‘Opera critics shouldn’t be commenting on anybody’s body’

‘Opera critics shouldn’t be commenting on anybody’s body’


norman lebrecht

September 02, 2019

The voice coach Claudia Friedlander has strong views on what should, and should not, appear in an opera review.

And who ought not to be allowed into an opera house.

And which critics are most obsessed with women’s looks.

As a polemicist, she goes some way off pitch when talking about porn sites.

But you may find other things to agree with in this reasoned rant.

See also: Kathryn Lewek names her body-shamers.


  • 32VA says:

    Got news for this coach. Opera is a form of theatre.

    You can tell she’s American, can’t you? Or are we not allowed to say that either?

  • She argues that opera singers need heavier bodies. The weakness in the argument is that there are many opera singers who show that is not necessary.

    She argues that there should be no comments about bodies in opera. This raises the question why bodies should not be type cast in a form of theater. Does opera need to accept higher theatrical standards? Is the almost exclusive focus on the bel canto voice to the exclusion of most other theatrical elements one of the reasons opera has lost its popularity? Would greater musical and theatrical integration help revive the art form?

    Is it fair to demand only one concept of opera staging in which the appearance of bodies does not matter?

    • Gayle says:

      You would not ask a pianist to conform to a body type when he/she plays a concerto. Opera singers are musicians first and foremost. Their voice is their instrument. Who would have the Gaul to ask Caballe to go on a diet?

      • Mike Schachter says:

        Gaul as in Asterix?

      • MWnyc says:

        Plenty of people commented on Caballé’s weight — rarely with respect to concerts but often when it came to staged opera, which is, after all, theater.

        Comments on Caballé’s’s weight would have been fewer, I suspect, if it weren’t for her … how to put it? … let’s say, nonchalant attitude toward the dramas she enacted.

        People much more rarely comment on, for instance, Stephanie Blythe’s weight, because she is a talented and committed actor.

        • Petros Linardos says:

          You make good points.

          Pavarotti is another good case in point. I remember him on stage as Rodolfo (La Boheme) when he was 50: his grace and agility, not to speak of his singing, trumped the drawbacks of his physique. That said, the tricky question is whether he could have reached the same level of fame in the first place if he had been born sixty years later. Maybe not, and the loss is on all of us.

          For the sake of the argument, let’s forget all correctness and think honestly what we would enjoy most in that most sexualized of operatic roles, Salome. How many of us would prefer a competent soprano with a first class appearance, over an obese top soprano with profound musical insights? Between the two, I’d go for the latter, and I would have said the same as a teenager. That said, it is more enjoyable to have great sopranos who look convincing, even if they don’t meet Hollywood standards. Karita Mattila instantly comes to mind.

          Further in the past, Lisa della Casa had it all, visually and musically, as Arabella. Well, life is unfair, sometimes. Or maybe not as much as we may think: Lisa della Casa lost her daughter.

          • Petros Linardos says:

            OMG, I wrote my comment about Lisa della Casa too fast. I should have stated that she wasn’t anywhere as lucky as she seemed.

      • John Rook says:

        Opera singers are stage performers first and foremost, required to convincingly portray characters created by composers and librettists. It’s unfortunate to have to point this out every time there’s a thread on the art form.

      • Yes Addison says:

        “Who would have the Gaul to ask Caballe to go on a diet?” Herbert von Karajan, for one of the ladies of Don Giovanni. Elvira, I think. He made it a contractual point that she lose 33 pounds. The project ended up not happening for some other reason.

        Years later, when she, he, and Rostropovich were voted the readers’ favorite classical artists in Diapason poll, she said she was honored to be in such distinguished company, “even though I am not thin enough to make music with one of them.”

    • John Rook says:

      Excellent post, Mr. Osborne.

    • Stephanie says:

      She did not say opera singers need that weight for sub-glottal pressure, she says that singers should be able to cultivate their own bodies for the instrument (and life) they want to have.

      • Saxon Broken says:

        But she seems to argue that theatre directors and the audience should not be allowed an opinion on who is employed to sing the part.

    • Ms. Friedlander raises long-standing views in the opera world that deserve intelligent discussion. The appalling ad hominem attacks against her here are entirely inappropriate and unjustified.

    • Bruce says:

      ” Is the almost exclusive focus on the bel canto voice to the exclusion of most other theatrical elements one of the reasons opera has lost its popularity?”

