Opinion: critics who body-shame are bad at their job

Opinion: critics who body-shame are bad at their job

Jenna Simeonov

Opera fans in Canada might have noticed a flurry of activity around Opera Canada magazine, and the review they published by Bill Rankin of Calgary Opera’s recent production of La traviata.

The story so far is this: Rankin’s original review included the following paragraph, in reference to stellar Canadian tenor Andrew Haji’s performance as Alfredo:

”…When the scene called for an intimate embrace or even just some simple flexibility, however, independent of fine singing, the tenor’s stature was an impediment to a convincing effect.”

When readers rightly cried body-shaming ⁠— a dumb and persistent element that is still a problem in opera criticism ⁠— Opera Canada removed the problematic paragraph, but didn’t indicate anywhere in the review that an edit had been made. When readers rightly cried editorial bungling, Opera Canada posted a statement-as-apology on social media, which went over like a lead balloon and got the comment section a-hoppin’:

From what I could see, readers were frustrated with the unkind and totally unnecessary comments on a singer’s physical appearance, and with the fact that the original review made its way by Opera Canada’s editorial team in the first place.

Joel Ivany, Artistic Director of Edmonton Opera and Against the Grain Theatre, argued that the statement should be added to the review itself, in the spirit of transparency. He summed it up well in a Facebook comment:

“As well, the statement apologizes to the artist, but he has not been emailed or called by anyone. So this blanket statement is that specific apology. He’d have to hear about it from his community.”

There’s not much to add to this story, but I do feel the urge to offer an opinion, both as someone who has made her own mistakes in opera-critic-land, and someone who used to work for Opera Canada.

I’ll say first that the business of opera criticism in Canada is small. It’s a relatively small scene that’s covered by an even smaller group of people, and those people are under the auspices of, like, one editor. It might not seem like a lot, but I will say confidently that keeping an eye on every word of content that goes out on one’s outlet is a big task, and some things will be missed. It’s not an excuse, but it’s a reason stuff like this happens.

So just because Opera Canada has been around for over 60 years and it’s de facto the biggest source of opera coverage in the country, that by no means indicates a bustling office space with plenty of manpower and plenty of eyes on each article that goes out. You might know that currently, Opera Canada is on the hunt for a new editor; so if we add a personnel change to a team that’s already stretched thin, we get a bit of disastro.

I’ll also say that in my own experience working with the magazine (I was Social Media Manager, Digital Content Writer, and a contributor for several years), those who truly run Opera Canada have not historically shown a great deal of interest in its digital content. I have plenty of theories on why that is, but the bottom line is that the quarterly print edition gets a good amount of attention. I’d argue that amount is disproportionate to how important it is to have a functioning digital presence.

With this latest bit of negative buzz around Opera Canada, a few people have pointed out that the magazine seems due for a revamp in terms of its editorial guidelines and its journalistic standards for reviews. I would agree! I wonder if anyone at OC will read the comments…

Anyway. It’s my thought that reviewers who disparage singers’ bodies are only telling us some ugly things about themselves: in this case, that they don’t think fat people can fall in love or have romantic experiences, and that they don’t have anything better to say about an opera production even after the two years of shit we all went through with stages being shuttered. Bill Rankin, I’ll say this: you need some perspective.

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