shoulders and half-a-chest taller than his two tormentors, and just about as broad as both of them together. They are supposed to be dragging him in, but it looks more like he is assisting them with the burden of himself. Silly to think he had to give them permission to torture him. Brush it aside, and listen to the story and the show. (Or call a substitution for that scene and bring in Villazon. — And what to say when the Tosca is sturdier than the Scarpia? as is more often the case.)