Fat singer slurs should not be heard on the BBC

Fat singer slurs should not be heard on the BBC


norman lebrecht

June 19, 2015

All week long there have been low fat murmurings on social media around BBC Cardiff Singer of the World.

We ignored them. So did everyone else. Until today, when BBC Wales put up a debate on ‘fat singers’.

Have they learned nothing from the fattist Glyndebourne furore? Body image slander can kill great art.

Anyway, soprano Liz Meister has had enough and she’s lashing back. Liz writes:

fat singer


When did we all become so judgey?  We’ve become a culture of demonisers: everyone is discriminated against in some sense.  The overwhelming likelihood is that people are unconsciously transferring their unresolved issues with themselves onto fat (usually female) singers, in the same way that men often transfer their unresolved sexual issues onto homosexuals so they can be angry at them instead of themselves.

Read her full diatribe here. And learn from it, BBC Wales. Learn.



  • Musicmatters says:

    Mother Nature knows what she’s doing! Just think of the great singers who lost weight (either naturally or through surgery) – only to discover that their breath support wasn’t the same, and thus the voice suffered.

    • Theodore McGuiver says:

      So you’re saying being overweight and putting unnecessary strain on your heart is what nature intended?

  • william osborne says:

    It is poor taste to ridicule people for their weight, but it isn’t entirely a bad thing that opera is ridiculed in other ways. It’s conventions have become ridiculous. If serious music theater is to remain alive it needs to find artistically meaningful ways to better fit with the modern world. Composers, writers and performance practices have not kept pace.

    + We need classical music theater in small formats. Opera is a dinosaur collapsing on its own weight. It has long been the goal of Western culture to establish a genre of chamber music theater, but this has never been achieved even though some of history’s best musical minds have tried, such as Schumann, Schubert, and Strauss.

    + Composers and playwrights need to develop substantial theories for small music theater aligned with modern developments represented by playwrights like Beckett, Ionesco, Brecht, Sartre, Artaud, Pinter, Genet, and many others. An excessive reliance on flamboyance, camp, and Regietheater no longer work.

    + We need new types of vocal production that allow for a greater integration of music, text, theater, and genuine acting. The bel canto voice is extremely beautiful and can reflect profound humanity and emotional depths, but it can also have a warbling, horsey, egoistic, physicality that subsumes all other elements of theater. Even in opera, the elephantine character of the bel canto voice sometimes borders on the ridiculous. The bel canto voice can be applied to some forms of chamber music theater, but in some cases, it requires that the singer adapt his or her forms of vocal production.

    + We need music theater texts with genuine substance that have an artistic value equal to the music. One of the reasons opera began to decay during the 20thcentury was the loss of the art of the librettist. Since music, spectacle, and the bel canto voice had already begun to dominate opera even in its early history, librettos took on a strongly inferior role in productions. Especially in the Italian operas that came to dominate the genre during the 18th and 19th centuries, the creation of librettos became hack work based on stock characters. By the time the 20th century arrived, few authors were interested in work that was considered demeaning and anachronistic.

    + We need works that can support genuinely intelligent stage direction – works where the staging is an integral and meaningful part of the score. Perhaps it is worth noting that one off-shoot of this problem with librettos has been the development Regietheater. In essence, it exists because many, if not most opera librettos are so absurd that they beg for enhancement.

    + We need works that truly capture the beauty of language itself.

    + We need music theater works that have genuine character portrayal and character development. When the subjective emotionality and visceral levels of music are genuinely integrated with the objective nature of theater, a Gestalt is formed that reveals a wider spectrum of human consciousness than any other art form can achieve. That is perhaps why many operas focus on a central character’s development, and why the works are often named after them. Orfeo, Lenore, Tosca, Siegfried, Salome, Elektra, Madam Butterfly, Wozzeck, Lulu, Peter Grimes and Billy Budd are but a few examples. We need to expand and refine this tradition.

    + We need new types of performers who can integrate music, acting, and movement on an equal basis. Opera aspires to these goal but falls ridiculously short. The first step is the creation of music theater where every word is easily understandable.

    Anyway, we see that overweight singers are the least of the problems opera faces.

    • Kilgore Trout says:

      Have your heard (or better, seen) the works of Heiner Goebbels ? It’s pretty much everything you’re asking for.

