Winners and whiners in the big, fat opera row

Winners and whiners in the big, fat opera row


norman lebrecht

May 23, 2014

Ever since set the ball rolling on Monday morning, drawing attention to the verbal assault on a young singer by five scratchy male critics, we were alert to the possibility that reputations might suffer in the ensuing storm.

Some did. By Friday, the issue of body size in opera was being aired on American breakfast television and across many forms of media in which opera never gets an airing except in terms of envy and ridicule.

So who has come well out of the furore?

– Tara Erraught, the beautiful young Irish singer, who is presently the most famous mezzo on earth and will never want for work. Nor need she fear further assault. The male critics will not dare.

– Alice Coote, the first artist to see the issue as a matter of principle, appealing to the opera world to reject the demands of body fashion – some may read that as body fascism – and give the voice priority in what is, at base, a vocal art. Alice has greatly enhanced her status as an intelligent artist and fine singer, even – and especially – among the offending critics.

– Glyndebourne, quick to announce its support for the singer.

Richard Morrison and Michael Church, two critics who apologised for the offence they gave.

– Fiona Maddocks and Hugh Canning, two Sunday critics who swiftly dissociated themselves from their colleagues’ offensive terminology.

– NPR’s Anastasia’s Tsioulcas, who nailed the critics for misogyny and breath-taking arrogance.




And who has emerged from the fray weakened?

– Three stubborn critics and the Daily Mail who maintain that a man in the aisles is entitled say what he likes. (They know full well that singers cannot be disparaged for their race, colour, gender and sexual preference. Why, then, can they be attacked for body shape?)

– Numerous newspaper editors, who were late, lame and unenlightening on the issues.

– The Daily Telegraph, for multiple lapses of taste and editorial judgement.

– Several scabrous websites.

– The conducting profession, which failed to exercise its authority in defence of an embattled artist.

– The Glyndebourne costume department.

– The BBC, which played catch-up to other media and did no original journalism or opinion forming on any channel, radio or TV.

That’s it. All over now. Have a good weekend.


  • Dave says:

    You have a good weekend too!

  • Jeffrey Levenson says:

    Are they referring to the pictured singer in the blue dress???
    She is beautiful!

  • Clairon says:

    Astonished in the last day or so that Morrison’s “apology” has been viewed by many as a fair riposte: not only is it even printed in as sarcastic inverted commas as these, he immediately undermines it by saying he was only doing his job, guv’nor.

    Furthermore, his defence, which is what most of it amounts to, not an apology (I don’t see why he’s got off the hook and Christiansen hasn’t in this regard), is hogwash. The Hannibal Lecter/Anthony Hopkins comparision is utterly invidious: “unbelievable, unsightly and unappealing” simply aren’t descriptions of a character. The last just about plausibly could be so, but every performer knows what’s being said if their performance is characterised as “unbelievable”, and when it’s specifically tied to physique, it’s quite clear what motivated this: the artful tricolon including “unsightly” is redundant – his nasty little point is made clearly enough. What an embarrassment that it’s taken Anthony Tommasini of all people to point out today that “They don’t have to be conventionally attractive. They just have to convey attraction to each other.”

    “Believability” or otherwise comes from one’s own prejudices about who ought to be attracted to whom, a point that has been consistently missed, including by an understandably angry and defensive community sometimes arguing either “but she’s beautiful actually” or “it’s the voice that counts” – that all these critics found it unbelievable one way or another is a reflection on them, not on what happened on stage.

    I like his notion that, because the online community has been more active than people who regularly write to the Times, the “general public” is in agreement with the critics. Hopefully the snobbery and delusion behind that revealing idea shouldn’t need further unpicking.One eagerly awaits the next round-table of three professional critics rounding on one invited blogger for his or her (a notably more even balance) supposed undeclared interests and biases, or lack of expertise, against the neutral and disinterested old chaps paid to be there to file copy for their sadly moribund industry.

