Opera must please the eye as well as the ear

No one except a supermodel can carry off white satin, which Tara Erraught was stuffed into

Share

When a woman's body is ridiculed in the press, it is usually because she does not conform to some artificial ideal of what a woman should look like. In the case of Tara Erraught, the mezzo soprano whose physique prompted much criticism after her Glyndebourne performance in Richard Jones's new production of Der Rosenkavalier, it is because she does not look like a real man. As Octavian in Strauss's mildly degenerate opera, she is the on-stage lover of, in this production, the very beautiful Kate Royal, and the coupling is one many found implausible, one critic complaining that she was "dumpy", another bemoaning her "puppy fat".

It is the lot of mezzo sopranos to play trouser roles such as this. Some make very passable men: Sarah Connolly in the title role of Giulio Cesare, also at Glyndebourne, in 2005, convinced you in seconds flat that she was the conquering type. Some men don't even make passable men: last week, also at Glyndebourne, Eugene Onegin opened with Andrei Bondarenko in the title role of the arrogant visitor who humiliates a romantic ingénue. All gussied up like the Prince Regent, he was a tubby and unlikely object of her affections.

Costume may be at the root of both casting problems. Designers sketch and colour in languidly lovely line drawings of gowns and jackets, but once they have been run up in a size 14 or 42in chest, these can look preposterous. One singer has told me of the inappropriate gear she and colleagues have been stuffed into – a headdress that blocked out all sound, a halter-neck dress on a singer with boils. Few regular opera-goers have not flinched at flimsy shifts, meanly cut on the bias, that expose distractingly imperfect knees while the singer is working her socks off vocally. No one except a supermodel can carry off white satin, which both Erraught and Bondarenko were stuffed into.

Many performers, in opera and beyond, from Maria Callas to Hugh Jackman, set about reshaping their bodies for professional purposes. It is pretty much a myth that weight loss means voice loss: the singer just needs to be physically strong enough to support the voice. And there is perhaps a surprising amount of sensitivity within the industry about anorexia. A dancer turned down for a part in a musical will no longer be told overtly that it is because she is too heavy.

But the days are gone when an 18-stone Mimi could heave herself on to a couch and die stoutly of consumption. Today's visually conscious audience draws a line between the suspension of disbelief and the downright implausible: whether paying a tenner or the thick end of £200, they go to the opera for visual as well as aural treats.

Erraught has had a horrid week. But no one is forced to be an opera singer: they may be the toast of the town or they may be let down by their invisible team. That's show business.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Year 3 Welsh Teacher vacancy in Penarth

£110 - £120 per day + Travel Scheme and Free training: Randstad Education Card...

Senior Developer - HTML, CSS, PHP, JavaScript, VBA, SQL

£30000 - £35000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: We are working with one o...

Male Behaviour Support Assistant vacancy in Penarth

£55 - £65 per day + Travel Scheme and Free Training: Randstad Education Cardif...

BA/PM,EMIR/Dodd-Frank,London,£450-650P/D

£450 - £650 per day + competitive: Orgtel: My client, a leading bank, is curre...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Prime Minister David Cameron walks on stage to speak at The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) annual conference on November 4, 2013  

Does Cameron really believe in 'British Values'?

Temi Ogunye
The Lada became a symbol of Russia’s failure to keep up with Western economies  

Our sanctions will not cripple Russia. It is doing a lot of the dirty work itself

Hamish McRae
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

Will Gore: Outside Edge

The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz