Long life

Sorry, Tara Erraught, but the age of the fat lady singing is over

It ended at the Royal Opera House ten years ago. People seem to have forgotten

31 May 2014

9:00 AM

31 May 2014

9:00 AM

London’s opera critics have been roundly condemned for suggesting that a female singer’s personal appearance could make her unsuitable for a role. The singer in question is Tara Erraught, a young Irish mezzo-soprano based in Germany, who has just made her British debut in the new Glyndebourne production of Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. She takes the part of Octavian, who, although always played by a woman, is supposed in the plot to be an irresistibly attractive young man. The critics all admired Erraught’s voice, but took the view that she was too stocky, dumpy, chubby and unsightly (to use four of their adjectives) to be even remotely plausible as an object of sexual desire.

Uproar followed, with other opera singers leaping to her defence. They accused the critics of cruelty to a vulnerable young woman at the start of her career and of regarding her appearance as more important than her voice. ‘How, then, have we arrived at a point where opera is no longer about singing but about the physiques and looks of the singers, specifically the female singers?’ asked the mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnston on the Guardian’s website. Dame Kiri Te Kanawa felt strongly enough to take a call in New Zealand from the Today programme in which she blamed any perceived shortcomings in Erraught’s appearance on the ridiculous costumes she was made to wear.

The impression given in the media reports of this affair has been of an opera world united in disgust at the critics’ cheap obsession with a singer’s appearance when all that really mattered in opera was the singing. But already ten years ago it was made clear that even a great opera house could care as much about a singer’s physique as about her voice when Covent Garden sacked the American soprano Deborah Voigt, who had been due to sing the title role in another Strauss opera, Ariadne auf Naxos, although she was considered perhaps the world’s best interpreter of the part. But she weighed somewhere between 15 and 20 stone, and she was sacked because she couldn’t get into the little black dress that this particular production had required her to wear.

Attacked by the opera critic of the New York Times, who wrote that the Royal Opera House had apparently forgotten ‘the most basic truth’ that ‘opera has never been dependent on literal reality’ and that ‘great music and great voices take you to the core of the drama and the essence of the characters’, the opera house begged to differ. It said in a press statement: ‘Any production is a fusion of elements: musical, dramatic and visual. And any opera casting means assessing both the vocal and dramatic suitability for a certain role and certain production concept. That is fundamental to the art form.’

Its message was very clear. In the past, fatness might not have mattered. You could look like an elephant, but still play a consumptive, teenage, lovesick heroine on stage and earn a standing ovation if you could sing well enough. But those days were over, it implied: audiences now demanded some degree of visual reality. This was why Deborah Voigt had to suffer her humiliation, and also why she subsequently underwent gastric bypass surgery, lost seven stone, and returned triumphantly to the Covent Garden stage. So ten years after this memorable event, it is surprising that opera critics should find themselves under attack for upholding the principle of ‘dramatic suitability’ to which the Royal Opera House then pronounced itself committed in its casting policy.

I should point out that in her photographs Tara Erraught looks plump rather than in any way obese and actually rather pretty; but there are still a number of very fat opera singers who seek to perpetuate the idea that you need to be fat in order to sing well, though there is no scientific evidence to support this belief. At the time of the Voigt sacking, Peter Katona, the casting director of the Royal Opera House, was quoted in a Sunday newspaper as saying that opera singers often used the myth that fat people had more powerful voices as an ‘excuse’ to eat too much. ‘They say, “In order to be able to sing well, I need to eat a lot,”’ he claimed. If he is right, it is time that opera singers stopped rejoicing in their fatness and joined with the rest of mankind in the great battle against obesity.

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  • John Yohalem

    So the world’s opera directors (partly because they rarely stage an opera in the period or place requested by the composer any more; indeed they pride themselves on getting as wackily off the mark as they can) are now obsessed with slim and pretty and Old Vic-level acting, and there’s just no scientific basis in the idea that people with some extra heft can sing better, but somehow most of the world’s leading opera singers can barely be heard in a house like the Met or Chicago or San Francisco or La Scala which, just a decade or two ago, singers easily filled the place with voice to the rafters. And some were fat and some were slim, but they knew their business. (And I’ve seen terrific acting on the opera stage, in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s when, if you listen to the buzz, no one on the opera stage knew anything about that. Well, they did, actually. Even the fat ones. Also terrible acting that we forgave if they could sing gorgeously. But usually very good.) And now they’re mostly slim and pretty but none of them seem to know how to project their voices. And why is that? Are they too busy dieting to learn to sing properly? Just a thought.