    And, seriously, has anyone since, say, 1970, considered “sexist, me? nah i love women, love’em – ask my wives” a defence against the charge? How demeaning – an even more illogical version of “some of my best friends are…” , and yet weirder and more patronising than Christiansen’s “she’s a very pretty girl”. A deeply strange thing to publish, frankly.

    “Wenn wir in unsrer Welt des Scheins der Wirklichkeit zu nahe kommen, so ist die Kunst in Gefahr, sich die Flügel zu verbrennen” or something.

  • Christy says:

    Thank you for the update, Norman.

    I think Dame Kiri has it exactly right. “Costume disaster.” More people should be calling out the costume department.

  • Snezana Stamenkovic says:

    Tara is such a beautiful young woman, very feminine, with BREASTS… Since when is having breasts bulky… That Strauss wrote the part of a boy for a Woman (who normaly have breasts) is not her fault. She sings greatly and that is what counts! And she is beautifull!!
    I whish her all the best, for all to love her self!

  • Hugh Canning says:

    Norman – I would like to qualify your assertion that I disassociate myself from my colleagues comments. I do not – I think some of the language used was intemperate but, unlike Fiona, I was not convinced by Tara Erraught’s performance but for vocal and histrionic reasons as well as her appearance on stage, which, I believe, they have every right to comment upon as opera is as much a theatrical as it is a musical art. She was unflatteringly costumed and bewigged – neither her fault, of course and a more experienced singer might have put their foot down or walked out – and not well directed. I think my colleagues have been badly treated by the posters to your blog. There have been calls for their resignation and vulgar abuse about their appearance when it is totally irrelevant to their functions as critics. They have been falsely accused of “ganging up” on a young singer, implying collusion when non-occured and they have also been wrongly accused of “hatred” – which is just nonsense. If critics don’t like an artist’s work, or an aspect of an artist’s work it’s not personal. Richard Morrison, Andrew Clark, Rupert Christiansen and Andrew Clements all number singers among their friends. None of them has ever called for a singer to be banned or stopped from working, in stark contrast to the naked hatred (anonymous of course) that has been displayed towards them on here and in other forums. As you must know, daily critics often have to work under pressure and make on-the-spot judgements, whereas Fiona and I usually have a few days of respite for reflection. All four are outstanding critics and London’s music scene would be poorer without them. And, inadvertently, they have catapulted Miss Erraught to world fame. I have no doubt she will be welcomed with open arms when she sings La Cenerentola for Washington Opera this Autumn. I rather wish she had made her UK debut in that role at Glyndebourne.

    • Brian says:

      I’ve resisted taking a position on this topic but because it became overly heated and irrational. But I do think Hugh Canning is correct in that there’s a bit of a reflexive “blame the media” attitude to the the Erraught affair, which is dangerous in this day and age. We need independent-minded critics to take views that may not always please artists and their fans but are direct and forthright.

      Would I use terms like “dumpy” and “stocky” in my writing? Doubtful. But I see too much music writing these days (especially from American outlets) that’s safe and bland. This sort of thing shouldn’t tell critics that they must retreat from controversial or occasionally colorful views.

      • Brian says:

        PS – just to clarify, the overheated and irrational nature of this conversation isn’t from Norman but a number of the commenters here who have gotten way too worked up over a few reviews. At any rate, this has undoubtedly won Erraught many sympathetic fans who previously had never heard of her.

  • Tristan says:

    what about those who design those horrible costumes you see more and more? what about so many helpless directors? Nobody remembers the ghastly Macbeth production Mr Jones has offered for Glyndebourne some years ago? No, not only the unprofessional critics who mostly have neither knowledge nor taste but also directors and sadly most embarrassing so many who run opera companies in these days.

    • Nick says:

      Tristan is 100% correct. It is totally wrong to blame the Glyndebourne Costume Department. It will have been following to the letter the designs and instructions from the designer and producer. Trousers roles are never easy to costume given the way the female body’s shape is different from the male. Yet countless designers are able to work within these parameters and make a singer, along with her own acting prowess, look less like the beautiful woman she may well be. So the blame lies squarely with Nicki Gillibrand who designed the costumes and Richard Jones as the producer.

