A row has broken out over the reviews of a new production of Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier at Glyndebourne. The critics have objected to aspects of the performance, specifically to the body-type of Tara Erraught, who is playing Count Octavian. Here's what they've said:
'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 - ' wrote Andrew Clark in the Financial Times, adding, as if this is a distantly secondary consideration - 'albeit gloriously sung'. At least Rupert Christiansen in the Telegraph applauds her singing before turning to her figure: 'she is dumpy of stature and whether in bedroom déshabille, disguised as Mariandel[,] or in full aristocratic fig, her costuming makes her resemble something between Heidi and Just William. Is Jones simply trying to make the best of her intractable physique or is he trying to say something about the social-sexual dynamic?'. Richard Morrison in The Times makes even swifter work of her performance: 'Unbelievable, unsightly and unappealing'. In The Independent, Michael Church originally called Erraught a 'dumpy girl', though has had the cowardly decency to get that quietly edited out. Even The Guardian gets in on the act with Andrew Clements declaring that 'it's hard to imagine this stocky Octavian as this willowy wom[a]n's plausible lover'.
These critics are wrong at so many levels, that it's hard to disentangle them. First, of course, it's really disgraceful to say these personal and unpleasant things about another human being who, let's remember, has to go on stage every night in front of an audience and sing this role. At this level the problem is one of impoliteness. Second, there is the horrible, sneering misogyny of these comments. As if being 'unsightly and unappealing' to Richard Morrison is something an opera singer should be criticised for. Kiri Te Kanawa was on Radio 4 this morning and her dreadful defence of Erraught was to say she'd been frumpily costumed and anyway she's a 'lovely little girl'. Look, I think the picture at the top of this article shows how beautiful Erraught is, but that is not the point. It's about male opera critics thinking they have a right to judge a mezzo-soprano almost entirely on her looks. As we've seen Andrew Clark only adds a comment on her singing as an afterthought; Andrew Clements deals with the three women leads' voices in a sentence. Michael Church and Richard Morrison don't mention Erraught's singing at all.
There has been some push-back, notably from the former North American editor of Gramophone, Anastasia Tsioulcas, who is wonderfully icy and determined in her remarks. The great Alice Coote has written a powerful attack on these reviews. Her argument is simple: these criticisms are entirely out of place because 'OPERA is ALL about the voice'. Any reference to the visual aspect of a body is irrelevant, because Opera 'is about and really ONLY about communication through great singing'.
Is that right? Let me first say that I've not seen this production. Let me also admit that I'm not an avid operagoer. But I think there are some principles at stake here that overlap opera and theatre, about which I do know something. I am sure it is true to say that the vocal performance in opera is supremely important and by that we mean something live; it is not true to say that everything you can from live performance can be got from a recording. As in theatre, it's not just the performance but that the performance is happening there, right there, for us, by that extraordinary human being only a few arms' length away and which will never be repeated in quite the same way again. But that doesn't mean that this is the only thing that opera is about. In the nineteenth century, operas were frequently given as little more than recitals in some form of costume. Audiences were there for the live performance but not for the theatre of it. After Wagner and other innovators, the production became much more important and opera became immersive theatre avant la lettre a fusion of all the arts at the highest level, straining to give experiences of transcendent ravishment. So while opera may place the vocal performance at its heart or its height, it does not seem correct to say that comments on the visual aspects of the performance are out of place. Sexist and misogynist comments are - for other reasons - disgraceful but that doesn't mean critics should not be entitled, indeed encouraged, to assess the visual aspects of the performance.
Which leads me to my main point. It seems to me not a problem that the critics are making comments on the visuals; I don't even think that the fundamental problem is the sexism. It's the preposterous literalism of these comments that seems so out of place.
Let's just recap here. This is the story of Der Rosenkavalier: Octavian is the young and secret lover of the older Princess von Werdenberg, whose husband is away. After a night of passionate sex, they are repeatedly interrupted and almost discovered, so Octavian dresses up as a chambermaid 'Mariandel' and thereby attracts the attention of the Princess's cousin, Baron Ochs. The Baron himself has been wooing the beautiful and wealthy heiress Sophie and is seeking a rose-cavalier, a young nobleman to take a silver rose to her as a way of proposing marriage on the Baron's behalf. This Octavian does but he and Sophie fall in love at once and Sophie spurns her fiancé. The Baron is furious and in the confusion is scratched with a sword, whereupon he pretends to be gravely wounded; the marriage is back on the cards. Octavian sends a letter purporting to be from Mariandel, accepting an invitation to dinner, so the Baron thinks he has both women. But as they are dining together, some hired hands have created a strange pantomime in which ghostly figures accuse the Baron and others appear claiming to be his wife and children. All is chaos, topped by Sophie's father discovering the tryst and fainting. Eventually the Princess arrives, sees off the Baron, and gives up her young lover Octavian to marry Sophie.
