I could not ignore the current waves of anger regarding the brutal, misogynistic commentary about Tara Erraught, the excellent Irish Mezzo currently singing Oktavian at Glyndebourne. The Telegraph’s review was particularly insensitive. Scathing reviews have always existed, whether it is Rossini referring to Gilbert Duprez’s singing as “The shriek of a strangulated capon” or another tenor likened to a “stuck pig” in a review I remember reading 15 years ago. We have been far from civil, constructive criticism for quite a while as those who are given the task of critiquing or better said “criticizing” opera performances have rarely had the requisite understanding of the art form to appropriately help move it forward. I once received a review praising “…the mighty vocals of Jean-Ronald LaFond” in the role of Don Giovanni. The reviewer was obviously using language employed in a pop music context. What do I do with such a review?
Ideally, a reviewer should have an understanding of vocal technique to be able to comment on a singer’s ability to execute what the score demands. Long ago, reviewers began to degrade enough that even the best of them could not hold a conversation with a singer about the physical demands of operatic vocal production. Consequently they began to compare performances with whatever was considered definitive for the day. “Did the soprano caress the phrase: ‘…ma falle gl’occhi neri,’ alla Callas or Tebaldi? What a stupid question? Callas herself would have probably berated a singer who copied her manner of singing a phrase.
But why did reviewers begin to compare performances to so-called “definitive” recordings? The truth is that they take their cues from the supposed experts. When coaches are telling their young singers that “tradition dictates that this phrase should be sung thus,” it does not take long before a reviewer starts to “criticize” based on that ludicrous expectation. Because of this we have extreme reactionary movements by “early-music stylists” who make up their own rules that include more and more the music of the 19th century and beyond–One Russian conductor is coming out with a recording of the Mozart-Daponte trilogy that he himself refers to as an anti-operatic recording barring all vibrato– This also leads serious conductors to adopt an ideology of come scritta, abiding by a rather limiting reading of what the composer provides. All of these reactionary remedies are simply means to avoid the time-consuming task of becoming an expert musician and/or opera aficionado. Since it is easier to get paid for writing superficial nonsense, why would a writer of little knowledge put the effort into learning the tenets of the art-form?
As always the reviewers take their cue from what is happening within the discipline itself. It was not too long ago that the career of Deborah Voigt began to suffer as a result of a domino effect beginning with the ludicrous “little black dress” episode. This of course happened at London’s Covent Garden. Is it any wonder that those particular British reviewers, probably lacking the requisite understanding of either voice or music, would take the very low road and simply criticize a promising young singer’s physical appearance?
For all their idiocy, the reviewers are walking to the drumbeat of “contemporary opera attempting to take a populist path!” I commented a couple of years ago on “Opera in the Movies”and the inherent dangers. It has come to pass that opera is indeed separated between productions meant for Mass Visual Consumption, at the movies or for a real operatic audience, in the house. The task of developing a mighty voice that sails through a thick orchestral texture to envelop an audience in a house seating 2000 spectators (i.e. the definition of opera) is now reduced to “peacocks prancing prettily in front of cameras while crooning carefree into a microphone!”
Is opera at the movies all bad? By no means! HD simulcasts bring opera to the masses and make a lot of money for elite opera houses. A great solution, if only it brought audiences to the opera house. But it does not. “Opera in the movies” represents a superficial reduction of the operatic genre for consumption on a medium (the movie screen) that carries the skin-deep pseudo-perfectionism of a Hollywood-produced fairy-tale. Opera at its best is expansive not reductive.
As mezzo Alice Coote so eloquently expressed in her Open Letter To Opera Critics:
Singers and Teachers know that being underweight is far more damaging to a singer’s wellbeing and performance than being overweight…
While I don’t agree that singers need to be overweight to be successful, indeed this craze toward a “size 0” (whatever that oxymoron really stands for) is very harmful to any athlete, vocal athletes included. Not everyone is meant to have 6% body fat. Singers should find their healthy, most natural physical condition. Some people are healthier with a higher body fat percentage and if those people are singers, a body fat index that is lower than that would be harmful to stamina and support of the voice. Likewise, relying on high fat index as a support mechanism is a recipe for eventual disaster. When fat content is substituted for muscular function, the instrument will not work optimally. I wanted to address this issue in a balanced manner…but I digress!
The point of this article is that we should see these misbehaving critics as a reflection of an operatic Devil’s Deal that we all tacitly accepted: “Let’s make opera popular…At any cost”. Several singers have come out in defense of the talented Tara Erraught here singing Rossini’s Rosina (Indeed a very comfortable, musical, dynamic young singer with a very beautiful voice).
Is it too little too late? Or have we singers finally figured out that we actually have influence? If we are the voices of opera, should we not set the rules a bit more? How many singers at a high level are going to be brave enough to stand for something significant? Alice Coote is not exaggerating! Opera as we singers value it is in danger of going out of existence in mainstream opera houses. Will it take opera becoming a fringe affair before enough influential singers speak against the deconstruction of the art form by those who do not value it for what it is. Can we imagine ballet without pirouettes and grand jetés? What is happening to our myths of glass-shattering soprano high notes and off-the-piano Bass low notes (both are possible by the way)?
For my part, I will take the voluptuous healthy beauty of this young developing talent anytime on the operatic stage before I submit myself to the antics of prancing body-builders emitting non-tones that would be overpowered by a pair of mosquitoes whining in unison. Furthermore, it is in complete disrespect to bona fide operatic artists to constantly have the feeling that they must reduce their voices to accommodate their weak-voiced colleagues who belong on Hollywood’s Red Carpets rather than an operatic stage.
This problem is systemic! How many great singers and their talents must be discouraged? How voiceless must opera become before we “Singers” take the reigns of our own destinies?