When critics are jerksOp-ed
Der Rosenkavalier opened at Glyndebourne on May 17th, and the opening night reviews ticked off some opera fans. Ordinarily, one would be happy that a bunch of critics can’t stop talking about Irish mezzo Tara Erraught’s performance of Octavian. But in this case, it’s because the critics apparently couldn’t stop from being mean. Not critical. Mean. They picked on Tara’s appearance, because apparently her singing wasn’t bad enough to pick on. They called her “dumpy”, “stocky”, and “unsightly and unappealing.” Why? Because they’re mean. Like this garbage about Tara’s performance from The Telegraph’s opera critic Rupert Christiansen: “Is [the director] simply trying to make the best of her intractable physique or is he trying to say something about the social-sexual dynamic?” Why, Rupert? Do you think it’s a groundbreaking social statement to say that an “average looking” guy can score a pretty girl? I hope not, Rupert, for your sake.
Or from Michael Church at The Independent: “Since this Octavian (Tara Erraught) has the demeanour of a scullery-maid, and since the two seem so alike in age, you’d say it was a torrid lesbian affair.” What the…? Why, Michael? Because you’ve seen stereotypical lesbian relationships on TV, where one of the women is definitely “the man”?
The few mentions of Tara’s singing were all positive, even from snobby Rupie Christiansen: “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.” Cool. Great. Except he went on to talk about her being “dumpy of stature”.
To quote the late and very great (and a bit rotund in his later years) Christopher Hitchens: What is this babble?
It would be one thing to have the old fight about how much of opera is about hearing versus seeing. But this is not that fight. This new production of Der Rosenkavalier, directed by Richard Jones, looks pretty active onstage for the whole cast. I see production photos of Tara Erraught, and, like, she’s doing stuff. Standing, kneeling, pulling a Cherubino, etc. This is not a fight about overweight or unattractive people onstage costing the audience their enjoyment of an opera. Yes, opera is a form of theatre, and what you hear and see are both vital. But this is not the same as the obese singers of past decades parking and barking and being boring because they’re not mobile. This is not Tristan and Isolde, unable to kiss for the expanses of their respective bellies. This is a woman who got onstage to sing an incredibly difficult role in a high-stakes environment, at the mercy of critics who feel the need to pad their reviews with some tsk-tsks.
And it really is as simple as that. Opera is complicated enough without people who don’t do it writing insults about them. British mezzo (and my new singer crush) Alice Coote wrote an open letter to opera critics, and it’s published on Slipped Disc. she’s dealt with her share of hurtful reviews in the past, and I hope her letter hit little Rupie and Mikey right in the feels.
*Update: Rupert Christiansen published his defence after all the critic-criticisms came rolling in. He disagrees with Alice’s letter, stating “I am a critic, not a cheerleader. Alice Coote once said to me: “Tell us the truth, no matter how hard!” This is all that I have ever aspired to do.” In my humble, blogger’s opinion, this isn’t about truth. It’s about how unhelpful comments about Tara’s appearance don’t logically follow comments about how she’s a great comedian. It’s still just mean.
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