Chekhov it ain't. This is a farcical story, a broadly comic opera with some deeper resonances about the fickleness of male affection and the toll of time on women's attractiveness to men (a thematic which might have given - but didn't - those opera critics pause before they declared themselves on the matter of Erraught's figure). There is, to be sure, some degree of psychological truthfulness - it's not an entirely surreal fantasy - but its brush is broad and the strokes are vividly coloured.
Can I just point out a couple of other obvious things? Octavian is conceived as a breeches role. It's a male role, to be played by a woman. This creates all sorts of non-realistic resonances: we watch a woman playing a man playing a woman; it allows for all sorts of queer frissons in the relationships between Octavian and the Marschallin and between Octavian and Sophie and between Octavian and the Baron Ochs and between Octavian and Mariandel; it also creates pleasurable intertextual references to similar breeches roles like Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro. And finally: they're singing. The whole way through, when we know that in the imagined fictional world they are speaking, here we are seeing them singing.
This is not naturalism. What we see is not what we take to be happening in the opera's fictional world. This is probably truer of opera than any other kind of performance.
But look at the miserable defences that these critics have made of their comments? Richard Morrison in The Times this morning declared that audience 'expect dramatic credibility. They get that in films, in TV dramas and in the spoken theatre and don't see why exceptions have to be made for opera. When they are paying up to £215 a ticket, as at Glyndebourne, those expectations are pretty high'.
What a crock of shit. First, just because you see something in one cultural area, it does not mean you expect to see it somewhere else. On TV and film I see images projected against a screen; I don't expect to see that in the theatre. When I read novels and poetry, I see words printed on a page; I don't think I have a right to see that in an Opera, even if I were paying £500 a ticket. The problem here is that he's used this weaselly term 'dramatic credibility' and then secretly decided it means realism. But it doesn't mean that and he's offered no explanation for why he thinks it means that. And, let's also remember: this is a Richard Jones opera production. Richard Jones, who has probably gone as far from naturalism as any major director in this country; a man who has staged a scratch-and-sniff Love of Three Oranges for ENO in the early nineties is probably not really fishing in the naturalism pond.
This is important, because if the idea that the theatre can only represent the world through visual verisimilitude takes hold in opera, we're all sunk. Opera is like the bulwark against this kind of thin-lipped, flat-minded literalism in live performance. It has everything going for it: music (never realistic), the plots (never realistic), the scale (never realistic), the casting (never realistic), the designs (mostly unrealistic). There is always this push towards the directly realistic, the relatable (hideous hideous word), the accessible (defined as narrowly as possible). And these things are modes in which theatre can move and has moved very valuable from time to time, but it is a small percentage of what the theatre can be. How much will we impoverish ourselves and hurt the grandeur of a culture by telling extraordinary women like Tara Erraught that she's too fat to play a man who could attract two women. And there again, we see the thinness of this so-called realism: how many big, fat, generous, fleshy guys do you see with slim and beautiful women? Loads. This isn't realism; it's literal-mindedness which in turn is a mask for ideology.
Morrison suggests that it would be hypocritical to suggest that the production doesn't want us to comment on the bodies: 'The curtain goes up on the Marschallin, played by Kate Royal, gyrating - totally naked - in a shower of glitter. What is that except a blatant incitement for the audience (and critics) to take an interest in the bodies on stage as well as the voices?' See again, the duplicity and confusions. First, one naked body doesn't licence you to simply write the entire review with your cock in hand. Second, there's a keyword there: glitter. Is this a deliberate appeal to your lust or is it a knowing, camp, representation of desire as excess? Is it not referring to the gaze of the male/female Octavian, staging it as problem and question? Third, taking an interest in the bodies on stage is not the same as rebuking a woman for her weight. You should notice the bodies, but the bodies are part of the whole system by which the production is asking us to look again at this story, these characters, these feelings, that music, this opera. It is not an invitation for critics to fat-shame a young woman.