Weighing Body and Voice

In the wake of profound backlash against several London-area critics after a thrashing of Irish Mezzo-Soprano, Tara Erraught, in her role as Octavian in Glyndebourne’s Der Rosenkavalier, there are several points worthy of deliberation. For those unfamiliar with the subject, colorful adjectives and phrases to describe the mezzo like “dumpy,” by The Independent’s Michael Church, “stocky” by The Guardian’s Andrew Clements and “a chubby bundle of puppy fat” by Andew Clark at the Financial Times made their way to the dance floor. One must admit it seems quite peculiar for several critics to simultaneously condemn physical attributes of a single female singer in a single show in such a similar way. A question worth asking: what exactly is the definition of art critique in the media and the responsibilities of its masters therein? Addressed first and foremost, however, is the breakdown of “the fat lady.”

It’s the 20th century dogma: opera’s ‘fat lady.’ Being immortalized and ever henceforth victimized were Wagner’s leading ladies in The Ring cycle where immense vocal, dramatic and physical stamina are needed to get through hours of singing (as in the case of roles like Brunhilde and Isolde). These ladies tended to be robust in appearance and had a voice that only shared description with physical shape. Perhaps predictably, men singing the same genre were accepted for their portly stature, but women were served the dogma. Opera is faced with many stereotypes and none as universally acknowledgeable as the ‘fat lady,’ which invokes expectations such as large vocal bellows, stodgy appearance, gluttonous lifestyle and an ever expanding waist line. Even within the opera industry, singers insist that they have more support when they pack on a few pounds (or a few dozen) and are even able to sing bigger and heavier roles due to their increased stature of support-through-gravitational-groundedness most spend a lifetime looking for.

Shedding light on a common misconception.

Fat lady via The Simpsons wiki - http://simpsons.wikia.com/
Fat lady via The Simpsons wiki – http://simpsons.wikia.com/

Many believe that a singer has stronger muscle support when they’ve packed on a few pounds and that in losing the weight, their sound and support suffers due to some atrophy of muscular and physical capacity. Let’s abolish this myth – unless weight is lost rapidly due to an extreme reduction in caloric intake, people rarely lose much muscle density while losing weight. More importantly, the voice is neither stronger nor weaker based on the size of your love handles. The misconception is best explained in a letter of response by vocal technician, John Nicholas Peters, in the “Letters to the Editor” section of the July/August 1998 publication of Classical Singer magazine. Peter exposes the different breathing capacity of singers at different weight profiles. He advocates that, due to the flexibility of the diaphragm, a fit singer actually takes in more air while singing as less fat creates more space for the diaphragm and lungs to expand. While one loses or gains weight, confusion sets in when negotiating a shift in air management within the lungs. It’s a fascinating position – read it here.

In this day and age, media and popular paradigm put immense amount of pressure on a singers’ physical fitness. This raises two crucial questions: 1) Who decides the proper weight for artists and 2) does physicality play a vital role in the quality of the art?

According to ENT Specialist, Dr. Reena Gupta, director of Voice and Laryngology at Osborne Head and Neck Institute, “slim performers can develop as good as support as a heavy singer and have greater endurance as well.” This is due to increased efficiency in the lungs which produces better overall endurance and cardiovascular health. Dr. Gupta stresses that “maintaining a healthy weight, not being over or underweight, will set you on the path to vocal health.” But is there indeed a proper weight for the art and who decides what it is?  It can be inferred that a Master of Music, like Mr. Michael Church writing as an arts critic for The Independent, didn’t receive a minor in nutritional science while at University. What, then, gives him, or any other art critic for that matter, the right to remark on the physicality of a singer? It seems an unjustifiable focus in the critiquing process of what is defined as a dramatic, audio-acoustic form of art. Such side-tracked prose weakens the credibility of the critic and, even worse, misleadingly invigorates the very same stereotypical negativity which opera has been desperate to assuage.