      • william osborne says:

        Yes, I know his work, though not as well as I should because my musical style is very different. He is massively supported here in Germany where I live – perhaps even with some nationalistic agendas that are not uncommon in how Europeans promote their artists. It is no doubt part of my own aesthetic biases, but I feel his work suffers from an excess of conceptualism. His high modernist aesthetic represents for me the less attractive side of German Staatstheater – something that might be termed Beamterkultur (civil servant culture.) His musical languages sounds to my ears like Darmstadt in about 1978 – the old fashioned, institutional avant-gardism that plagues German new music and Staatstheater.

        One of the problems new music theater faces is that conceptualism became a refuge for inability. During the 20th century, so many common practices and belief systems were completely shattered that composers and writers of music theater were left with little to build upon. There were few accepted technical or aesthetic theories at hand, and those that were in the process of being formulated were difficult to recognize in the atmosphere of aesthetic and philosophic doubt that characterized the period.

        On the other hand, the support and promotion Goebbels receives from various manifestations of the German government is exemplary. Something like the Ruhrtriennale would be unthinkable in the USA. The weakness is that similar support should have been received by a wider stylistic range of composers. I think this would have resulted in a wider range of positive results.

        I would be interesting to read your own observations about Goebbels’ work.

        • Kilgore Trout says:

          I’m quite surprised that you hear any kind of Darmstadt esthetic in his music : his music is often tonal, includes a lot of jazz, straightforward popular and world music elements, has a strong rythmic and harmonic clarity, and strays away from the overly abstract and technical music that “Darmstadt composers” were looking for. For me, his music has absolutely nothing to do with anything that could be associated with Darmstadt. It’s pretty much the exact opposite : cosmopolitan, post-modernist, concrete, even sentimental at times.
          For exemple, this sound more like american post-minimalism than anything that ever came out from Darmstadt, and has little to do with “high modernism” :

          However, I do agree that there are some traces of “excess of conceptualism”, but it’s limited to the overall project of some pieces, which are often build on complex collage of texts, not never to the music itself. That being said, it usually works really well in live settings, because Goebbels has a strong mastery of staging and dramaturgy.

          Even his most advanced orchestral pieces have a clarity and a simplicity that has no link to “Darmstadt music”, and use a lot of diatonic and tonal elements. Who, in Darmstadt, could have written the last two minutes of this (or the rest of the piece, for that matter) :
          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T9xd6Pr7zas ?

          Overall, Goebbel is, to me, one of the few german composers who DOES NOT write “high modernistic” and “conceptual” music and actually succeeds at it without using any kind of reactionnary element.

          • william osborne says:

            “The Wars I Have Seen” sounds Darmstadtian to my ears – maybe a little later than 1978. The problem is that the term is vague and poor way to discuss musical styles. Surely you would recognize that Goebbels’ music leans much more in the modernist direction than composers like Thomas Ades, David Del Tredici, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Christopher Rouse, etc.

            “Chaconne – Kantorloop” is more postmodern, similar to the way modernist composers such as Magnus Lindberg have slightly updated their modernist styles – as in this case with collage effects. In any case, I think Goebbels’ music would be considered rather modernist in the much more widely varied stylistic world now common in the States.

          • Kilgore Trout says:

            “Surely you would recognize that Goebbels’ music leans much more in the modernist direction than composers like Thomas Ades, David Del Tredici, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Christopher Rouse, etc.”

            Not Thomas Adès, who at times can write music more expressionist than anything Goebbels has ever written, but I would agree than Goebbels is more on the modern side than the three others, but that is because the composers you’re naming are blatant reactionnary composers, who have little to do with the XXIth century. I would not even call them post-modernists : they’re neo-modernists (like “writing music that could have been written in 1920”) at best, when they’re not neo-romantics like Del Tredici nowadays.

            Moreover, I don’t see anything in common between Lindberg and Goebbels : Lindberg never uses collage, and he is indeed a high modernist who brought elements of tonality into a post-spectral and chaotic esthetic (Dalbavie, Saariaho, etc.). Goebbels was a post-modern from the start : he was a jazzman and a man of theater, who always blended tonality, jazz and atonility in works that have more to do formally with theater than abstract music. Goebbel’s esthetic is a breath of fresh air in german music, because while being conceptual and advanced enough, and never reactionnary, his music is opened to the world, emotional, even sometimes funny, and I think that is the reason he’s supported in Germany, not because he answers to the “old fashioned, institutional avant-gardism that plagues German new music and Staatstheater” (I can name quite a few composers who do that much better than Goebbels).

            Then again, if every music that is not is not blatantly reactionnary and neo-romantic is “Darmstadt music” and “excessive conceptualism”, fine, but I think that, luckily, our musical world is a little more complex than that, and that Goebbel’s music imbodies that perfectly, without boundaries.

