Opera singer Tara Erraught
Opera singer Tara Erraught
Lucas Wiegelmann

BERLIN — As the expression goes, "It ain't over "til the fat lady sings." But a recent slew of insults from British opera critics hurled at one full-figured young singer has added a new twist to the expression.

Internationally known mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught was keen to sing at the Glyndebourne Festival, the UK's most important opera festival, as a next step in her career. She debuted in the title role as the young male lover Octavian, who later becomes the Rosenkavalier, or Knight of the Rose, in Richard Strauss's Rosenkavalier. But instead of accolades for her talent and performance, she was the target of derision — for her figure.

"It's hard to imagine this stocky Octavian as this willowy women's sic plausible lover," The Guardian complained after Saturday’s premiere. "Erraught is clearly a hugely promising mezzo, but she seems miscast."

The Telegraph, meanwhile, referred to Erraught’s "intractable physique," writing, "There is no doubt of the talent of this young Irish mezzo, based in Germany, who sings with vibrant assurance and proves herself a spirited comedian. But she is dumpy of stature and whether in bedroom déshabille, disguised as Mariandel or in full aristocratic fig, her costuming makes her resemble something between Heidi and Just William." Just William is the 11-year-old somewhat chubby protagonist of the eponymous British children's book.

Other critics chimed in as well, with the Financial Times calling Erraught's Octavian "a chubby bundle of puppy-fat," and The Times describing the singer as "unbelievable, unsightly and unappealing."

Talent is not skin deep

This is the first time that Tara Erraught has been criticized for her shape. In earlier appearances — at the Bavarian State Opera, where she is an ensemble member, for example — reviewers have never mentioned her weight.

The unusual media unanimity and particularly ugly reporting has unleashed a debate in the UK about just how much superficiality should be tolerated from music critics and whether journalists have the right to be so insulting. Publicists and artists have expressed outrage.

"The supposedly authoritative, mostly male reviewers chose to make a female body a problem — a female body, one might note, that is not non-normative, but simply not thin and statuesque," blogger Katie Lowe wrote in a Guardian guest piece. "It would appear, then, that talent just doesn't cut it — at least, if you're a woman."

Norman Lebrecht, one of the UK's best-known classical reviewers, published an open protest letter by opera singer Alice Coote on his blog. "Critics, I beg you," Coote writes. "Be kind to young singers — you may change the trajectory of their lives and career if you wound them with your words. Be kind to middle-aged singers. Be kind to old singers. Be kind to all singers."

The debate about what singers look like is not new. In fact, it's as old as opera itself. Audiences, composers and artists have always exchanged spirited views about the role of a singer on an opera stage should be. While having a virtuoso voice is always the priority, the fact that opera singers are playing roles — making their physical presence part of the art — has meant that the subject of their appearance often comes up.

Back in the day

During the Baroque era, the hype centered on castrati whose sometimes unusual appearance (castration changes hormonal balance) symbolized the exotic nature of opera. Castrati often became very large, with noticeably thin fingers and an enlarged rib cage. In a mixture of horror and fascination, contemporary depictions exaggerate these traits.

And there were always singer personalities who were admired not so much for their voices but for their overall aura. Among them was Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient, one of the most famous singers of the 19th century.

"She actually didn’t have much of a voice, but she knew how to use her breath so beautifully that her feminine soul just flowed out of her, making a wonderful sound, so when you heard her you didn’t think about singing or about voices," Richard Wagner once wrote about her. Schröder-Devrient performed in the original productions of Wagner's operas Rienzi, The Flying Dutchman and Tannhäuser.

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Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient — Source: portrait.kaar.at

And there have also been plenty of artists much loved by the public despite being physically miscast. Though they were overweight, 20th century singers Luciano Pavarotti and Montserrat Caballé both had brilliant international careers.

But, as the reactions of the British critics to Rosenkavalier demonstrate, expectations of physical attractiveness in opera performers are stronger today than they have been in a long while. This places additional stress on the singers.

Just as American singer Deborah Voight. In 2003, she was fired from Covent Garden because she was overweight and afterwards underwent surgery to reduce the size of her stomach. She lost about 50 kilos (110 pounds). But in an interview a few months ago, she said revealed that since her surgery she has struggled with alcohol abuse.

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