Shelley Marsden on the controversy surrounding criticisms of Irish mezzo soprano Tara Erraught for her looks, not her voice…
THE woman herself has, sensibly, not responded to the furore that has since erupted around her, but it has to have been a difficult couple of weeks for promising young Irish mezzo soprano Tara Erraught.
What has now turned into a raging debate about sexism in the opera world began when reviews came out of the Dundalk native’s performance in the Glydnebourne Opera production of Strauss’s opera Der Rosenkavalier.
A few leading critics were highly critical of the curvy singer’s suitability to take on the difficult role the title refers to – 15 year old lethario Octavian, who in the story is the object of the sexual desire of the glamorous Marschallin and a part known in opera as a “trouser role”. Like Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro, the part is sung by a mezzo-soprano, i.e. a woman.
Just some of the words used to describe Erraught in their reviews included “dumpy”, “unsightly” and “a chubby bundle of puppy fat”. Times reviewer Richard Morrison called her “unsightly, and unappealing as both a girl and a boy.”
Almost immediately a host of supporters rushed to defend her, including leading mezzo Alice Coote, who said: “Opera is all about the voice. We cannot people our operatic stages with singers that are believable visually or sexually attractive to our critics.”
But as recent events seem to suggest, much like the rest of the entertainment world it is not all about the voice – it is also about the body, and never more so than if you’re a woman (nobody seemed worried about Pavarotti’s portly frame when he played a romantic lead).
Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, in a slightly skewed attempt to lend some female solidarity, suggested that it was Erraught’s “disastrous costume” that made her seem larger than she was.
The defences of chastised critics sounded like feeble afterthoughts and were on the whole unconvincing, such as the FT’s arts editor Jan Dalley’s online reaction to those offended by FT reviewer Andrew Clark’s words:
“I am sorry that you were offended by Andrew Clark’s review. There’s no question that it would be outrageous to suggest that a person’s weight determined the value of her performance. But Andrew most certainly did not suggest that Tara Erraught’s physique affected her performance negatively. In fact he said the role was “gloriously sung”.
“His description was therefore in no way derogatory – unless one believes that carrying some extra body weight is in itself somehow culpable. Personally, I don’t hold that view.”
The Daily Telegraph’s critic said after feathers began to fly that, not to worry, Erraught was “a very pretty girl with a delightful smile and an endearing stage presence.”
One blogger has reacted by publishing photographs of the five, middle-aged male critics at the centre of the row, each annotated with observations such as: ‘‘His sullen and deep under-eye circles seem to tell the story of a man who has felt the sting of being rejected by all the women at a school for the blind’’.
But if reaction to Tara Erraught’s British debut are indicative of a genuinely felt sentiment towards women in opera (rather than a criticism of one woman’s characterisation of a role), it is that they should be not only pleasing to hear but pleasing to look at, with no more meat on the bone than strictly necessarily, despite opera being one of the only lines of work which you imagine would favour a robust frame.
Dubliner Feargh Curtis, 26, is finishing the first year of a Masters programme at the Royal Academy of Music in London. A couple of years below Tara while studying opera in Dublin, he thinks the recent comments about her are unfair but unsurprising.
He told the Irish World: “I don’t know Tara personally, but I have friends who are peers and colleagues of her, and they’re pretty disgusted at recent events. Mostly because she’s been doing so well recently outside of Ireland; representing her country to such a high standard.
But opera, he argues, is most definitely not just about the voice and never has been: “It’s about the visuals and the dramatisation of a role. But they way criticism was phrased at Tara was just rude and unconstructive, and not critical of her interpretation of the part, but simply of her physical person. There was very little about her acting and her vocals.”
“I think women are far more subject to scrutiny”, he added. “I have female friends who constantly get comments about losing a bit of weight in auditions. I’ve never really heard that being done with men. Men are subject to it as well, but women definitely get the rougher end of the stick.”
This latest body controversy is far from the first to rock the opera world, and how realistically women have taken on a variety of opera roles, from femmes fatales to handsome young men, is a debate that’s been rumbling on for years.
One of the most famous involved soprano Deborah Voigt, who in 2004 claimed the reason she had been taken off a revival of Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos at London’s Royal Opera House was because she couldn’t fit into one of the costumes (the now famous “little black dress”).
In that same year, Voigt had a gastric bypass operation that brought her weight down dramatically from 25 stone to just 10 and, as a result, her dress size from 30 to 14. In 2008, she returned victorious to the same production, gleefully sporting the same dress that had prompted all the controversy.
However the latest debate pans out, you can be sure this is not the last we will see of Tara Erraught, whose international reputation is steadily on the rise.
Ms. Erraught, who in 2010 was awarded the National Concert Hall’s Rising Star Award in Dublin, studies under acclaimed Royal Opera soprano Veronica Dunne, and in her adopted home of Munich, works with famed German mezzo-soprano Brigitta Fassbaender on her current repertoire.