Dumpy, chubby men get married too, you know.
Do you know who Tara Erraught is? It’s possible that you do, because Tara Erraught is a rising star of the cut-throat world of international opera. At 27 years old, Tara is probably still a decade away from her absolute prime, and has already won nearly every singing competition that the world has to offer a girl of her age and singing style.
I feel lucky to have seen her perform live in Bray a few years ago; not in an opera, not supported by swelling, lush, orchestral support, not flattered by a team of lighting engineers, just a young girl standing beside a piano, as exposed as it is possible for any voice to be, sending clouds of joy and a palpable thrill of excitement through the room as she dramatically, sympathetically and, seemingly effortlessly, enacted some of the most challenging German Lieder.
Do you know who Andrew Clark, Rupert Christiansen and Richard Morrison are? I bet you don’t. They’re opera critics. They’re highly paid professional music reviewers who set trends, raise or crash audience numbers, tell us how to think and why to think it.
Andrew Clark wrote last week in the Financial Times that Tara Erraught’s performance of Octavian, a male role, in the comic opera Der Rosen-Kavalier was “gloriously sung”. The Telegraph’s Rupert Christiansen wrote that she “sings with vibrant assurance and proves herself a spirited comedian.” Well that’s alright then, isn’t it? That’s what singers are supposed to do, right? Sing gloriously, and with vibrant assurance? So everything is ok?
Now read the full sentences from which those words of praise were taken….
The Financial Times’ Andrew Clark wrote: “Tara Erraught’s Octavian is a chubby bundle of puppy-fat, better suited to playing Mariandel in Acts 1 and 3 than the romantic rose-cavalier of Act 2 – albeit gloriously sung.”
Christiansen wrote: “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 dishabille, disguised as Mariandel or in full aristocratic fig, her costuming makes her resemble something between Heidi and Just William.”
The Times’ Richard Morrsion, went even further; he truly excelled himself with this statement: “She is unbelievable, unsightly and unappealing as both a boy and a girl.”
Now, I am not going to waste my time defending Tara Erraught’s appearance; if you want to see how beautiful, happy, vibrant and joyous she is just google and scroll through the hundreds of photos available online. I am not going to tell you of the hours of work per week: on breathing, control, interpretation, language studies, history, vocal gymnastics. I am not going to waste my time describing to you how damaging it is to a full-bodied opera singer’s voice to starve herself into an approximation of what passes for “normal” body size; not because I am not qualified to do so (which I am not) but because it’s none of my bloody business what she looks like, or how much she weighs: the voice is the only thing that matters to me.
But when we live in a world where female models and movie stars push their fingers down their throats, when female Olympic athletes are criticised for their appearance, when Joanne Harris (Joanne Harris, for fuck’s sake!!) is told by a Professor of English Literature that he never reads works by female writers, when female comedian Sarah Millican (nominated for her work in one of the few genderless categories in the competition) cries in a taxi on her way home from the BAFTA awards because of vicious small-minded anonymous twitter criticism of her appearance (she is a comedian, remember, not a model) then we need to take a good hard look at the world in which our daughters live.
And how about this for making everything all better then: critic Simon Heffer at Glyndebourne is quoted as saying, in an article designed to stand-up for and defend Tara Erraught: “What’s more, I’ve seen much fatter singers — including one playing Wagner’s great character Isolde, who was nearly the size of Yorkshire.”
Now, I am not an opera buff, I am just a housewife who likes music, but I know exactly to whom Mr Heffer is referring, a singer of the greatest talent, internationally renowned, and who has struggled with her weight life-long. And if even I know who he is referring to, you can be sure that the rest of the opera-going world does too. Heffer seems to think that he can reduce Tara Erraught’s pain and hurt, by heaping an even greater, unwonted, and wholly uncharitable insult, upon the already-troubled head of another of the world’s great female singers. What a moronic, dreadful, vulgar remark, committed now to the perpetuity of the internet, I hope it bites him on his smug, sexist, patriarchal ass.
These reviewers have defended their remarks, declaring that opera requires credibility and realistic casting and must be believable. Hello? Believable? Hello? OPERA?!!!? An art form where a singer gets stabbed through the heart and spends 5 minutes staggering about with a dagger in the front of their chest singing high Cs? Where a man pops on a dress and a wig and his wife of ten years doesn’t recognise him? The whole point of opera is that one leaves one cynicism in the foyer, that one suspends disbelief, that one allows the beauty, the joy, the emotion, the skill and the vocal gymnastics to transport one, however briefly, to a better world.
And furthermore, I have pulled out my photo albums and had a good look through, at wedding shots, at the races, at gatherings and at school re-unions, and I have news for these so-called critics. Despite how unbelievable they may find it that a lissom, willowy soprano might love a “chubby, dumpy” mezzo-soprano, in real life chubby, dumpy men find love and get married too. If it’s believable in real-life, then surely to God, it can be believed in the cloud-cuckoo land of Opera.