It ain’t over till the well-built lady sings*

I lay no claim to expertise on the subject of opera, although there are several operas that I very much enjoy, notably those of Mozart and Richard Strauss, and of the latter Der Rosenkavalier most of all. I can’t afford to go and see, or hear, the current production of Rosenkavalier at Glyndbourne, but I’ve been fascinated by the fracas over the reviews in some of the UK broadsheet newspapers which have made unpleasantly personal remarks about the young Irish mezzo soprano Tara Erraught,  playing Octavian in Strauss’s masterpiece.  All the critics have been full of praise for Ms Erraught’s beautiful voice and brilliant singing, but the praise has been marginalised by several distinguished critics’ ungentlemanly allusions to the her figure and stature (or lack of it),  calling her “unbelievable, unsightly and unappealing” (The [London] Times) “dumpy” (The Independent) and with an “intractable physique” (The Daily Telegraph). Andrew Clark in the Financial Times wrote: “Tara Erraught’s Octavian is a chubby bundle of puppy-fat.” The Guardian described her as “stocky”.

tara_erraughtFor the sake of the operatically challenged who are not familiar with Rosenkavalier, Octavian, the character being played by Tara Erraught at Glyndbourne, is a handsome youth (written for and played by a woman) who’s having an affair with an older woman — and who at a certain point in the action has to be disguised as (guess what) a girl. (The McGuffin of a girl playing the part of a boy who gets dressed up as a girl is of course familiar from Shakespeare through many other operas down to pantomime.)  In modern times Octavian is generally played by a tall and athletic young woman singer who can reasonably plausibly pass herself off as a teen-age boy.

Other opera singers, mostly female, have sprung to Ms Erraught’s defence, denouncing her critics’ references to her physique as sexist, offensive, irrelevant to what they say should have been their sole concern (the quality of her singing), and on all these gounds illegitimate.  One of the offending critics has apologised; others have rejected the charges against them on the grounds that the unsuitabilty of an actor (whether male or female, singer or not) for his or her role represents poor casting and thus a proper subject of discussion by professional critics.

Rarely without an opinion on current controversies, I expressed mine in my usual manner, namely a letter to the Guardian, which published it on 24 May:

Cruel aspersions cast by music critics on the physical appearance of an opera singer are contemptible, like any other cruelty (Disgust in opera world at ‘sexist’ criticisms of soprano star, 21 May). But some singers who have denounced the critics overstate their case, claiming for example that opera’s magic “is not about lights, it is not about costumes, it’s not about sets, it’s not even about sex or stature … It is all about the human voice … opera is all about the voice” (open letter by Alice Coote).

If that were so, there would be no point in training opera singers to act as well as sing, or in mounting productions in which not only the music and singing but also the acting, sets, costumes, lighting, and the audience’s ability to identify the performers with the characters they play, all contribute to the impact of the event. If those other ingredients really counted for nothing, an audio CD or a concert performance would be just as satisfying as a staged production, which they obviously are not.

All these ingredients are legitimate subjects of comment and criticism by music critics, provided that they express themselves in civil language not calculated to leave lasting scars on the object of their remarks. If the (fictitious) one-legged Dudley Moore had been successful in his famous audition for the part of Tarzan, his physical unsuitability for that part would surely have been a legitimate subject of comment, regardless of the film’s merits.
Brian Barder

The controversy rages on.  I wonder whether it is causing a spike or a slump in demand for tickets to Glyndbourne?



5 Responses

  1. Alan Petrides says:

    You can’t have a ‘stick insect’ playing Falstaff..can you? Case rests.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Alan. I suppose one could pad a stick insect; what you can’t do is slim down a Falstaff!

  2. Rob says:

    It comes down to the voice but, on stage, image matters so it’s distracting (laughable even) to see an overly well fed consumptive Violetta dying in the Alfredo’s arms – or for that matter, an obese but supposedly half starved Rodolfo weeping over a fading Mimi. Rob

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Rob. I think you put your finger on it with the word “laughable”. The effect of the most glorious singing (and music) imaginable is ruined if the singers are hopelessly badly cast. You can’t be deeply moved if you’re trying to suppress hysterical giggles. We expect more realism nowadays, even within the artifical conventions of opera, than our grandparents did, perhaps because of the realism that’s possible in the cinema, and also because so many opera singers these days are youthful, fit, slim and attractive (both sexes).

  3. Roland Smith says:

    My wife and I saw the production at Glyndebourne on Saturday, and were delighted by it.  The acting as well as the singing were of a high order.  The problem with the role of Octavian is that it is in itself incredible (unlike, for example, Falstaff or Mimi).  The audience is required to accept that a seventeen-year old youth who, at the beginning of the opera, has just spent a night of love with a married woman, sings in a soaring soprano voice.   So suspension of disbelief is required.  Tara Erraught has a gorgeous voice, and acts the part perfectly well.  She is, undeniably, short of stature, but to my mind, that really doesn’t matter in the context.  So while I don’t disagree with your general point, Brian, I think you are applying it wrongly in this case. 