      Reminds me of an article I read (in the NY Times, it must have been) noting that — even in our visually-obsessed present day — ticket sales go up for great singing, not so much for beautiful singers. Once the reviews come out that the singing is fabulous, the tickets start to disappear.

      Of course, dramatic commitment is part of great singing: you’re acting with your voice, if not with your face. Numerous contemporary accounts of Tebaldi & Corelli in, say, “La Boheme” mention the fact that the viewer was looking at two well-fed, middle-aged Italians in unconvincing “poor people” costumes; but what they heard was two young souls yearning for love.

      (Partially in response to MWNyc’s comment below)

      I think the main reason Caballe’s dramatic stage presence (or lack thereof) was criticized was that she seemed — like Schwarzkopf and Fischer-Dieskau, among others in my opinion — to cruise through her roles, attention visibly focused on beautiful vocal production. “I will stand here and produce creamy tones; next, I will stand here and produce creamy tones; and so on until the opera is over.” Even other famous non-actors like Sutherland, Price, and Pavarotti stayed committed — while producing beautiful sounds — to communicating what their characters were experiencing.

      That’s my thoughts on it this morning, anyway…

    • Osborne’s argument is absurd and is mischaracterizing what Claudia said. She said each singer has the body they need, and they way you know that is because you see and hear them using it in extraordinary ways. There are lots of reasons some singers are larger, and she in no way says the visceral fat is a requirement. It helps some singers.

      The reason you go hear an opera is to be immersed in a story and suspend belief. These crippled critics are essentially saying a singer’s BMI, or recent childbirth is what is preventing them from having that transcendent experience. They get no sympathy from me, especially when the other aspects of acting and production value are high. It is strictly the bias, or better said, pornographic desires of that listener blocking his experience. These body-shaming critics are chauvinist pigs and deserve to be called out on it. Claudia Friedlander nailed it in her presentation.

  • David Hilton says:

    She’s even more intolerant and prescriptive than Ms Lewek has been! Why are these types so determined that others shall not think thoughts or utter words that these self-appointed censors have decided to ban. They truly are living in a 16th-century world where what we read and what we can say is determined by their hoped-for new version of the Inquisition.

  • DontNeedAVibratorToSing says:

    Who doesn;t love someone who tries to get attention by riding on the coattails of someone more successful. Leaching it away, Friedlander is. Gives her a break from using sex toys to teach voice though. that’s her real claim to fame.

  • Mick the Knife says:

    In opera it is necessary to sing and act. A Carmen that looks like a baby elephant is not ideal for the acting part of the job. Instead of blaming the critics, the singers need to start taking care of their bodies and give the audience the best dramatic and musical experience possible.

    • Antonio says:

      By that logic, then, male singers like Pavarotti and Domingo were also far from ideal for many of the roles they played, being older and overweight. And I never saw a critic object to that.

      • C_Porumbescu says:

        Then you haven’t read much criticism. Pavarotti’s weight was frequently mentioned in his late career; more recently, Johan Botha was another target. Domingo’s age (and voice quality) in relation to the roles he is currently singing is currently discussed practically every time he appears on stage. Ernest Newman was ridiculing “Amphora Heldentenors” as far back as the 1940s.

      • Stephanie says:

        Could you say that a little louder for the people in the back?

      • Mick the Knife says:

        They fat-shamed Pavarotti plenty and Domingo is in good shape. Age is a very different issue.

  • Anyone remember how Debbie Voight handled the “little black dress” affair?

    • Yes Addison says:

      It depends on when she was asked about it. It varied. Sometimes she was sanguine, like “Them’s the breaks, but I wish they had offered me a role in another opera.” Sometimes she acted aggrieved over being replaced at all. Sometimes she made humor of it.

  • Me! says:

    Avoiding the elephant in the room. And Weird assumption weight of singer is what’s best for their voice. They are people and many have eating disorders or issues – I respect Jamie Barton for acknowledging hers- as a viewer of the singer I can be distracted (j Botha near the end of his life, when his illness wasn’t public) especially with radical changes, which is not uncommon. So why advertise her advertising her book and preaching inaccuracies?!

  • John Rook says:

    Another one who completely misses the point. Opera is sung theatre and yes, physical appearance is important. Her comment about pornsites sunk her credibility immediately – ‘If you want to look at perfect bodies, well, watch porn’. Is she implying that aesthetically pleasing bodies have no place on an opera stage?

