Thread: Opera Small Talk

          
   
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  1. #1111
    Opera Lively Moderator Top Contributor Member Amfortas's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Clayton View Post
    I can't think of a situation where it is.

    I'm trying to think.

    Nope.

    Wait, Sarah playing a ruthless Roman warri...

    nope. I got nothing.
    But it's possible members of the audience would have such misgivings, whether they voiced them or not. Is a reviewer completely beyond the pale for pointing out what people will notice themselves?

    I think the issue becomes even more complicated in reviews of DVDs, which opera fans buy in part for the visuals. In that case, it might be almost irresponsible not to consider the performers' appearance (we certainly don't hesitate to do so when they're beautiful).

  2. #1112
    Senior Member Top Contributor Member Clayton's Avatar
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    Yes.

    Um... No.

    I mean

    I think it is not completely beyond the pale for pointing out what people will notice themselves but a reviewer (or critic) very often wields power that is often not duly considered.

    What would I notice? I do not know what the critical evaluation of the Lucia di Lammermoor performance was that I attended years ago at Covent Garden but I hated the costumes and the modern setting. I would have probably reviewed this very negatively.

    On the other hand I do read evaluations by others of performances and whether it is naive or not, I do consider them much. If I read a performance review saying the tempi was incorrect, I might dismiss this performance as so. This would be especially so if this review came from an institution that I regarded highly. I have no idea if some of the music I enjoy is technically correct but if I was told it was not I just might not venture there.

    As so much of this is subjective, sometimes I do wonder if those that do have so much power sometimes forget their position. I think that the reviewer must look more to the higher performance parts of the piece they are evaluating and also more importantly be always aware of their customer.

  3. #1113
    Opera Lively Moderator Top Contributor Member Amfortas's Avatar
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    I agree that reviewers have power. But what should they do with it? Surely they shouldn't refrain from giving an honest evaluation--that would defeat the purpose of criticism altogether.

    Should reviewers discuss the (sometimes unappealing) appearance of singers? I think this is related to larger questions about opera itself. Is opera something to listen to, or to watch as well? Do the libretto, the story, the drama matter, or is all of that completely secondary to the music? Ultimately, is opera a musical or a theatrical art form?

    Since people have always given differing answers to these questions, perhaps in the end the role of the opera critic is just as undecidable.

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    Opera Lively Moderator Top Contributor Member Soave_Fanciulla's Avatar
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    Well for example in Met DVD of Fidelio, Ben Heppner is supposed to have spent a couple of years being gradually starved to death but he is so rotund that Karita Mattila can't get her arms round his neck. That was a (fleeting) problem for me and I got the giggles when it happened. It was not just a question of aesthetics, it was a flaw in the drama. As a critic I might have pointed it out unless Heppner's singing performance was of Jonas calibre, because then the singing trumps the drama.
    Natalie

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  6. #1115
    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    This is strange. First of all, Tara Erraught is not exactly bad-looking.



    In terms of physique, she is is not a very slim woman, but is not grossly obese either.



    So, one wonders what this reviewer's agenda is.

    But anyway, it's not about his accuracy that we are talking about. We are going beyond this one episode, to inquire whether or not critics should pay attention to a singer's appearance.

    I'll risk being politically incorrect here, and I'm fully aware that this will not be a popular position.

    I do believe that opera is not a purely musical art form. I do believe that performers are on stage with the totality of their beings. They are not disembodied voices. They do have a physique which is part of the show. They put themselves on stage and present themselves to a public. They also have (or lack) acting skills.

    I don't think it can be denied that opera has theatrical aspects.

    If critics were to be completely barred from making any reference to singers' less-than-ideal physiques, then to avoid a double standard, we'd have to refrain from praising the beautiful ones, as well.

    Much the opposite, there are *countless* reviews that praise singers' physical beauty, including my own.

    So, if we admit to the fact that a singer's beauty is a positive asset, how can we deny that the lack thereof *can* be a negative shortcoming, depending on the role? Isn't this what is implied in the concept of physique-du-rôle?

    Acting skills are an asset, and the lack thereof is a shortcoming, in staged opera. Should we completely ignore this aspect and exclusively focus on the voice? If not, and given that we notice acting *visually,* how can we pretend to be blind and only pay attention to the singing? It's impossible to be able to visually see the presence or absence of acting skills without, well, looking at the singer; therefore the singer's appearance will necessarily be acknowledged as well.