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Roland. As I have made clear, I haven’t seen the production, and you have, so it would be rash of me to argue with you. But it seems to be your voice against an extraordinary consensus of more or less eminent music critics in virtually all the serious UK newspapers, virtually all arguing or implying that the admirable Ms Erraught has been woefully mis-cast (and mis-costumed), which if so does her no favours. Of course it’s quite possible that it’s all the critics who are out of step. Most of us will never know! As to the special unreality of the part of Octavian, I suppose that this applies to all the so-called trouser roles, not just Octavian, and not to mention all those thigh-slapping Principal Boys. In my view it ought to add a nice, slightly kinky frisson to the opera, and especially to the first Act, provided that the performer is appropriately and not comically cast. Susan Graham does it perfectly (, especially the closing bars, and

  4. Timothy Weakley says:

    Brian, I’m not an operatic enthusiast.  Too much good music spoiled by people singing words which you can’t catch even when they’re in English – why is it that professionals concentrate so much on purity of tone, in both recitatifs and arias, that they slur the consonants?  It’s like listening to gabbled poetry: if the words are worth writing they are worth hearing clearly.  I don’t go much, either, for solilioquies supposedly out of hearing of the others on stage, and whispered asides delivered at full volume, or (getting nearer the point) on  girl-disguised-as-boy plots (or the converse) – Shakespeare got away with it in Twelfth Night, but few others have.  Nevertheless I do feel that if the librettist’s plot calls for a slim boy/girl, then the producer should endeavour to oblige him, and the critics are justified in pointing out that the person cast in the role is of incorrect dimensions, however fine a voice he/she has: the only question is, how does the critic wrap it up tactfully?  I haven’t an answer, so I suppose I’ve wasted your time!

    Brian writes: Thank you: not time-wasting at all! The fact is that a little mild androgyny can be quite pleasing in capable hands (such as those of Shakespeare and Hugo von Hofmannsthal), but for it to be effective in the case of Rosenkavalier the singer-actor playing Octavian does need to be vaguely androgynous in physique and if at all possible as tall as or taller than the Marschallin and Sophie, for obvious reasons. A short, rounded, pretty girl might make an ideal Sophie, but is plainly miscast as Octavian, however good her singing. Add imprudent costumes which apparently emphasise her feminine characteristics and you risk arousing more laughter and pity than agreeable titillation or thrilling emotional impact. However, Ms Erraught may yet have the last laugh: she has had more publicity than most rising young opera singers can dream of (and some say that all publicity is good publicity): the message from all the critics that she sings beautifully has come through loud and clear: there’s been no suggestion anywhere that she’s unattractive or that her performance is defective: and having been mis-cast and badly costumed in a single production should be no bar at all to a starry career ahead.

  5. Michael Hornsby says:

    I can only agree with the tenor of earlier comments. I, like you, have not seen the production in question so cannot express a personal opinion on whether Ms Erraught is physically suited to the role of Octavian. I have read one review – in the TLS – which praises her singing and finds nothing in the rest of her performance to object to. But that seems to have been a lone voice. The overwhelming consensus of critical commenary, as you say, agrees that she is either mis-cast, mis-dressed or in other ways does not look right in the part. The suggestion that only the singing matters in opera is a very old-fashioned idea. It might have had some validity in the days of early opera seria, when performers were required to do little more than stand about in static tableaux vivants, but with the advent of opera buffa, and such masterly exponents of the genre as Mozart and his librettist, Da Ponte, the ability to act a part believably assumes huge importance. No one would disagree that high-quality singing is a sine qua non for any successful opera production, but it is absurd to say that it is illegitimate or irrelevant to criticise a singer’s acting ability and/or physical suitability for the role. A short, fat man with a face like a suet pudding would surely be laughably ridiculous in the part of Don Giovanni even if he had the voice of a Caruso. It would be entirely appropriate for a critic to point that out, albeit in less crude language than I have just used (and I would agree that some of the comments on Ms Erraught’s appearance were ruder than was necessary). It is true that opera quite often demands suspension of disbelief on the part of the viewer.  For myself, when watching Cosi fan Tutte, i have always found it hard to believe that two such bright girls as Dorabella and Fiordiligi would for a moment have been fooled by the ludicrous disguises assumed by their lovers for the purpose of putting their fidelity to the test. Good acting, and a skilful mise en scène, can overcome such difficulties, but the audience’s willing suspension of disbelief should not be tested to destruction, as seems to have been the case of Ms Erraught and Octavian.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this. I agree with every word, including all the foreign ones!