    • Saxon Broken says:

      Yep…most of us will accept someone with imperfect looks so long as some effort is made to look “plausible”. Where we draw the line differs between people. But I do want to see the theatre element of the performance as well as hear the singing part of the performance.

  • M McAlpine says:

    Well I have heard some gibberish but that beats all. “No-one cares what you [ie the customer who pays to watch] think!” I don’t notice many other commercial enterprises thinking that way! A typical myopic view from someone who is not in touch with the real world. Of course, if we regard opera as theatre, it matters how people look as well as how they sing, especially now with HD broadcasts which film in closeup. So elderly, overweight singers performing young heroes or heroines just don’t fit the bill anymore. On audio is doesn’t matter – but on stage it increasingly does. Sorry, might not be PC but it is a fact of life!

  • mary says:

    Right, blame the audience’s eyes, but accede to the stage director’s most outrageous and sexist demands in terms of revealing costumes (or lack thereof).

    What fat opera singers really mean is, when I walk out in my bra and granny panties, please oooh and aaah and adore my body.

    What audience members really want is, please don’t walk out in our bra and granny panties just because you can hit high notes.

    I don’t go to court in my bra and granny panties just because I’m a high power lawyer.

    • MWnyc says:

      Few opera singers are given that choice; if they object, they can be replaced easily and quickly. And the ones who get enough clout to object generally do so.

      • sam says:

        What’s the difference in the following scenarios?

        1) Placido: “If you want to be in the opera, I want to see you in a bra and a thong.”

        2) Eurotrash Stage Director: “If you want to be in the opera, I want to see you in a bra and a thong.”

        Your response is your response to the whole #metoo movement.

    • Wrong, Mary! says:

      Do you really think opera singers get to choose what they wear? Crazy directors and costumers are to blame for a lot of the flack singers receive as per their weight. If costumers knew how to build for larger bodies (those from the fashion industry do not) or if directors could tell stories without gratuitous nudity, this wouldn’t be an issue. Theatre is starting to cast people who actually look like real people. Why can’t opera singers look like the majority of Americans?

      • John Rook says:

        Why can’t opera singers look like the majority of Americans?

        Hilarious. Made my day. Thanks.

      • Saxon Broken says:

        “Why can’t opera singers look like the majority of Americans?”

        Huh? Why don’t they look plausibly like the character in the opera they are performing? [Or at least like “the majority of Europeans” if that is where the opera is being performed].

  • Mike Schachter says:

    A rant but not reasoned. Just a PC self promoter with nothing to say but saying it loudly.

    • SSSoprano says:

      Exactly!!! But however else would she get attention if it not for jumping off a controversy she’s not a part of? Seems she “wrote” a boot too. Mostly quotes from important opera people she conned then to give in between vibrator voice sessions. And now this. Not for any real reason that getting herself attention.

  • M McAlpine says:

    The lady seems out of touch with reality. Opera is theatre and we live in the age of HD broadcasting which means that – for better or worse – singers are now viewed in close up. So it matters more than ever how a singer looks as well as sounds. Sad that may be but it is a fact of life. To tell the audience (ie the paying customer) that their opinion doesn’t matter is an insult both to their intelligence and their pocket!

  • Couperin says:

    Somehow I don’t see someone like Barbara Hannigan putting on 80 pounds and becoming a greater singer than she already is.

  • Brian Bell says:

    About a half a century ago, I read a comment from someone (John Culshaw?) saying how fortunate we are in “this day and age” that we no longer have to suspend our senses and watch a 400 hundred pound soprano die of consumption at the end of La Traviata. It impressed me as making a lot of sense at the time. Now, if I’m watching whomever on Met HD, I don’t know if I will be able to blindly accept what I see on stage with the drama as presented by the composer and librettist. We’ll see when that time comes.

  • Stephanie says:

    I am hearing a lot of comments that singers should fit a physical type to be right for the role.

    Firstly, has anyone seen Hamilton? They seem to be doing just fine with people who do not look like the characters they are playing.

    Secondly, the insinuation is that they should be attractive. Why is it impossible to perceive a person of a certain weight as attractive? The singer in question was not a “baby elephant” as someone put it. Women come in all different shapes and sizes and they are all beautiful and if we can not appreciate that there is something wrong with the culture and not the singers.

    • 16VA says:

      Hamilton isn’t an opera. I shouldn’t have to tell you that.

