Kathryn Lewek names her body-shamers

The American soprano, who accused various critics of reviewing her body rather than her voice, has named the main alleged culprits.

In an interview with Salzburger Nachrichten, she singles out Manuel Brug, critic of Die Welt, and – vaguely, ‘British media’.

‘I have not experienced it in the US yet, but in British media. It’s not just about me. When I heard about the experiences of many colleagues, I saw it as my job to talk about it.’

UPDATE: Kathryn Lewek has posted again:

For those of you who are interested in the nitty gritty, here is my #lettertotheeditor of WELT, where Manuel Brug’s article was published describing my colleagues and me as “…dicke Frauen in engen Korsetten in diversen Separees die Beine breit.” (Fat women in tight corsets spreading their legs in various rooms…)

When Mr. Brug was confronted by Mark Brown of the The Guardian, his response was, “If she is so sensitive why is she showing herself the whole time in this corset? It is interesting that the thin ladies on stage all had dresses and the not so thin ones have costumes where you see a lot of her weight.”

Meanwhile, I sent his editors this letter:

Stefan Aust, Herausgeber
Ulf Poschardt, Chefredakteur

To the editors:

You recently published a piece by Manuel Brug reviewing several productions of the Salzburger Festspiele under the headline “Hier schlackern die Glieder, hier muss man sein”. Of the Barrie Kosky production of Orphée aux Enfers, Brug wrote “Und leider läuft der gut geölte Marionetten-Mechanismus schnell leer, immer wieder machen dicke Frauen in engen Korsetten in diversen Separees die Beine breit.”

While it is the prerogative of any reviewer to evaluate his subject, this particular assessment betrays a dearth of both journalistic aptitude and human decency.

Attacking the work as inelegant is a valid criticism — an obtuse and juvenile one, yet valid nonetheless. But to attack unspecified female members of the cast as “dicke Frauen”? This is the work of a lazy chauvinist, seeking pats on the back from his fellow hooligans. How is this worthy of such a venerable publication as Die Welt?

Personal insults are lazy ways to fill columns, but they also can be quite hurtful. In my case, being a new mother has added a large amount of stress to my life. Now I have to add to that caustic remarks propagated by your publication?

Imagine if your own mother had such an insult leveled at her—would you feel comfortable communicating it to your hundreds of thousands of readers?

I ask that you more carefully consider your responsibilities as editors and that you set higher standards of quality and decency for your employees.

Sincerely,
Kathryn Lewek

Dr. Poschardt responded:

Dear Ms. Lewek,
I thank you for your letter and am sorry to hear that you feel irritated by Manuel Brug‘s report on the Salzburg “Orphée”. Yet I think there is a basic misunderstanding: This report was not meant as a personal insult – and it is not written as a personal insult. What Manuel Brug did attack though, was Barrie Koskys stage-direction – and his view on woman expressed in this stage-direction. This is marked clearly in the first part of the sentence quoted by you: „Und leider läuft der gut geölte Marionetten-Mechanismus schnell leer, immer wieder machen dicke Frauen in engen Korsetten in diversen Separees die Beine breit.” Mr. Brug‘s opinion is not aiming at a certain singer, which is the reason it is put in the plural and without any name or further specification. What Manuel Brug is aiming at, is a theatrical stereotype – a burlesque “Marionetten-Mechanismus”, which uses (or abuses) a certain type of female stage character to achieve an atmosphere of cheap laughter, like in an English pantomime or in the Italian Commedia dell’arte. If the polemic sentence is judging anything, then it is the aesthetic world of Barrie Kosky, who plays to with a certain female cliché. This aesthetics might be called mysoginist, not Mr. Brug‘s clear words about it. To describe and criticize aesthetical stereotypes, even in drastic words, is the job of a journalist.
Best regards

Dr. Ulf Poschardt | Chefredakteur

Below is my recent reply:

Dear Dr. Poschardt,

Thank you for your response, but your assertion that I have a “basic misunderstanding” baffles me.

Obviously, Herr Brug is critical of Barrie Kosky’s “Marionetten-Mechanismus” — I acknowledged as much when I noted that inelegant direction is a legitimate target for a critic’s ire (though in this case, such a critique is pedestrian and boring). But Brug does not say “Kosky beleidigt Frauen, indem er sie zwingt, ihre Beine zu spreizen und schmeichelhafte Kostüme zu tragen.” Instead, he calls out all the “Frauen” who might be considered “dicke” in the cast, explicitly critiquing our bodies alongside the stage direction of “Beine breit”.

You will note that by way of supporting his disparagement of Kosky’s direction, he trains his critical eye exclusively on the “dicke Frauen”. Nary a mention of any “dicke Herren” in the cast (despite the presence of a rather rotund entirely naked man in the underworld scenes), nor a negative mention of any of the other aspects of the “Mariotten-Mechanismus” staging, in which the male performers frequently and deliberately imitate puppet movements as part of Kosky’s aesthetic, including caricatured sex. Instead, we’re supposed to smile along with Herr Brug as he is mildly entertained by “geniale” oinking and only yawn when the “dicke Frauen in engen Korsetten” spread their legs.

As for your assertion that Brug was actually berating Kosky for being misogynistic, I am astonished. George Orwell himself would be impressed by the audacity of this retroactive analysis. (I almost expected your valediction to read “Ignorance is Strength”.) Beyond being irreconcilable with Brug’s printed words in Die Welt, such a notion is witheringly belied by his own public response to my critique, as quoted in The Guardian: “If she is so sensitive, why is she showing herself the whole time in this corset? It is interesting that the thin ladies on stage all had dresses and the not so thin ones have costumes where you see a lot of her weight.”

