THE BLOG
05/27/2014 12:54 pm ET Updated Jul 27, 2014

Postscript: Opera Criticism in a Modern World

I know, the topic is so exhausted by now that even a triple espresso flavored Red Bull couldn't revive it. But after I had three different international news outlets contact me, a random mezzo on the Upper West Side who was busy studying music and changing diapers, and ask me to come speak on television and radio about the whole matter, I had to ask myself -- what in the world just happened and why?

Just in case you have been hiding under a rock where there's no internet, here's a recap; Young talented woman plays aristocratic young man in new opera production at Glyndebourne, critics uniformly criticize her as looking wrong for the role while simultaneously saying she sang it wonderfully, opera world freaks out, critics freak out back, social media explodes, national and international news cycle picks up story and craziness ensues. Interestingly, nobody seemed to really understand exactly what was going on. In the first interview I did, the guy basically asked "why shouldn't she be criticized for this -- shouldn't opera singers look their parts?" while the second interviewer asked, "why did the critics care about this? Aren't opera singers known to be a little on the hefty side anyway?" And in between these two opinions there was everything from "fat shaming" to "a critics job is to critique."

Opera is such an interesting art form and it certainly elicits a great deal of passion. There was part of me that didn't want to get involved in the discussion at all because I wanted the news about it to end so that the singer in question could just forget about it and move on (I have refrained from using her name in my articles to spare her yet another google hit with her name and this topic). But at the same time, one of my main objectives by writing for this website is to bring more knowledge and perhaps appreciation to an art form that is often maligned and misunderstood in the general population. And even though this maelstrom seemed mostly contained within the industry, it sort of encapsulated one of the struggles we face; how to make the art form relevant to a modern audience without sacrificing the artistry.

So I'm left with the question: Why? Why did the critics all say a similar thing, and why did so many people become so enraged by it?

I know why it bothered me so much personally. It's because as a singer myself, I know first hand how difficult it is to read terrible words written about you. Of course, you sign up for it when you decide to become a performer, but somehow it never gets easier. And when you work so hard on your voice only to be critiqued about your body, I can only guess that it would feel worse than terrible. I was speaking to a 14 year old who is an aspiring opera singer on the phone last night and she was telling me that she already experiences debilitating stage fright.

When I asked her why she thought she got so nervous, she told me it was because she is always worried that she won't be perfect. This is a common fear among opera singers because our voices are so highly trained, we have so many things to keep in mind at once (excellent diction, remembering all our text often in a foreign tongue, supporting all the facets of vocal technique and production, making and creating artistic, stylistic and dramatic choices, and the list goes on) and we feel that if one of these elements suffers we will be failures. And then we get to the first rehearsal for a new production and we discover that the director wants us to sing while hanging from a harness, or while naked and showering (this was true for the soprano in this production in fact). We discover that the conductor doesn't think the tempo we feel comfortable with is musically viable, and wants us to sing slower or faster or louder or softer than we feel sounds good in our voices. And I didn't even get into things like rehearsal comportment, agents, PR. It's actually exhausting me even further to list all of these things.

I have sung a lot of trouser roles, and I've also sung a lot of female roles where I was taller than the person I was singing opposite. And because of this, I have seen first hand that as long as a person has a relatively normal shape, creative costuming, make-up and wigging can disguise just about anything short of how tall someone is. But if someone is "too" short, they can wear shoes that make them as many as five inches taller without anyone really knowing, if someone is a bit on the heavier side, clothing can enhance or remove curves instantly, and I was absolutely astonished the first time I went from flat chested to having the cleavage of a playboy bunny in about five seconds with a make-up brush. Bald men have beautiful heads of hair, 40 year old women are transformed into 18 year old ingenues -- opera is all about disguises both on stage and behind the scenes.

In the case of this Rosenkavalier production, there were obviously choices made to make the Octavian look the way she did, and with a director as well regarded as Richard Jones, I'm pretty sure they were considered decisions and not just "costuming errors." And yet the singer, who, especially at her tender age, certainly had no say in the matter, received the brunt of the criticism. I didn't read any reviews that said she didn't move well as a boy or that she lacked charisma or stage presence. They were all about her specific height and weight, things which could have easily been disguised if so chosen. That was the thing that made me ache for this beautiful young singer.

I understand that writing opera criticism is not an easy job. Writing itself is not easy, and distilling something as complicated as opera down to a certain number of interesting words must be quite challenging. And I don't think that the voice is the only thing that matters and that critics shouldn't be allowed to comment on the way someone looks on stage. As was reported after the fact, many audience members were making remarks along the same lines as some of the critiques. But because the journalists are professionals paid to write about the arts, I personally would like to read reviews that focused the bulk of their writing on the overall artistry of an individual, even if there may be specific attributes of the visual that distract them from that overall picture. Those can and will be mentioned -- we would be naïve to expect that they wouldn't -- but perhaps with more carefully chosen adjectives that don't sound like personal attacks, and only as part of the picture of an art form that is so incredibly complicated, has so many facets, and that requires so very much of its artists.

I guess what we can take away from all this is that opera is an art form that is both fighting to keep its tradition while trying every possible angle to compete with modern popular entertainment culture. It's a difficult journey, but one I believe will continue to endure if only because of the passion of both the artists and the audiences and yes, even the critics. Together, we all form a tender ecosystem that must work together, in spite of our differences of opinion and ways of expressing ourselves. Our common thread is our commitment to un-amplified singing and musical storytelling and so we will have to work together in order to navigate the slightly murky waters of finding a place for this art in the modern world. We can and will do it. But in the meantime I say we continue to encourage artistic excellence in whatever package it comes in so that we don't accidentally let our eyes rob us of a what could be the next great voice -- a gift not just for our ears but for our spirits.