Voice teacher hits back at anti-old, ugly opera company

Voice teacher hits back at anti-old, ugly opera company


norman lebrecht

December 03, 2015

Knoxville Opera’s ageist, lookist casting policy has drawn first blood. Dr Claudia Friedlander, who runs a voice studio, has published an open letter to the opera company that can’t apparently get much right.

Claudia writes:

The objectification of singers based on age and appearance is ill-conceived and highly detrimental to opera as an art form. Opera companies prioritize these attributes over vocal excellence at their peril. The vocal and artistic maturity required for superb performances of these roles has nothing to do with the age of the singers, and the shape of their bodies ought to reflect the physical demands of singing rather than some preconceived aesthetic. Because opera is such a buyer’s market these days and there are more gifted singers than the profession can possibly employ, it might appear possible to cull singers over a certain age or weight from your applicant pool and still end up with a viable cast, but if opera is to not only survive but thrive we must be showcasing not merely viable singers but transcendent ones. 

There won’t be much transcendence at Knoxville any time soon.

Read Claudia’s full letter here.

knoxville opera


  • Dominic Stafford Uglow says:

    Knoxville Opera, Norman. In Tennessee…

  • Halldor says:

    Fair play – the original advert was ridiculous. But please, don’t let this unleash another spate of singers telling us that “opera is only about the voice – nothing else matters”.

  • Scott MacClelland says:

    Kentucky or Tennessee? Can’t be both.

  • Eddie Mars says:

    This daft teacher has clearly missed the point that opera is *theatre*. If the story requires credible young lovers who are students or seamstresses in C19th Paris, a 63-year-old performer is clearly unsuitable for the role.

    • V.Lind says:

      One of the most remarkable things I ever saw was Alicia Alonso, prima ballerina assoluta of the National Ballet of Cuba, dance Giselle just shy of her 50th birthday. At her first appearance, stepping out he cottage door, I was a little taken off-guard, but within moments had completely forgotten that middle-aged face above the body and movements of the village girl of perhaps 16. As she took her last curtains the face looked all right for the character too.

      THAT’s the magic of theatre, combined with GREAT artistry. The same, I am reliably informed, took place with Fonteyn and Nureyev, dancing in everything from Giselle to Romeo and Juliet to Swan Lake to Marguerite and Armand.

      The same could happen with Fat Lucy as Rodolfo and it happened in reverse with Hvorostovsky, who sang Germont from his 20s (with sons who were sometimes older).

      If you want perfect-looking people, stick to rom-coms at the movies. Opera is about art, and where the artistry is the theatricality takes care of itself.

    • Maika'i Nash says:

      Daft teacher, you say? Because the primary goal is to hear a magnificent voice? This is opera, not musical theatre, where singers in that genre train simultaneously in dance. While I agree that a certain amount of appearance is important – this is ageist. You want “age-appropriate” casting? Then be prepared for a 15 year old Cio-Cio San? How about a 13-16 year old Isolde?? Really? You expect a young singer to pull that role out in their undergraduate experience? And why not a 13 year old Juliette for Gounod’s version.

      I agree that a 60 year old soprano may not be best suited for some of these roles. But to also expect people to be “attractive” which is completely subjective and shields this company from defining what they view as attractive. Which could, like the “daft teacher” said include racial discrimination and bigotry.

      The daft one isn’t the teacher. It’s you.

      • Eddie Mars says:

        No, it’s musical theatre. But then – you don’t actually *go* to opera, do you?

        The ad hominem content in your post only serves to discredit you.

        • jrh says:

          I worked with this director at this company for 10 years, In that time I saw him yell at audiences for clapping, instrumentalist,have autistic children removed from viewing outreach programs, and singers working for nothing at all or as little as 3 dollars an hour. Have seen first hand, the rejection letters to singers based on size alone.

        • Elizabeth says:

          Yes, opera technically IS musical theater BUT what I think the previous comment is trying to say is that it’s not Broadway where the casting is more about looks than in opera. You’re argument is based on semantics and I think we all understand the distinction these days between Musical Theater (Broadway) and Opera.
          There’s absolutely NO WAY you can cast singers to play characters in opera that are the same ages as the characters they are playing. There’s no way a 15 year old or even a 20 year old Cio-cio san. It’s not going to happen. Opera roles demand vocal maturity and experience and that comes with age and steadily working on music that is appropriate for where you’re at as a singer regardless of the age of the character.
          I also think that we’re insulting audiences and artists by thinking that they cannot suspend disbelief and that the latter are not good enough actors to convince the audience of the authenticity of the characters they’re portraying.

          • Eddie Mars says:

            My argument isn’t based on semantics. It’s based on 25 years professional work in opera theatres throughout Europe.

          • Maika'i Nash says:

            Exactly. It is musical theatre only in the definitions of each of those words. But like this poster is saying, musical theatre is accepted as a different genre.

            25 years in the operatic world? Hard to believe unless you’re hiding your name from us. The only thing I can find about you is trolling posts. I’m not afraid to use my real name here.