    When moviemakers cast actors and actresses for roles, they absolutely do not only pick performers based on their acting abilities. Their looks and physique will be essential as well. If the character is a giant, they can't cast a dwarf for the role, and vice-versa. There is such thing as type-casting, for a reason.

    Singers themselves don't seem to be as prudish about matters of looks as critics (or the critics of critics) are. Pavarotti has vetoed the casting of voluminous soprano Ghena Dimitrova alongside him, saying "what's the point of having two elephants on stage?" In this, he was both self-deprecating, and not shy about disparaging his colleague for her weight. Larry Brownlee in a masterclasse covered by Opera Lively mentioned "there is nothing tall about me" (Larry, a great singer and the nicest of men, is very short). Lisette Oropesa in an interview with Opera Lively mentioned that obese colleagues get all sweaty on stage and that's not cool.

    So, if singers themselves talk about their physiques or those of their colleagues, why can't critics?

    When critics talk about movie actors and actresses and review their work, they routinely talk about whether or not they look good on screen, and whether or not they were miscast for the role given their looks. Somehow everybody seems to accept this and not make too much of a fuss of it.

    In opera however, if a critic dares to mention a singer's appearance in a negative light, all hell breaks lose. Isn't this also a double standard?

    Now, this said, there is also the matter of elegance. We recently commented upon a despicable review in which the critic said Diana Damrau should have kept her legs crossed so that she wouldn't have missed a performance for being pregnant. This is gross, inelegant, unprofessional, and uncalled for. This particular review we are discussing is not exactly elegant either, and makes similar peccadilloes. I don't doubt that this critic, just like that one, has deserved the rebukes he got. I did not like his review, and found it to be distasteful. I am *not* trying to defend him.

    On the other hand, I do sustain that, in my opinion, a tasteful, mild reference to whether or not a singers' appearance is a good fit for a role and grants or doesn't grant to the role an element of theatrical credibility is fair game.

    I think the reason why the operatic public hasn't fully accepted this idea yet, has to do with how the art form was traditionally not subject to standards of physical beauty. Short of attending specific performances of live opera (in which by the way the "park and bark" style was the rule rather than the exception), most people who lived distantly from that singer's main performing venues would only have access to that singer through recordings, which at most came with a cover picture (often very abstract or limited to the face). Singers also didn't travel as much. They tended to stay for long periods of time in a single city (6 months to 1 year, in many cases), again robbing most of the world public of close contact with their physical appearances.

    This wasn't and has never been the case for cinema, so, the cinematic art has always included in its reviews the physical appearance of actors and actresses and the public got used to it.

    Nowadays, however, singers spend two to three weeks in a location and travel to the next one. They work worldwide. Ample segments of the audience get to see them up close, in modern productions that also include a lot of acting and a lot of engagement of their bodies, including partial or full nudity. Broadcasts show their images in movie theaters worldwide, in high definition. Productions are routinely released on DVD and on blu-ray discs with 1080p HD images.

    So, yes, of course, little by little, one starts to see mentions of singers' appearances, here and there. I think it is a natural phenomenon. Nowadays certain singers are as glamorous as movie actors and actresses, and they do set standards and expectations. Their less physically fortunate colleagues do suffer in comparison. Is it fair? Well, it's a fact of life. Life is not exactly fair, in this and in many other ways.

    Opera is a musical, theatrical, and visual performing art. It is part of human nature to experience pleasure in looking at shapely members of the species. In most operas, themes of intense physical passion and love are part of the libretto. When performers can credibly portray these roles given that they are themselves attractive, I don't think it can be denied that the show gets enhanced, for the audience.

    It smacks me of denial and - I'd even say, hypocrisy - to pretend that these aspects do not exist. Surely we can appreciate an artist who is gifted with a great voice but not as much with great looks. However we are not blind, and we do notice those who are attractive, and those who aren't. If we can't talk about it, it won't change this reality. It will just mean that in the name of political correctness, we won't mention it and will pretend it doesn't exist. That's not the most accurate rendition of the art form.

    I'm not a big fan of political correctness.

    I am however, a fan of respect, kindness, elegance, and politeness. In my own reviews and certainly in my interviews and the introduction to the the singers that accompany my interviews, I try my best to be positive. Often when I don't have much good to say about a singer, I don't say anything. Very occasionally, however, I do mention certain shortcomings. In so doing, I try to do it elegantly and kindly. I do remember two occasions in which I was less than kind. I regret both.

