I have lately been reading many of the responses to the Glyndebourne reviews. Many people are (rightly) disturbed, citing the Royal Opera House/Voigt incident as the beginning of a trend of body shaming, and fearing a sort of death for opera, while others try to point to the "changing face of opera" and the new and different trends in the business.
First let me make one thing very clear: I think it is wonderful that there has been such an outpouring of support for a talented artist against criticism that stepped beyond the question of theatrical credulity into the unnecessary arena of snide remarks. I think it is a testament to the state of collegiality today. Having said this, strong opinions landing hard on either side have been expressed. And I am not convinced that it serves anyone in particular to go too far in either direction. It must be said that these critics’ comments were nasty enough on their own terms that they are sufficiently deserving of reprimand without resorting to denial of the vital visual aspect of the art form. And if you scratch any working singer who has encountered an avid audiophile, you will find someone who has argued the importance of the live factor, stressing that opera is a show and loses something in audio-only form.
We are in the performing arts. We are not painters or sculptors whose art stands absent of us. And this bears with it certain realities that must be considered. Firstly, we are forced to consider that sometimes there are only a certain number of people in the world who can perform certain roles at a minimum standard, particularly in certain repertoire. Depending on the work, this number could be as low as 10. And, to speak of physicality, often these performers are closer to 40 than they are to 20. And to be sure, this business has always had it’s share of larger people. This is not solely regarding weight. A great many people are simply large - tall, broad individuals unsurprisingly found to be fairly decent at noise-making. And that doesn’t even begin to address the issue of pants-roles and trying to squeeze women into the shape of an adolescent male. But there is also no denying that the opera world has become more competitive.
There are a good deal more singers coming from other parts of the world, even just to consider the numbers from Asia and Africa, where previously there had been almost none in the earlier parts of the 20th century and before. And these greater numbers mean greater competition. Advancements in theatrical innovation and increasing demands for serious acting chops from the performers have combined to create a more interesting and more engaging theatrical experience than many of the vocally splendid but otherwise park-and-bark theater experiences of decades past (are we honestly suggesting that we should go back to that?) And the greater numbers of performers available for all but the hardest rep means that if you don’t find certain elements in one artist, you may yet find them in another, just as eager for hire. And this has raised the bar for performers in general if they hope to be hired.
Additionally, I think it is an odd contradiction to suggest (as it often has been) that opera singers are the most athletic of vocalists, and then to offer arguments which imply that physical condition is irrelevant and absurd to bring up. I say this admitting that of course physical health and aesthetic appearance are two different things, but it did present an interesting dichotomy regarding the physicality of a career vocalist.
Nevertheless, a fear is expressed that the other elements will outstrip the singing when it comes to the question of casting. But is this the death of opera? Not likely. If opera dies, I very much doubt this will be the cause of it. As my wife remarked, nobody is yet calling for Katherine Jenkins to sing at Glyndebourne after all, so circumstances aren't so dire. But as much as these realities need expression and we can’t reasonably expect many Isoldes to look like they are 18, there is a notion going around that is as sympathetic and ardent as it is false, and I really don’t think it is helpful in the end.
In defense of ill-treated singers, many proclaim that opera is about the voice, period.
I think this is false; demonstrably so. This is an easy sentiment, and frankly I find it unfair. Opera is not only about the voice. Some such premise might more easily be argued about concert work perhaps, though I am left wondering what the Dichterliebe might sound like sans pianist.
Being the husband of a pianist and having been staff at opera houses, I think that such a cavalier statement about opera being “about the voice” is a little too blithely dismissive of the production staff, the design staff, the director, the costume department, all of whom should stand as a reminder that this is indeed a theatrical endeavor. And that is to say nothing of the other musicians. The hardworking musicians in the pit, and the conductor at the helm, all work hard to present the music along with the singers. And frankly I think there is a far better argument to be made that it's really all about the work, the piece; and the voice, like all the other elements is merely a vehicle for sharing the music and story with the audience.
To be perfectly honest, I think that this view of the voice being the dominant factor, as defensive as it is of hardworking performing artists, can actually add to the already sometimes overwhelming pressure that so many performers feel (this being another reason that I find the incredible support of these singers’ colleagues so encouraging and touching).
For my part, as a teacher, I think that it is my job to remind students of the components and factors of the business. And I think that one element is health - Health of mind AND body -This does not mean being skinny, but it does mean caring for your body as the home to your voice. Do that as best you can, offer your audience and colleagues the best you have, remember you are almost always part of a team putting the work together, and support one another. I am very glad to see that the latter has happened here.
I think that this business is hard. Yes, critics have a job to do, and no, no one needs it to turn nasty like it did. Hopefully this outcry will make for more diplomatic efforts from critics in the future. Nevertheless, offering a poor argument helps no one. This job involves a person physically appearing before an audience, and we know this. This is not radio, after all. These are not things which we can afford to give zero consideration, and to be honest, we don’t. Singers in tuxes or glamorous dresses at galas belie this fact. At base, we all know it is a performing art. So let's not profess something that none of us actually believe.