            So tired of self-proclaimed “aficionados” imposing their rather narrow thoughts on something they have not actually been involved in.

          • Eddie Mars says:

            I truly pity anyone who has the deep misfortune to have private lessons with you.

            Because a personality like yours wouldn’t last 10 minutes in a real opera house here in Europe.

        • Maika'i Nash says:

          I don’t go to the opera? I’m an operatic vocal coach. So take your sanctimony elsewhere. It is not musical theatre primarily. It is opera primarily – learn the trade. Musical theatre is a different genre. If you want to argue that it is vocal theatre, then fine. We can do that. But even then, I challenge you to find age appropriate people for different roles and operas.


  • Yes Addison says:

    I hope that anyone who comes across this item and thinks badly of Kentucky Opera will also read the follow-up comments, and Slipped Disc’s eventual correction. They’re a fine organization struggling to stay aloft in the current environment, and they really do not deserve a tarring.

  • Bill Florescu says:

    Lost in all of this is the pressure that opera companies face today on all fronts. It is naiive to think that opera companies are not competing against theatre, film, tv, video, etc, etc.
    In addition the Met HD broadcasts bring our visual experience up close and personal.
    I believe the truth of this lies somewhere between the extremes that are being expressed here.
    I agree that opera is first and foremost a vocal medium. If a singer can’t sing the music as intended then they are not appropriate and shouldn’t be hired. After that hurdle has been cleared, the ability to act, and how one presents is certainly on the table. Audiences demand this today, and are not particularly shy about expressing their opinions about it.
    Everyone out there that takes shots at the decisions that Opera GDs have to make, are not there to write the checks when an unhappy donor/patron disappears!

    • Eddie Mars says:

      Ability to sing the role impeccably is a given.

      But it’s only the first hurdle. The performer must be able to meet the audience’s expectations of credibility in their role. They must be able to learn the entire role before rehearsals begin – no matter how hard the music may be. They need to be able to do everything the director requires. Their pronunciation of the text must be optimum.

      Many are called. Few are chosen.

      That’s show business. I know of what I speak.

      • CCG says:

        Tetrazzini was 36, fat, unattractive and undoubtedly fucking pathetic. Opera is about the music, first and foremost. Furthermore, the human voice does not start to mature until age 30. It sickens me that my colleagues believe their life is over if they have not made it by 30. If you want superficial misogyny go to a strip club. If you want extraordinary instruments, you should go to the opera. Opera is about music, first and foremost. Can you imagine what outrage would be had if you endeavoured to put an age limit on any other instrument? Theatre should break beyond the limits of reality. Ageism is no more acceptable than homophobia, racism and sexism. Tell any of the greats that they weren’t hireable over 40, and they’d tell you they were just getting good. The stories in opera are LAME they are an entertaining backdrop to sensational musical orchestration. Any attempt to pretend otherwise is ridiculous–except Wagner. Show me someone under 30 who can sing Wagner. You cannot, the voice will die.The voice get’s better with age. Furthermore, voices are being destroyed by Singing these roles to early. Give the General public some credit and introduce them to the gorgeousness of the art instead of this pathetic attempt to cheapen it. It’s like taking a diamond and trying to cover it up with brass. I am a Dramatic Coloratura Soprano. I am gorgeous (I model) I act, I dance. I think this is shit.

        • CCG says:

          That was supposed to say that Tetrazzini was amazing not pathetic. She was AMAZING.

          Oh and Eddy, I think the thing that is really getting old in opera is the outdated sexism and misogyny. If you were really an opera singer you would know the STAGGERING difference between musical theatre and opera. Intent, composition, style, production it goes on and on.

    • Claudia Friedlander says:

      Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on this! I really appreciate your taking the time to provide your perspective as a General Director.

      In my opinion, it is counterproductive to view opera as competing with theatre, film and television. All of these media are more broadly accessible and widely popular than opera. They are also highly effective. Opera cannot tell stories with the same level of complexity as film. Opera cannot guarantee a widely relatable experience that can run consistently for eight shows a week over a span of years the way a strong theatrical production can.

      If we want opera to thrive, we must avoid losing sight of what opera does better than anything else. Our efforts to market opera to new audiences must communicate its unique value rather than attempt to compete with other art forms. We must become highly articulate in expressing opera’s particular strengths to those who may have no idea how powerful it can be.  

      Due to the nearly ubiquitous use of amplification technology for the last 60 years or so, wide swaths of our civilization have never experienced the extraordinary impact of an acoustic vocal performance. The naked human voice is capable of setting listeners’ auditory apparatuses in motion, creating a sympathetic vibratory connection that exhorts them to feel what the singer is feeling at that moment. It can change a listener’s body chemistry. If they are really open to the aural massage provided by singing they can depart with their emotional landscape permanently expanded.