  • in_defense says:

    dear mr. lebrecht,

    i have been trying to protest against the body fascism that’s being flaunted in a certain opera blog, and the person who runs it claimed that you wrote the following:

    “Big Lucy galumphed through his farewell run of Toscas at the Met. Shot by firing squad in the finale, Luciano Pavarotti (as Cavaradossi) creaked ponderously to his knees onto what appeared to be a fortuitously positioned pile of beanbags before executing an arm-assisted sideways flop to expire in graceless comfort.

    Pavarotti, at 68, may claim sympathy for geriatric infirmity but the slow-mo act of elephantine death is an operatic abomination that he has practised and perfected over three decades of tenorial gigantism….

    Size became as much a part of his universal trademark as the beatific smile with which he unloosed string after string of near-unreachable pearls…. Fatness was the source of his cult…. Pavarotti outgleamed his rivals in corpulent magnitude.”

    I have been trying to argue that people change their minds, become more accommodating of differences, and in general, move with the times to accept a more diverse scene in all performing arts. Can you please post this here, and publicly distance yourself from the comment above, so that we know once and for all that you’re on the side of the angels?


  • Ellingtonia says:

    Hugh Canning says “All four are outstanding critics and London’s music scene would be poorer without them”…………outstanding by what criteria? Sounds more like the “critics union” battening down the hatches, and the old saying applies “if you can’t take it, don’t dish it out”.

    • Hugh Canning says:

      There is no critics’ union. There’s a “Circle” but, in my experience, it’s not exactly a beacon of solidarity. Their credentials speak for themselves, and all of them have many admirers and supporters in the music business, not only among their colleagues. If you think you can do better, by all means submit some copy to their editors. The internet is awash with wannabe critics, but only a handful have persuaded editors to actually pay to have their musings published. No musical artist I know has been subject to the sustained abuse that these writers have had to endure over the last fortnight, by people who haven’t even got the guts to use their own names. I suspect a lot of anonymous people are using this incident as payback time for critics who may have written less than adulatory reviews in the past. If the lynch-mob get its way – which happily it won’t – it would reduce newspaper criticism to an exercise in Alice-in-Wonderland-style judgements – “All have done well, so all must have prizes”. That, more than anything else, would ensure the demise of criticism. A lot of the complainants just don’t like less than favourable reviews.

    • Hugh Canning says:

      Oh, and by the way, I can take all the brickbats that come my way – quite a few in 40 years of writing – but, unlike many of the posters on here, neither I or any of my colleagues have ever called for any artist to be banned from working because of their musical performance. The moaners here would presumably fire an artist for singing or playing a bum note. That is, at worst, all that my colleagues have done.

  • Hugh Canning says:

    I am certainly not blaming Norman for the tenor of the comments of some of his more extreme posters, but, as he moderates all comments, I was surprised to see that an overtly homophobic remark, suggesting that four of my colleagues, whom Norman knows to be heterosexual, might be gay was allowed to slip through his net. And he permitted several posters to make abusive remarks about their physical appearance – I happen to think they are remarkably well preserved under the circs – when their appearance is completely irrelevant to their function as critics. All I am calling for is for a rational debate – all of these critics came to their conclusions independently but they have been attacked by a baying mob of mostly anonymous Twitterati. I gather Tara Erraught’s costuming and hairstyle have already been changed at Glyndebourne, so clearly they had a point, even if it could have been more diplomatically expressed. And, as you say, Ms Erraught has won a lot of new friends. Good luck to her.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      Among hundreds of daily comments, Hugh, the homophobic one was deleted as soon as it was brought to my attention. Those commenters who chose to remain anonymous may have had good reason. I prefer to applaud the dozen or so singers who, with much to lose, dispensed with anonymity and spoke out on this issue.

  • Ellingtonia says:

    Why was my definition of a critic censored?

  • Ellingtonia says:

    I presume you will apply the same rules of self censorship next time you consider criticising any group e.g. Vienna Philharmonic, just in case there is an element of “group defamation”