Fat Shaming and Misogyny in the Opera World

On Sunday, prolific and well-known reviewer and critic for the Telegraph, Rupert Christiansen, released an article on Glyndebourne’s production of Rosenkavalier, and oh, is it a train wreck rife with body shaming and misogyny.

First, we have this:

The other problem is Tara Erraught’s Octavian. 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. Is Jones simply trying to make the best of her intractable physique or is he trying to say something about the social-sexual dynamic?

Who cares if Tara Erraught’s performance is fantastic? She looks “dumpy of stature,” which obviously undermines any of her achievements as a singer and as a woman. Her physical appearance is all that matters in opera, which is a concept that truly disgusts me. Body shaming is never appropriate, and only serves to cut a singer’s achievement (and their confidence) down. If her singing was fantastic (which it was), and her performance and acting is entertaining, then why only have one sentence proclaiming her skill, and three that denigrate her body type? It seems nothing short of petty, superficial, and misogynistic.

And then, this gem:

The evening offers two major revelations. Kate Royal, who has recently sounded short of her best and stressed by motherhood, emerges happily here as the most graceful of Marschallins: in silk-smooth voice, she sang with tender attention to the text and a mixture of warmth and dignity that made the final renunciation sharply moving: her wryly regretful and slightly cross “Ja, ja” spoke volumes and brought a lump to my throat.

Oh. Stressed by motherhood? Okay. That definitely isn’t constantly used as an argument as to why women can’t “lean in” and achieve higher positions and promotions. No, definitely not. Shaming women for motherhood and suggesting that childbirth negatively impacts their ability to do their jobs is the number one reason that is given when women suggest that there is a glass ceiling in most career fields. Motherhood is always cited as a reason that women should be paid less and not receive promotions next to their male coworkers — and though Christiansen made no allusions to Kate Royal’s pay grade, he managed to slip a dig about motherhood under the door, reinforcing the destructive and sexist ideas that motherhood somehow makes women weaker and less capable. The women I know who are mothers are some of the strongest and most capable people I have ever known, and motherhood has only served to strengthen their resolve and make them even more valuable to their chosen career field.

Yesterday, a very defensive Mr. Christiansen published an article titled “I Stand by Every Word,” and contains the exact kind of garbage you think it would. He explains that opera is 75% music but 25% visual, which I would agree with except he obviously thinks that spending more time commenting on a singer’s weight is appropriate for a publication like the Telegraph. He also doubled down on his comments about Kate Royal, saying:

The other matter which has had people baying for my blood is the suggestion that one reason Kate Royal’s singing has been a little disappointing in recent years is that she has been suffering the stresses of motherhood – she has two children, aged four and two.

I can only say that I have yet to meet a woman who didn’t find motherhood stressful, and that Miss Royal candidly discussed this very problem in a recent interview with Andrew Clark in the Financial Times.

Well, she has TWO kids? Oh, then you’re probably right – she’s unfit to sing. Better take her out to the pasture, right?

Upon further reflection and commentary surrounding this debate, I found myself thinking quite a bit about how this affects me as a musician on a personal level.

I am a fat singer. I am 5’10” and I my weight has fluctuated between 210 and 270 pounds. To be clear: I don’t write this to fish for compliments and assurances of my non-fatness. My fat isn’t debatable — I’ve had it for as long as I can remember, through periods of extreme fitness and periods of stagnation. I also think that articles debating Tara Erraught’s fatness miss the point entirely; loudly proclaiming “ZATFIG!!” doesn’t change the issue. Zatfig or not, we stocky ladies all face the same problems.

“You had a great audition, but who wants to see a lead who’s bigger than the male love interest?”

These are words I have heard countless times over the years, not unlike other women my size, I am sure. Yes, I will agree that theatre and opera are visual arts — a production with excellent performers and terrible or distracting sets, costumes, and staging can feel lackluster and unbalanced. Of course audiences attend performances to not only hear, but to see a whole production. Absolutely — but my question is, where does weight come into things?

I’ve had several well-meaning voice teachers gently guide me towards giving private lessons rather than auditioning for roles, for no other reason than “Casting directors don’t do chubby — unfortunately, that’s just how it is.” But why? Is fat so offensive, so unsightly, that people can’t bear to see it onstage? Who cares if Octavian is taller or fatter than his (her) Marschellin? Is it so unusual to meet couples in real life who have mismatched body types? I for one know several couples like this, as I’m sure almost everyone does. People aren’t solely attracted to svelte shapes! Why is it asking too much to ask an audience to believe that someone might be attracted to a fat body?

And yet, it definitely seems that men in the arts aren’t subjected to nearly as much scrutiny as women are. It is laughably common for a sitcom to feature a large man with a petite wife: According to Jim, Family Guy, Still Standing, and King of Queens to name a few. In addition, I have never seen a critic call out a leading man for being too fat for his love interest. Never! Not once! So why, WHY, when we have a (spectacularly voiced) mezzo-soprano playing a pants role, is body type and weight suddenly and loudly on the table for criticism? Quel mystère!

This shouldn’t be a debate over where Tara Erraught, or I, or any other woman over size whatever is attractive. “You aren’t fat, you’re beautiful” is the wrong response. We can be fat AND beautiful, but that is an argument for another day. (Also: fat shouldn’t be a dirty word!)

So in an industry where 20-year-olds can play 95-year-old grandmothers with the help of some stage makeup, and 45-year-olds play 17-year-olds, and bird-men meet their bird-woman soulmates, and dolls come to life, and magic rings determine the fate of the world, why is it so far-fetched to think that a body with some padding can be attractive? If you think that is too far-removed from real life, asking you to suspend too much reality, then perhaps you shouldn’t be paid a salary for reviewing opera.

***Note: this was originally posted on Musically Notable, where I write about old music, new music, and everything in between.***

3 thoughts on “Fat Shaming and Misogyny in the Opera World”

  1. Seriously, critiquing a performer’s appearance is just amateur hour. (I don’t like to use “amateur” as an insult, but right now I can’t think of a better phrase). That’s what I did when I had to review concerts in college but didn’t know enough about the specific piece to critique it (and it was only once, and the first cellist was wearing one of those tops that look like lace with nothing underneath it)*.

    And if you’re seriously jonesing to write a negative review, there has got to be something to be obnoxiously nit-picky about. Perhaps the costumes aren’t precisely period appropriate? Vibrato-someone’s got to be using the wrong amount. Set design? Tempi? The PLOT! HOLY CRAP THE PLOT! (or lack thereof…you decide)

    *I have also been known to post Facebook rants bitching about the sartorial choices of our local World-Class symphony, because really, sequins? To be fair, I think women should have the same options as the male musicians…Tux and you can choose: vest or cummerbund.

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