    • Karl says:

      Being overweight is extremely unhealthy. I find it hard to believe that being unhealthy will ever be considered attractive by a majority of people.

    • william osborne says:

      The point of Hamilton is exactly that they don’t look like the characters they are playing. That was also part of the idea in Kosky’s staging under discussion.

      There are clothing catalogs for larger women. The models are beautiful and a great way to give people a new perspective.

  • John Borstlap says:

    Nature wants variety, humanity wants conformity. Something went wrong there.

  • BastaCosi says:

    This “teacher” is well-known for her antics of supporting cancel-culture and being outraged every time there is some new thing about which we must ALL be outraged. She is a nuisance and is really just about promoting her book and her teaching studio. Here’s the thing, opera IS a visual art, and we SHOULD hold opera singers to the responsible act of realistically portraying the characters they are on stage to represent. If weight comes into that, so be it, it should. If you’re fat, you’re fat, and that means some things will be off the table for you. It sucks, but it’s reality. Just because you are outraged that people call you out for it, doesn’t mean it should change. Not surprising to hear this stuff though from a lady who is round herself and who wants to take up the next cause every time it comes around. Enough of this.

  • Edgar Self says:

    Another grateful vote for Lisa della Casa, and a respectful dissent on Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, polished, glamourous, intelligent, subtle, scrupulusly musical on stage, and nearly always intelligible. I was too busy enjoying it all even to think about finding fault. Donna Elvira, the Marschallin?

  • Nice Try says:

    Claudia, since I’m sure you’re checking these comments on an hourly basis, here’s one from the heart: Lay off the hamburgers and the lemon meringue. Even your voice is fat.

  • Nomoreshaming says:

    What I want to know is why do actors have to be thin to be believable? Why cant Cherubino be chubby and awkward instead of thin and awkward? If you look at paintings of women in the time periods that many classics were written, being voluptuous was the fad. People wore corsets to push things up and down so they would have a small waist and hourglass figure. People did not look like the size 2 actresses of today’s hollywood. I think the real problem is that we are superimposing a 2019 view of what beauty is on an art form that is rooted in other centuries. Also, as someone pointed out, you can be fuller figured, and be a fabulous artist and people pay no mind i.e. Ms. Blythe and Ms. Barton. Why are critics going after a beautiful woman like Lewek who happens to be more voluptuous and looks like a classic painting from this time? Why is only super skinny attractive?? I’d like to see any of you who are not even singers do what these women do. You are all just sitting around judging others when maybe you should be turning the lens on yourself to see why you find it so offending to have women actually look like women.

    • Saxon Broken says:

      Some points:

      1. The paintings of “beautiful women” show a variety of body shapes, but not anyone who is obese (just slightly plump).

      2. Most men do not find “super-skinny” at all attractive in women. The clothing industry likes using super-skinny models because the clothes look good on them (and don’t have to be ‘fitted’).

      3. Most of us are happy to have a variety of body shapes on the stage but do want to see a reasonably plausible presentation of the character (including the ”physical characteristics’). This means we don’t want someone ‘too fat’, ‘too thin’ or ‘too old’ to be plausible.

  • HirePerformersNotImages says:

    In opera, I’m not looking for a body type. I am charmed and delighted when a corpulent person sings and acts well. It is delightful to see such a person, a blessed variation from the “you must be this thin to be on stage” mentality. There are all sizes of people, all sizes of opera singers, and seeing the gamut represented on stage is cool. Claudia Friedlander brings up some great points. To me, Ms. Lewek looks mighty fine anyway.

  • thinner singer says:

    As a singer who sings Wagner and is considered ‘on the thin side’ for Wagner…I have found that too much weight actually can make your breath belaboured…being just right the right weight for your voice is a very personal thing. Also, being too heavy makes it more difficult on stage to be athletic and flexible. Since we are singing actors, it is certainly easier to move onstage being the right weight for you the singer. We are also vocal athletes, therefore it is an athletic art form. I think as long as a singer carries herself/himself well, can still move well and flexibly onstage and of course sing well, there shouldn’t be an issue. It’s how they carry their weight, more than anything. If the weight upstages them, then it’s an issue because its really that that interferes.

  • Cantantelirico says:

    Where was she two weeks ago when José was first exposed?