          • william osborne says:

            When you term the composers I mentioned as “blatant reactionary composers, who have little to do with the XXIth century” you reveal your own biases and that your perceptions of Goebbels are strongly shaded. OTH, if Goebbels, as you mentioned, is placed solely in a German context, he might not be as modernist as than the norm. Problem is, Germany is not a norm in the international new music community.

          • william osborne says:

            To describe those composers as blatantly reactionary and not part of the 20th century explains your view.

          • Kilgore Trout says:

            Whether you like it or not, they are, and they are willingly so. You believe that “reactionary” is a judgement of value. It is not. It’s merely a description of their music. The case of Del Tredici is an extreme one : his switching from avant-garde to a neo-romantic esthetic, that he promotes as such (and there is nothing to contradict him), is the epitone of reaction.

            And I do like very much some of the neo-romantic works of Del Tredici – I just don’t fall into the pattern of “high modernism” vs “post-modernism” (while naming reactionnary composers and not actual post-modernists) you’re trying to build and to promote. Our musical world is much more complex and interesting than that.

            You raise problems and then refuse to aknowledge the fact that some of these problems have been at least partially solved by composers who don’t match your esthetic views. “My view”, as you call it, is based on curiosity and actual musical content (one of the fact being that Heiner Goebbels has little if nothing to do with Darmstadt), and not esthetical propaganda.

            And I said 21th century, not 20th.

          • william osborne says:

            Reactionary is a value-laden term. It is not an objective description.

  • Fourth Norn says:

    In Mozart’s day and for much of the 19th century most of the operas being staged were by living composers. Those composers were encouraged by (usually royal) patrons, but the survival of their works depended on whether or not audiences liked them. Hundreds of operas came and went in rapid succession and they were often staged using existing sets and costumes, and costs were strictly controlled. Stage directors as we know them did not exist until the second half of the 19th century. The result was that only those works which won audience approval remained in the repertoire. Today, very few new works are produced, hardly any set out to please audiences, and opera has become largely a matter of revivals of old favourites. When operas are staged over and over again, this leads to Regietheater, a parasitic art form that pretends to be original but is ultimately pathetic because it destroys the host on which it feeds. What we need now is a climate of patronage that encourages many more new operas staged at minimal cost until they prove themselves, and respect by composers for audiences and audience tastes. Without this combination of patronage and sensitivity to audience tastes opera will struggle to regain the position it once had.

    • william osborne says:

      Perhaps for the sake of brevity, your comments about the survival of opera and audience appeal are much too simple. There is obviously much more to art that audience appeal. Where, for example, is the balance between musicals and serious music theater? To what extent must true artists challenge people and lead them to genuine thought and questioning? How do we open new worlds without discomforting people, and perhaps even facing rejection?

      The ability to write serious music theater (including opera) is one of the rarest of human abilities. Only about two or three truly great opera composers appear per century, even though thousands try. Almost the entire active repertoire of opera over the last 500 years is centered around only about ten composers. Countless composers have written operas with the attempt to appeal to the public, but that did not insure success. And in the case of chamber music theater, a successful composer has never appeared in all of history.

      There are other factors that might be much more important in determining success. First is the realization that opera composition is a specialty. Almost all the greatest opera composers specialized in the field and wrote little but opera – Verdi, Rossini, Wagner, Bellini, etc. The only two notable exceptions are Mozart and Strauss. Far too many composers think they can just sit down and write an opera without any idea of what they are doing. They do not understand that the craft is long to learn and requires an exclusive, life-long devotion.

      Many of the great opera composers worked in opera houses where they truly learned their craft through practical experience. An example today is Jake Heggie who worked as a house pianist in San Francisco. He thus gained close familiarity with singers, the workings of companies, and opera production. (It is unlikely, however, that his work will remain. Appealing or not, the substance is simply not there.) We need a system that allows composers to spend their lives working in opera houses. Or better, in active studio theaters producing smaller forms of serious music theater.

      Serious music theater requires very specialized knowledge in composition and playwriting. It also requires knowledge of directing, lighting, stage design, singing, dance, mask work, many forms of vocal production, costume design, etc. It requires a deep knowledge of the repertoire and modern theatrical theory. And yet there is not a single school in the world designed to teach these things to composers, writers, and the new kind of comprehensive performers that are needed.

