Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Does the opera world have a problem fat-shaming women? Is the pope Catholic?

NPR has an article right now that points out five different reviews from London critics that all criticize Irish mezzo-soprano Terra Erraught's weight. Author Anastasia Tsioulcas writes, "What is stunningly apparent is just how much a woman's body matters onstage — way more, if these five critics are to be believed, than her voice, her technique, her musicality or any other quality."

Horrible, fat-shaming, gendered comments include:
"Tara Erraught's Octavian is a chubby bundle of puppy-fat." - Financial Times

"It's hard to imagine this stocky Octavian as this willowy woman's plausible lover." - The Guardian

"Unbelievable, unsightly and unappealing." - The Times of London

These reviews were all written by men.

"Isn't this shocking?" Tsioulcas's article seems to ask us. Ummmmm.... no? Honestly, I'm surprised that the author's surprised right now. There's nothing "stunning" about these reviews.

But seriously, people. Why are we surprised? Have we all experienced collective amnesia or something? And forgotten all of the other female singers who've been targeted for their weight in the past several decades? Does the name Debbie Voigt ring a bell? Jessye Norman? Anyone? Anyone?

Just a reminder, peeps:
Debbie Voigt, before and after her lapband surgery. Thanks, opera producers and viewers for reminding her all of the time about her weight! And not letting it go after her surgery, either!

And here's Jessye Norman:
Let's take the case of Jessye Norman in particular here. Also called "Just Enormous" behind her back, Jessye Norman's size and girth have been big points of conversation for listeners and reviewers alike since the 1970s.  it), and have found countless mentions of her size and girth dating back to the 1970s. Here are some lovely tidbits, just for your enjoyment:

"[Norman is a] large, opulent, dark-hued soprano” - New Grove Dictionary of Music, circa 1991. THE NEW GROVE DICTIONARY OF MUSIC, Y'ALL.

- The Independent (London) in 1991 mentioned "her ample figure" and called her, "big, tall, majestic."

Norman's a really interesting example of how race and gender intersect here in critics' comments. Her size, much a point of fixation for critics and listeners alike, furthered fantasized notions of a big black woman (and all of the stereotypes that this image entails) on stage. Let us consider all of the ways in which listeners have marveled at Norman’s size. The New York Times, January 22, 1977 She has been called “a woman of generous proportions with voice to match,” and Der Spiegel called her a “giant cello made of flesh and blood,” and “an entire orchestra in person. In another review, the NYT wrote, “Miss Norman makes an impressive presence on stage, no doubt about that. She sends out a blinding laser-beam of a smile, she wears an Afro and she is scaled along the lines of Callas in her monumental early years.”

What's fascinating about Norman is that, unlike in the case of Tarra Erraught, it's her girth and size that have somehow contributed to her reputation, aura, whathaveyou as a Wagnerian singer and a Lieder singer. It's just become part of the spectacle that people want to see when they see Jessye Norman sing. And notice how I used the word "see" there. Performance isn't just an aural experience. Obviously. It's a visual one, too.

So I've been asking myself the following lately: have listeners been flocking to hear Norman sing because of her gift for interpreting German Lieder or because she offers an exotic display to viewers? Or both? Is Norman a fascinating Lieder singer because of her blackness, because her performances offer the listener an atypical visual experience in addition to an excellent aural one? The answer to the last question appears to be “yes.” “It is always a pleasure not merely to hear Jessye Norman, but also to see her, because she is so visually dazzling.” (Globe and Mail).“She wouldn't have to sing; she's a spectacle,” gushed one fan of Norman right before a Liederabend she offered on an international tour in 1990. The body of Norman, in addition to the Lieder she sang, seemed to provide listeners with a reason to attend her performances.

It feels kind of like we're in a damned if you do, damned if you don't situation for women's bodies in opera right now. It can be the reason why people come to hear a performer sing, but it can also be the reason why a singer earns such nasty comments from critics as well.

When will things change, you ask? Well, when opera producers AND fans stop being so weird about a performer's appearance on stage. When they become more aware, perhaps, of the politics of gender and race in performance. When opera companies stop using blackface and brownface in their productions. Because guys, if we haven't even gotten *that* down - I'm looking at you, Hans Neunfels - then I don't know how prepared we're going to be for other kinds of conversations on bodies and performance right now.

So yeah. Be outraged, opera fans. Be angry. But don't act surprised. Don't act like you didn't know there were body politics involved in the opera world. Don't act like merit alone, beautiful technique, and soulful singing are the only things that count in 2014. They're not. 

1 comment:

  1. Your approach to this topic is unique and informative. I am writing an article for our school paper and this post has helped me. Thanks.