On Sunday morning, I started my day by catching up with reviews of the previous evening’s Rosenkavalier at Glyndebourne. This is a piece I love and I was interested in finding out how the highly promising young artists got on. Rather than finding out more about individual performances, I ended up completely outraged and angry at one particular critic’s sexist dismissal of the work of two artists who had worked extremely hard to produce the kind of magic that Strauss asks them to. Dismissing someone’s performance based on the body they were born with rather than the talent they have worked years to hone horrified me. Added to that, dismissing another artist’s recent form by the fact that she was a new mother likewise made me feel like we had found ourselves back in the sexist stone age.
You see, I love opera. I am passionate about the art form, I go to as many shows as I can afford and will gladly go to the other side of the planet to hear a favourite artist sing a role. I guess this makes me crazy. I don’t just love the form though, I love writing about it and I love discussing it. At the same time, I am fully aware of the need to be respectful and aware that things are read not only by the artist concerned but also by her family and friends.
Had my life turned out differently music might have been my profession but it wasn’t to be and I don’t regret that for a moment. It means that I can watch great artists with an understanding of the technical work that goes into producing a performance and I hope that my writing makes that clear. I write in part also out of frustration that the quality of music journalism in the UK is so poor and this latest incident has only gone to confirm this. I can count on one hand the number of UK music critics whose work I think is worth reading and who actually give the reader a sense that they know what they are talking about.
For me, opera is primarily about the voice. That thrill of hearing an unamplified voice fill a theatre and reach perfection. At the same time, while the voice will always come first, the very finest performances are those that combine music and theatre in the most remarkable way. We cannot change our genes nor should we try to. Singers’ bodies are like singers themselves, they come in all shapes and sizes and we should not be judging anyone on whether they are considered to be too thin or too large. I have seen one particular singer I love being described on one forum as a ‘lump’. Yet this same singer has given me some incredibly moving evenings in the theatre and has hit greatness through the combination of her glorious singing, her acting ability and the contribution of a director willing to use his singers to produce magic. At the same time, I have seen far too many ‘photogenic’ singers being pushed into roles they are simply not ready for with predictable results for the voice and longevity of the career. There are outstanding singers out there who are definitely not getting work because of the prejudices of intendants and this is unacceptable. I can give several examples but I don’t think this is the time or the place. I just want things to change.
Perhaps the issue is with opera directors. Off the top of my head I can only think of a few directors whose work I have seen made me think that yes, they are capable of getting great performances from their casts – Dmitri Tcherniakov and Calixto Bieito for example. I can’t say I agree with everything Tcherniakov does, he’s certainly not the most musical of directors but he knows how to direct singers, even those who are not the most natural actors. At the same time, I have seen the work of directors who far too frequently leave singers to their own devices and make it clear that the direction of the singer takes second place to the set design or any other distraction.
Then there is another complication. You see I like men. I like seeing handsome gentlemen and I especially like it if these gentlemen can sing opera. While I like my Mozart to be lithe and athletic I prefer my gentlemen to be burly and furry. But here’s the thing – I lose interest if the voice isn’t there. There are some gentleman singers I can listen to all day and I wouldn’t want to live in a world where I feel bad for saying that X also looks fantastic. Let’s face it, are we saying that all of those ladies (and a number of men) who follow the career of a certain Bavarian tenor, for example, do so *only* because of the voice? At the same time, I would never judge a tenor or a baritone for his looks but only on the voice and dramatic ability. I follow singers and their careers by the way that they sound and their ability to bring a character alive.
There’s a DVD of Tosca from the Met with the wonderful Shirley Verrett in the title role. Her Cavaradossi is Luciano Pavarotti who gives the most moving portrayal in the final act I have ever seen. With his face and body language he completely exemplifies the painter’s knowledge that his fate is sealed and that his lover is deluded. If you then add to that the incredible Italian warmth and ease of sound that was his trademark, then you have something very special. Would Maestro Pavarotti have had the same opportunities were he starting his career today? Can anyone imagine what we would have lost had we never had the chance to hear him? Would anyone want to live in a world where we had never heard Margaret Price’s Desdemona or Jessye Norman’s Cassandre? We are in serious danger of losing the opportunity to hear the great stars of the present and of tomorrow.
As a spectator, I don’t care if Mimí or Violetta is a fabulously bootylicious lady as long as she can sing in tune, sustain the line and make me cry. I don’t care if a mezzo singing Cesare is shorter than her Cleopatra if she can turn the coloratura corners and dazzle me with her technique. I don’t care if Figaro looks like he could be Susanna’s grandfather if he can make me laugh and the chemistry is there.
I would not want the vivid debates that opera lovers have to be stifled but I do hope that we can change the tone of the debate. We should never be afraid to judge a singer on his or her performance in terms of technique or dramatic ability but we should never, ever make anyone feel bad because of his or her genes.
It is clear that the consensus is that the voice is what matters and directors and costume designers have a great responsibility to ensure that all singers can do of their very best.