    But I wouldn't go as far as to say that singers' appearances are completely excluded from being fair game. That would be unrealistic, and wouldn't acknowledge the more and more prominent visual aspects of the art form given ever-evolving technology, and would be just plain denial. Modern opera *is* a more visual art form than it used to be, and we can't stop progress.

    Anybody who is willing to say that Jonas Kaufmann is attractive, must be also willing to acknowledge that Johan Botha is not. Sorry, but as good a singer as he is, he just isn't attractive. Montserrat Caballé is a great singer; however, she is very far from being as attractive as Olga Peretyatko. Whoever disregards these facts, frankly (and pardon me if if I offend someone), must be blind.


    Jonas

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    Johan


    Montserrat


    Olga

    All right, so, I doubt that anyone who is not blind doesn't know that the paragraph above is accurate. It doesn't mean we *must* talk about it. However, it doesn't mean either that we absolutely *can not* talk about it. That would be a bit extreme. Sure, we should talk about it sparingly, when it's pertinent to a specific point in a review, and should do so kindly and respectfully. But still, in this musical *and visual* art form, it should be fair game.

    That's my opinion, politically incorrect or not, and I'm sorry if some of you might find it offensive, but unfortunately, I won't be able to change it because it is genuinely what I believe, and it makes sense.
    Last edited by Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva); May 19th, 2014 at 11:19 PM.
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

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  8. #1116
    Opera Lively Media Consultant Top Contributor Member Ann Lander (sospiro)'s Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Amfortas View Post
    The "stressed by motherhood" comment is definitely uncalled for (and makes me wonder how the reviewer could even pretend to know such a thing). The comments on Tara Erraught’s physique are unduly harsh, but the controversy surrounding them raises a question. Is a reviewer ever justified in pointing out a singer's physical unsuitability for a role? Would the response have been different had Christiansen attacked a male performer like Johan Botha or Ben Heppner?

    Then again, maybe he would never have done so in the first place . . .
    It's the word 'dumpy' which I don't like, 'small in stature' would have been better.
    "The world calls them its singers and poets and artists and storytellers; but they are just people who have never forgotten the way to fairyland."
    Lucy Maud Montgomery

  9. #1117
    Opera Lively Media Consultant Top Contributor Member Ann Lander (sospiro)'s Avatar
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    Well fortunately for the artists themselves, the people who really matter, i.e. the opera bosses and casting directors only take note that the singer sang that role.

    The rest of the review might say "and was awful" but that doesn't matter as much as the fact that a casting director somewhere has read that they sang the role.
    "The world calls them its singers and poets and artists and storytellers; but they are just people who have never forgotten the way to fairyland."
    Lucy Maud Montgomery

  10. #1118
    Opera Lively Moderator Top Contributor Member Amfortas's Avatar
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    I agree with just about everything you said in your long post above, Alma. My one quibble: for me, what gets denigrated as "political correctness" these days is often nothing more than an attempt at "respect, kindness, elegance, and politeness." But it's a small point.

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  12. #1119
    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by sospiro View Post
    Well fortunately for the artists themselves, the people who really matter, i.e. the opera bosses and casting directors only take note that the singer sang that role.

    The rest of the review might say "and was awful" but that doesn't matter as much as the fact that a casting director somewhere has read that they sang the role.
    Opera bosses and casting directors also pay attention to singers' appearances. Maybe they avoid talking about it, but they definitely do. I've actually heard as much from one of them.

    They do take the "and was awful" part with a grain of salt and make their own judgment based on auditions, recordings, and these days, YouTube clips, especially because they are fully aware that many critics don't know what they are saying, and like I said before, it's not uncommon to read of the very same performance by two different critics including the most prestigious ones, "the maestro's pace was painfully slow" and "the mastro's pace was fast and brisk."
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

  13. #1120
    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Amfortas View Post
    I agree with just about everything you said in your long post above, Alma. My one quibble: for me, what gets denigrated as "political correctness" these days is often nothing more than an attempt at "respect, kindness, elegance, and politeness." But it's a small point.
    And it is often also a lot more than that, bordering the ridiculous (as in "horizontally challenged" for "fat").
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

  14. #1121
    Opera Lively Media Consultant Top Contributor Member Ann Lander (sospiro)'s Avatar
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    "The world calls them its singers and poets and artists and storytellers; but they are just people who have never forgotten the way to fairyland."
    Lucy Maud Montgomery

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  16. #1122
    Opera Lively Moderator Top Contributor Member Amfortas's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva) View Post
    And it is often also a lot more than that, bordering the ridiculous (as in "horizontally challenged" for "fat").
    Yeah, but . . . that's not real. The term "horizontally challenged" has become popular, but only as a parody version of "political correctness." On a quick web search, at least, I can't find anyone seriously proposing it as an alternative to "fat" (not that alternatives shouldn't be considered).