  • Amy Mendon

    Sorry, Alexander Chancellor, artists will tell YOU, and opera house cronies, what is over and what is not regarding our artform. “Works of art make rules; rules do not make works of art.” — Claude Debussy

  • Noah

    What a miserable point of view. What about this artist’s singing? Acting? Was it a good performance?

    Did you do ANY research for this article at all? In fact, there IS a scientific basis for extra fat helping someone sing better. It has to do with the ease of controlling the diaphragm and thus the breath and how it supports vocal production. Also, an increase in the fatty tissues of the upper pallet inside the mouth does create richer tone. That doesn’t mean you have to be fat to sing well. But it’s easier and more natural to sing well when you’re fat. But that’s not even the most problematic part of this article. You have taken the views of opera managers without any critical analysis. They keep saying audiences ‘demand’ more realistic casting – but they are losing audience by the droves. And what they’re doing isn’t working. Just look at The Met in New York.

    They are producing uninteresting artists that are interchangeable – often with mediocre voices. But, hey, they look good! It’s making opera pointless. Why should anyone come and see it, if they’re not getting the essential elements that make opera a vibrant and unique artform?

    Zubin Meta said once: “Don’t look so much. Listen!” Opera needs to take that statement to heart. Great singing, great acting, great interpretation, bigger than life personalities. That’s what opera is. It is the melding of music and theater at its zenith. What someone looks like or what dress they can or cannot fit into is completely pointless.

    And finally, I will point to Deborah Voigt herself. She was one of the best voices of her generation. And yes, she did go off and lose all that weight and triumphantly return. But, what happened to her voice? She lost the weight too quickly, the sound she had learned to produce with all that weight on could not be replicated with the weight off. She damaged her voice, and her career is now in decline. What a shame. What a waste. But hey, she looks good now in a slim dress.

  • Puss in Plimsolls

    If she were not ‘rather pretty’, would that make a difference?

  • Hooch Young

    what a daft article! to complain about tara erraught’s treatment and then suggest opera singers should watch their weight!

    obviously you can’t get over the visual impact either.


  • Terry Field

    It is all about supply and demand.
    Opera now has many thin, athletic-looking, beautiful sopranos and contraltos who are entirely world class.
    The dumplings need no longer apply.

    • Puss in Plimsolls

      I prefer the word ‘slim’. Less extreme and more healthy: and the most beautiful singers are certainly that.

      • Terry Field

        Quite correct. I was unhappy with ‘thin’ when I posted it. A good observation. Thank you.

        • Puss in Plimsolls

          You’re a sweetheart, Terry.

  • mamajeanna

    Mary-Jean O’Doherty is the 1st Prize Winner (Female) PARIS OPERA WARDS 2013. The jury composed of: Sherrill Milnes, Martina Arroyo and Daniel Lipton. http://youtu.be/4lHq7M_w3q0
    Mary-Jean studied in Cardiff at the “Cardiff International Academy of Voice” under Dennis O’Neill CBE. Opera singers are athletes and Mary-Jean O’Doherty has 10 years of dance training, including classical ballet.

  • Beatriz Viterbo

    I agree with Dame Kiri Te Kanawa: nobody can look attractive in that dress. And the glasses! They add insult to injury. The costume designer probably hates women and he hates Rossini too.

  • Jewel Markess

    It seems to me that the success of singers like Angela Meade and Jamie Barton shows that you may be wrong. Yes, it’s an uphill battle for overweight opera singers and they have to be exceptional, but it’s also wrong to claim that if someone is overweight she/he has no chance.
    Sure it’s nice when singers look the part, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of singing. I’ll take Angela Meade over horrible Nadja Michael any day.

  • Since we watch as well as listen to opera, and since every other visual aspect of a production is carefully managed, maybe the equalities police could just this once give us a break.

  • jeremy Morfey

    What both the modern critics and the old guard forgets is that opera is as much about acting ability as it is about singing. I once wrote a play which had a fighting landlubbing fish and a rock that could scarper at the arrival of fracking engineers. Clearly, reality had to be suspended for the sake of artistic licence, and it’s the job of the actors and actresses to pull it off.

    Mozart wrote the part of Cherubino, part autobiographically, as a 14-year-old adolescent hormonal male surrounded by attractive countesses. It is usually played by overweight operatic mezzos, yet they seem to manage to convey the character, with a combination of acting skills and costume that emphasises youthful masculinity despite the buxom frame within.

    One way out with a modern setting is to create the image of a rugby player, both masculine and attractive and, crucially, somewhat overweight. All that’s required for success is then to get into character and applause is assured.