Back in your newspaper, the only other description lent to a woman in our cast is reserved for Anne Sofie von Otter who is merely, of course, an “Alt-Mezzo”. She is presumably not “dick”, as we are told she is clad as a “Pastorengattin”. Still awaiting word on her performance (or any other woman’s), though.

Clearly, Herr Brug is not championing women here, and his criticism of this operetta is inept. Is he really someone on whom to stake your paper’s reputation? Is his puerile schlock worth publishing, let alone defending? If Brug was my employee, instead of penning a condescending apologia in his support, I would reprimand him not only for being cruel but for being too lazy to bother to support his pedestrian criticisms with anything more than childish insults.

Sincerely,
Kathryn Lewek

 

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  • This is in part a cultural divide. In the German-speaking world, rightly or wrongly, there is much less tolerance for obesity. The concept “body-shaming” as an unacceptable form of criticism, so far as I know, barely exists.

    Even though Brug is a very good journalist, I think it’s beyond tacky to comment about an opera singer’s weight in a newspaper article, but it’s considered more acceptable there.

    But I also wonder why the USA seems to have a far greater problem with obesity and its health issues than most other countries. The CDC reports that nearly 78 million adults and 13 million children in the United States deal with the health and emotional effects of obesity every day. According to the CDC an average american adult is 26 pounds heavier now than in the 1950’s.

    I also wonder, more controversially, now that opera is becoming a broadcast medium, if we will begin to demand different standards in what we see–something more along the lines of cinema’s standards where people are cast according to unnatural ideals.

    • “But I also wonder why the USA seems to have a far greater problem with obesity and its health issues than most other countries. The CDC reports that nearly 78 million adults and 13 million children in the United States deal with the health and emotional effects of obesity every day. According to the CDC an average american adult is 26 pounds heavier now than in the 1950’s.”

      Now let’s wonder why obesity could be more accepted in the US…

      “In the German-speaking world, rightly or wrongly, there is much less tolerance for obesity.”

      Wasn’t it the president of the US who did not want to be photographed with his daughter (Tiffany) because he considers her overweight?

      • I don’t know about the Tiffany issue, but even as tacky as the USA can be, Trump sets a standard far below the American public. Or so I would like to hope….

    • The U.S. epidemics of obesity and autism, some cancers, and even mundane issues like tinnitus almost certainly result from impurity of food and overuse of drugs.

      It is nearly as bad in the U.K.

      Governments cater to the big corporations, whose evil formulas drive the advertising industry and media-network income but whose executives dine in pure-ingredient restaurants and enjoy luxury medical advice.

      Foods and drugs don’t belong in the same sentence, and food belongs under the agriculture department, not in a building where drugs are approved.

      Start there for a solution.

    • “But I also wonder why the USA seems to have a far greater problem with obesity and its health issues than most other countries.”

      Start with the fact that most Americans eat highly processed diets, full of high fructose corn syrup, added fats and sugars, very little fresh food and actual nutrients. The food conglomerates design their products to be addictive. Add to that the reliance on cars to get everywhere, lack of exercise, people sitting on their butts playing video games (and typing on blogs). You have to be fairly disciplined in America NOT to get fat.

      • Right1 I used to travel regularly to the US for work and at first I would put on 0.5kg for every day I was there….

        (Eventually I learned how to be careful.)

  • You must ask yourself is it only the singing or is it about the stage presentation.

    If it’s only about the singing, do away with the scenery, costumes and the like and just listen.

    If it is more, you have to ask yourself does a person portraying a role look the part as well and sing the part.

    Even Richard Strauss thought his Salome should have the voice for the part as well as the body for the part.

    • Even Richard Strauss thought his Salome should have the voice for the part as well as the body for the part.

      ‘Even’? Strauss was the consummate theatre composer; I can hardly imagine he would ever have condoned casting singers who would be physically unconvincing in their roles.

      • Agree — although he surely would have acknowledged the unlikelihood of finding “a sixteen-year-old with the voice of a Brunnhilde” (as I recall him describing the role of Salome).

  • Oh my, someone needs to stop taking herself so seriously. Thank goodness the critic in question didn’t actually write anything about her singing. Otherwise he’d no doubt be accused of ‘voice-shaming’ if he failed to describe her singing exactly as she would wish it to be described.

    • I wish shed just shut up and her on with the job breast feeding and singing, and losing some weight! You need to look the part and communicate, not just sing!

  • Another consideration might be historical authenticity. Much of the operatic literature comes from eras where singers with a heavier physique would have been considered the ideal of beauty.

    • Er…twaddle.

      In the past very few people would have been “fat”. Someone “rubenesque” would have stood out when they were slightly plump.

  • Yet again…Social Media being used for, “Hey world, Look at me!”.. Regardless of body size or for hoping of what to accomplish with the message, feeling bad for the infant. The little one has no decision whether or not to be used as a tool on unfortunate world stage of Social Media…

    • Those of you who down thumb this post, Really, please keep posting your photos on Instagram or Facebook.
      I am really interested to see the picture of what kind of drink that you had ordered from Starbucks. I can’t wait…please post soon!!

  • Manuel Brug is mainly interested in gossip and can be very arrogant. He‘s very often below the lines. I was ashamed to read his interview with Elena Baschkirowa and how arrogant he was towards her. If I had been her I would have left.
    But I guess he modified the questions afterwards before going into print to make them sound more looking down on her.

  • Rarely have I read such well-worded Letters to the Editor as Ms. Lewek’s. Brava! Journalists ought to think twice (at least) about what they are writing, especially if they are putting in ad hominem insults (remember that infamous US Editor, who condemned two records from different labels in a review, consisting of two (2) lines?).

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