  • Karl says:

    Opera attendance keeps decreasing. I said this in another recent thread: Maybe more people would attend opera if the singers were better looking. How many fat ugly pop stars do you see? Remember when Britney Spears showed up way overweight at a performance? When she saw her career was in danger she lost the weight quickly.

    I saw an interview with some young guy and he was asked why he decided to try opera. He said he saw a picture of Netrebko. It helps to be hot.

  • Vaquero357 says:

    Yawn. People come in all shapes and sizes, and opera singers just reflect the general population. Isn’t it the music, presented via the voice, that counts most?

    But yeah, commenting on a singer’s physical appearance/bulk or non-bulk in a review is in bad taste.

    • Saxon Broken says:

      You might not care about what is happening on the stage but most of us do care about the acting part of the performance.

  • Deborah says:

    “What a beautiful whale” said Salvador Dali, after hearing Montserrat Caballé’s, Norma. Did she get mad, no. Was it a compliment?

  • Sue Sonata Form says:

    Diktat 101. I’m cutting and pasting a really succinct comment I read elsewhere this morning:

    The current fashion is to be seen as fair and protective of others we perceive as misfortuned with the underlying assumption that the status quo is self-serving, righteous, inconsiderate, thoughtless, male and seeks to marginalise minorities, is inherently cruel and sneering of people who are different, poor, powerless, of another race, can’t fend for themselves, or are generally down trodden.

    Of course, this fashion has grown in popularity because at its heart is decency.

    Further, the underlying assumption is that by controlling and policing the language it’s possible to change people’s thinking, as language is the expression of thought.

    The problem with fashion is after a while everyone’s wearing it, and its intellectual purity is muddied by tinkerers, modifiers, poseurs and imitators who are more driven by the need to be seen to have jumped on the band wagon, than by adding any value.

    Now political correctness is being applied ham-fisted to EVERYTHING and is suffocating society.

    The subtle hues that gave it vibrancy are now being applied to every flat surface of society with a four-inch paint brush.

    It’s no longer the icing, it has become the cake.

    We’ve replaced one form of entrenched stultifying attitudes with another, but this one is prone to shrill hissy-fits, grand-standing and absolute intolerance of even the slightest deviation from its ever-expanding scope and has total disregard for free speech.

    The very thing it set out to do, improve society, is now achieving the opposite.

    Political correctness has become vulgar.

  • Ms.Melody says:

    Operatic voices are RARE, great operatic voices are rarer than gold fillings in vultures teeth.There are millions of thin, pretty , athletic women who can’t sing a note.
    If an operatic voice, capable of singing the great music comes along, the size of the body that produces it is secondary. Occasionally, nature is generous and then we have Lisa della Casa, Dorothy Kirsten, Kathleen Battle, etc.
    I am blessed to have heard Caballe, Norman, Pavarotti on stage. Never once did I think”fat”.Be thankful for artists that can sing and act with their voices and when you believe that a 400 pound middle age soprano is really dying of consumption, you are in the presence of a true artist.
    It is up to the director and a costume designer to make a singer look most attractive and believable on stage, whatever is the physique. To make an overweight artist wear a skimpy underwear on stage is just wrong.
    As for Ms.Lewek, within limits of this insane, vulgar production, she was superb,
    To compare opera to Rock concerts is ridiculous. Rock singers have the advantage of huge amplification and with all the noise they make, a wrong note here and there will not be noticed.Applying Hollywood beauty standards to opera will certainly help ho hasten its demise. Good luck trying to cast operas with cute ,anorexic Barbies

    • Karl says:

      Being fit isn’t anorexic. This kind of denial and fat acceptance is fueling an obesity epidemic that is causing medical costs to soar.

      Rising Obesity in the United States Is a Public Health Crisis

      • Ms.Melody says:

        I am very aware of the obesity epidemic. I am just pointing out that applying certain esthetic standards to opera singers is problematic because the pool of people who look good and sing well , and are good actors, and are available will cause huge casting problems.
        We are talking about a very, very select group. In addition, to reject good singers that do not fit some artificially imposed beauty ideal will cause an outcry of discrimination and it will be justified .

        • Saxon Broken says:

          Nobody is arguing for “only good looking” people on stage, we all want a variety of different shapes. But we also want people who look reasonably plausible. Hence “too fat”, “too thin” “too short” “too tall” and “too old” often will not be appropriate.

  • Florestan83 says:

    Strauss/ Salieri; prima la musica dopo le parole