      This is what opera does better than anything else. It exhorts you to breathe. It exhorts you to feel. If we wish to entice new audiences into the opera house, I believe we will be more successful by helping them to understand opera’s true value than we will by inviting comparisons with other art forms as a marketing strategy. Opera’s attractiveness rests upon the power of unique voices (and the bodies from which they emerge) to give us a heightened experience of what it means to be alive.

  • Sarah says:

    When casting by a professional opera company is focused primarily on what one person considers attractive and age appropriate, one might as well be casting for a community musical theater production.

    Opera is first and foremost about voices, not looks. Opera on stage is not the same as a film with close ups of the artists. A wrinkle on one’s face may not be seen from the 1st or 120th row in the opera house like it would on screen. Also, a highly skilled makeup artist can make anyone look age appropriate. Perhaps this casting director can open his mind to having more of an imagination.

    Finding a 16 year old to sing Juliet or Butterfly is unlikely.

    • Bill Florescu says:

      I’m sorry, but saying taking the visual into account is community theatre is absurd. Of course there are limitations in operas like Salome, but by the way, the theatrical version of Salome is not done by a 15 year old. This is a practical discussion. I’m sorry, but the visual aspects of casting in today’s world are real. If you look at some of the big stars today – Dmitri, Renee, Anna – all are visually appealing, but we wouldn’t discuss them if they couldn’t sing in the first place. There will always be outliers to this because of the extraordinary quality of a singer’s vocalism – Pavarotti being the prime example. But one plans based on expected realities, and allows for the exceptions.
      Any voice teacher or coach today will tell any aspiring singer that the more positives you put on your side, the better your chances – 99% of the singers out there aren’t Sutherland, Eaglen, Botha or Pavarotti – A solid voice, good technique, acting skills, and visual appeal – why would you not put as many of these on your side as you could??

      • Sarah says:

        Focusing primarily on looks is a very community theater approach. Opera is primarily about the voice.

        • Eddie Mars says:

          Opera is a synthesis of music, theatre, and visual drama. All these aspects are of equal value, and none can afford to be less than perfect.

          And that applies to ‘community theatre’ too.

        • Sarah says:

          Attractive is also extremely subjective, so why put it in an audition notice? For example, I find Brian Salesky to be very unattractive. This is a very subjective statement, therefore not important when I determine what opera company I donate money to. Perhaps I will only donate to companies with attractive directors and conductors from now on.

          • Bill Florescu says:

            Every single thing about opera is subjective!! What people consider an attractive voice is subjective. I don’t disagree that it makes no sense to put in an auditon notice, but its equally counter intuitive to not recognize that the visual aspect does play a part. I run a professional opera company, and I cast singers, and I cast a variety of people in roles – every decision I’ve ever made has drawn praise AND criticism – it’s the nature of the business. BUT, if you are a singer, it’s your job to put as many things on your side as possible. Obviously, there are some things that are out of your control – like your height for instance – but beyond that, if you are going to spend thousands of dollars to have a career, recognize that the visual element is there today in opera – it just is. How you choose to deal with that is up to you as a singer.
            I will also hearken back to one of my previous comments – it is my job to put as many things as possible on the company’s side to be successful when it comes to the production.
            And again, let’s have a moment of reality with how the world works – how a casting professional approaches this will be different when doing say, Tristan vs. say, Billy Budd – and audiences get this as well.

  • Adolene says:

    This company rejects female singers for auditions based on BMI. Even when singers are clearly fit in their headshots or full length photos, they will ask your height and weight and reject you solely based on BMI. Many singers approach opera singing as a sport and train with weights, these singers are also being rejected for auditions based on faulty figuring.

  • V.Lind says:

    I do remember once, many years ago, talking to a leading soprano whom I had known for a while. I asked her why so many divas were so heavy (I was remembering being at Varnay singing Elektra, and she galumphed around the stage in such an elephantine way that you could literally see the stage go up and down). The diva in my company, who was Italian, said simply, “They eat too much.” She went on to tell me that she had foregone her beloved pasta for years in order to keep herself in trim.

    While, as I have argued above, I find all this totally secondary to the matter of the voice, and pretty offensive as a hiring policy, I do accept the notion that part of the job may be to try to keep in shape. That should not preclude artists whose weight structure is not Vogue-ready, but as I watch young singers audition or participate in Master classes, I am seeing in general people in pretty good nick. So for them there is no excuse to turn into blimps, and a bit of styling should let them present well.

    That said, many people, of both sexes (if one is still allowed to say that) tend to thicken a bit as they get older. As, in fact, their voices in many cases are reaching their richest. Let’s not consign them to emeritus status too soon — let’s have the art of the great singers heard among us as long as possible.

  • JK says:

    I am infrequently driven to comment, but the following statement is both infuriating and laughable, and in my opinion a product of a highly defensive mind-set. “Opera is a synthesis of music, theatre, and visual drama. All these aspects are of equal value, and none can afford to be less than perfect.” Imperfection is a hallmark of great theater, and anyway, perfection is unobtainable. This is delusional thinking. And, obviously, if the speaker is in a position to cast, they by virtue of their criteria have made the goal unreachable.