  17. #1123
    Opera Lively Media Consultant Top Contributor Member Ann Lander (sospiro)'s Avatar
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    I think Alice Coote's plea for it to be just about the voice falls on stony ground. More comments in the ft review.

    Another singer's perspective.
    Last edited by Ann Lander (sospiro); May 19th, 2014 at 05:46 PM.
    "The world calls them its singers and poets and artists and storytellers; but they are just people who have never forgotten the way to fairyland."
    Lucy Maud Montgomery

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  19. #1124
    Opera Lively Moderator Top Contributor Member Amfortas's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by sospiro View Post
    While I applaud Alice Coote standing up on behalf of her fellow performers, I can't help but be a bit put off by her argument.

    "It is not about lights, it is not about costumes, it’s not about sets, it’s not even about sex or stature… It is ALL about the human voice." Really? For me at least, opera at its best is about compelling drama, conveyed largely through music (not always vocal), but also through other theatrical means. Coote says those who want to see an attractive performer "can get [it] in the theatre." But when we go to an opera house, we ARE in the theatre, with all the intermingling of various arts and sensory impressions that entails.

    "OPERA is ALL about the voice . . . it’s not an opinion, it’s a FACT." Since there's no objective way to prove such a claim, it can't be anything other than opinion--and one not shared by everyone. Coote's description of opera as "the Olympics of the human larynx attached to a heart and mind that wants to communicate to other hearts and minds" (aside from being little creepy if taken too literally) presents a disembodied compartmentalization that fetishizes the voice at the expense of the full range of a performer's expressive capabilities.

    For Coote, "Opera WILL die" if we don't reinstate the "culture" of "The Olympic Great Human Voice." But historically, it can be argued that the times when singing has been elevated to a kind of sporting event have marked opera's decline. Certainly some of the greatest revitalizers of opera (Gluck, Wagner) militated against what they saw as the decay of opera into little more than showy vocal display, and sought to restore a focus on ALL aspects of dramatic expression.

    In the end, focusing solely on the voice is not much less restrictive and counterproductive to opera than focusing solely on appearance.
    Last edited by Amfortas; May 19th, 2014 at 06:16 PM.

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  21. #1125
    Opera Lively Moderator Top Contributor Member Soave_Fanciulla's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Amfortas View Post
    While I applaud Alice Coote standing up on behalf of her fellow performers, I can't help but be a bit put off by her argument.

    "It is not about lights, it is not about costumes, it’s not about sets, it’s not even about sex or stature… It is ALL about the human voice." Really? For me at least, opera at its best is about compelling drama, conveyed largely through music (not always vocal), but also through other theatrical means. Coote says those who want to see an attractive performer "can get [it] in the theatre." But when we go to an opera house, we ARE in the theatre, with all the intermingling of various arts and sensory impressions that entails.

    "OPERA is ALL about the voice . . . it’s not an opinion, it’s a FACT." Since there's no objective way to prove such a claim, it can't be anything other than opinion--and one not shared by everyone. Coote's description of opera as "the Olympics of the human larynx attached to a heart and mind that wants to communicate to other hearts and minds" (aside from being little creepy if taken too literally) presents a disembodied compartmentalization that fetishizes the voice at the expense of the full range of a performer's expressive capabilities.

    For Coote, "Opera WILL die" if we don't reinstate the "culture" of "The Olympic Great Human Voice." But historically, it can be argued that the times when singing has been elevated to a kind of sporting event have marked opera's decline. Certainly some of the greatest revitalizers of opera (Gluck, Wagner) militated against what they saw as the decay of opera into little more than showy vocal display, and sought to restore a focus on ALL aspects of dramatic expression.

    In the end, focusing solely on the voice is not much less restrictive and counterproductive to opera than focusing solely on appearance.
    Thanks for articulating so clearly what I was thinking (rather more fuzzily) as I read this.
    Natalie

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