Unless of course the physical attributes of the singer are in fact a crucial element to the art form. Well, are they? If they are, then we’re witnessing a change in the definition of the art. If the elements of the form have indeed reshaped, then in order to educate we should start with the curriculum of the universities and conservatories. Music theory, education, master classes, history, performance ensembles, etc will need to squeeze in more than anti-acid producing dietary tips and a suggested semester or two of Alexander Technique. Possibly, a semester working with the nutritional science, fashion and athletic departments will produce the right stage performers for opera’s new era and create the credentials needed for the colorfully-worded, clever minds showing great promise in arts journalism. In-so-doing, we’ll all have a guideline for the overall quality of the art through an understood weight to stage ratio priciple.

Expanding the Definition of Opera

Tara Erraught, photo credit: Christian Kaufmann
Tara Erraught, photo credit: Christian Kaufmann

Is it conceivable that the physical attribute of the singer is crucial to the form of the art? In today’s market, the face of opera is changing. Slowly but surely we’re innovating, bending and standing up against the rules of the past 100+ years. Nobody can deny that we’ve been leaning towards performers with more sex-appeal and who aren’t afraid to show a little skin. Truth be told, Barihunks and the like are quite fun to peruse during lunch break. However let’s break down human form involvement within the definition itself. Opera, as defined by Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, is “a kind of performance in which actors sing all or most of the words of a play with music performed by an orchestra”. And for good measure, just in case it’s any different across the pond, according to Oxford, opera is “a dramatic work in one or more acts, set to music for singers and instrumentalists.” No such mention of bodily appearance. Weird. How then, as respectable critics, did physical attributes merit such vicious critique? We all may just have to accept a changed definition for opera.

However, looking beyond the ignorant criticism of physical appearance in the performance, there are several other flaws radiating from such harshly obtuse comments:

  1. Octavian is supposed to be a stark contrast from that of The Marschillin. He is a young adolescent boy and roundness of structure, soft edges and a higher voice depict youthfulness and vitality on stage.
  2. Count Octavian Rofrano is royalty. Meaning, a young and spoiled boy forced to a myriad of parties, social obligations and feasts. Who’s to say he couldn’t keep his hands off all the sticky buns?
  3. Why no mention of the heavyset status of the male characters in the production? Its hard to perceive this any other way than intentionally gender biased as Erraught was, in fact, playing a male!
  4. Where is the depth in their critique? Did they not even consider that the Octavian costume was faulty; that the director had a gap in vision; or that some designer had completely misrepresented the performer?
Richard Heber (1782) painted by John Singleton Copley.
Richard Heber (1782) painted by John Singleton Copley.

If one seeks to be historically accurate through art, accepting it as an imitation of that of which is real (Aristotle’s aesthetic), than a simple thumb-through in the archives of adolescent boys depicted in the 18th century will lead to two vital observations: 1) an androgynous gender form and 2) soft and almost plump physical attributes (no hard edges depicting experience and masculine strength).  Further, until the middle of the last century, art over thousands of years immortalize the womanly form with natural curves and roundness through artists like William Blake, playwrights like Shakespeare and poets like Lord Byron (all British… go figure). In connecting the dots, it is indeed plausible that Erraught was cast for her absence of chiseled line, resemblance of women depicted in art of the 18th century and a trained ability to replicate a feast-frenzied aristocratic boy. In Erraught’s defense, are we to accept that a gauntly wisp of a bodily form like that of Kate Moss or a chiseled gym-freak like Jane Fonda would be more believable as an adolescent? You’d be hard pressed to convince this opera fan. It’s shocking, that in a highly regarded festival such as Glyndebourne a renowned director would dare to be true to artistic era and form while subconsciously rationalizing weight ratio on the opera stage.

In conclusion, such shock-tactic and deception of prose shouldn’t be perceived as point of fact; merely an attack on the physical state of another rooting itself deep within an untappable realm of unrealized childhood fancy, awkward life choices or perhaps discomfort of self-ego. What is a viable art critic? Probably not one that petulantly babbles an ignorant and irrelevant destructive drivel just to fuel the deep fires of their own ego. Truly inconceivable is such drivel being force fed to the sadly misinformed mass following, and worse, to new comers searching for inspiration in new places. On any stage, that is just ‘dumpy’ and ‘perverse’ on a monumental scale.

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