      We need to reinvent the art of writing texts for serious music theater. By the 20th century the art had become so demeaned no one any longer wanted to do it. This had catastrophic consequences. More operas probably fail due to bad librettos than to poor composition. Another result was that the art of writing librettos did not continue to evolve. The few librettists that remained continued to think of opera in terms of 19th century practices, and failed to keep pace with the 20th century’s newly evolving theories of theater. Many recent operas are so locked in slightly updated 19th century conceits that they hardly even reach the early 20th century theoretical concepts behind the comedies of Oscar Wilde or the social realism of Berthold Brecht. Some librettists have employed the seemingly modern techniques of minimalism, but still in service of spectacles reminiscent of 19th century theatrical values. There have also been attempts to revive opera by embracing exoticism, such as the use of Chinese instruments and myths. Here too the efforts are superficial, have a 19th century quality, and do not provide long-term solutions or the basic understanding of current theatrical theory that is needed if classical music is to keep the development of music theater alive.

      The future of serious music theater lies in small forms, but we lack studio theaters, especially in America, where new developments of serious music theater can be explored. Most larger European houses have studio theaters, but they hardly use them. And there is not a major house in all of America that has an active studio theater, even though this is where the future of their art lies.

      These are some of the problems we need to solve if classical music is to continue with some sort of serious music theater. How can opera composers and playwrights appeal to people when they have no way of learning their craft, and no place to develop it? We should also note that this sort of “patronage” isn’t going to come from rich people. They fund things one year at a time, and only when it reinforces their egos, something such difficult efforts are unlikely to do in the short term. Only governments could make the long-term commitments to development, education, and infrastructure that could insure the continuance of serious music theater.

      • Kilgore Trout says:

        “And in the case of chamber music theater, a successful composer has never appeared in all of history.”
        I’m sorry, but that is wrong. There are plenty of chamber operas, and if you want one composer name, that is Britten (The Rape of Lucretia, Albert Herring, The Turn of the Screw, Curlew River…).

        However, you’re right about more operas failing due to bad librettos than to poor composition, especially in the so-called avant-garde esthetics, where the librettists and composers spend more time trying to look clever than writing something that actually works on stage. If you’re looking for some plague, here you have it.
        Because people always say that there aren’t many new operas written nowadays, but it isn’t true, there are still plenty of operas being written (not as much as in the XIXth century, but still). They’re just being played once (when they are played) than disappear for ever, and pretty much no one hear of them.

        • william osborne says:

          I did not say chamber opera, but rather chamber music theater. Chamber operas are just small operas that use on average about 20 to 30 people counting the orchestra, soloists, ensemble singers, or whatever. By chamber music theater I mean a genre that uses 1 to 4 or 5 people. Brittain’s Church Parables are an example, but are a little larger than what I have in mind.

          • Kilgore Trout says:

            You mean like Heiner Goebbels’ “Max Black”, “Hashirigaki”, “Ou bien le débarquement désastreux” and several others?
            Getting back to my original point : the composer you’re looking for does exist, and I’m very sorry he does not satisfy your esthetical views, but he’s very succesful and good at what he does.
            They are a few other composers that wrote succesful “chamber music theater”, Peter Maxwell Davies, Hans Werner Henze and Pierre Jodlowski for instance. Maybe they just don’t work in your esthetical spheres of interest, and in that case, the problem is maybe that your views are too narrow, not that their music isn’t good enough.

          • william osborne says:

            I value the work of these composers, and especially like Davis’ “Eight Songs for a Mad King.” One might also mention Ligeti. I’m less sure they have successfully defined a new genre — a process that will likely take much longer than one generation. OTH, if Goebbels is your Messiah, go for it. As my posts here show, I’m much more interested in discussion of the problems involved with chamber music theater than the promotion of a specific composer.

          • Kilgore Trout says:

            He’s not my messiah, at all. He’s just proof that you know little of what you’re talking about, and your posts show nothing but that.
            That will be the end of that discussion.

  • John says:

    I don’t give a flying f… if you’re fat, yellow, trans, gay, chinese… (even if you are called Lang Lang !) as long as you are good at what you do (preferably “better” and even “the best”). I have never submitted to the marketing images of half-naked violinist or singer trying to sale me crap… and the opposite is true. I am not supportive of gay-fat-Irish singers because they are gay, fat or Irish. I am supportive of them because they are good. PERIOD.

  • Mike Smith says:

    Go to BBC iplayer and listen to the Jason Mohammed show from around 12noon on and listen to some sensible discussion of this rather than the usual silly ranting.

  • Gianmaria says:

    I have written an open letter to the critics of the London Times on this matter last week.
    It’s unbelievable how trashy some people allow themselves to get.