In a 2010 New York Times dance review, the critic Alastair Macaulay observed that the dancer Jenifer Ringer looked in Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker” as if she had eaten “one sugar plum too many.” The response was vociferous. It helped launch Ringer to a new notoriety to which dancing alone had never led her: appearances on the “Today” show and “Oprah” and, recently, the publication of a memoir, “Dancing Through It,” which dealt not only with her performing career, but her struggles with eating disorders.
This May, another similar flap may be launching another young female performer to similar notoriety. After the premiere of a new production of Strauss’s “Der Rosenkavalier” at Glyndebourne, the hallowed British summer opera festival, no fewer than five male critics piled on the young mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught, who played Octavian, a part that requires a woman to play a teenage boy. According to the critics, Erraught was a main problem with the show. In the Telegraph, Rupert Christiansen said that she “sings with vibrant assurance and proves herself a spirited comedian. But she is dumpy of stature.” In the Financial Times, Andrew Clark expressed himself even more vividly. “Tara Erraught’s Octavian,” he wrote, “is a chubby bundle of puppy-fat.” He added, as an afterthought, “albeit gloriously sung.”
Social media is even more pervasive than it was in 2010, and the attention given to Erraught’s “Rosenkavalier” reviews, in tweets, blog posts and the international press, far outstrips anything she has gotten for her burgeoning and fairly high-level opera career. The response has fallen into several broad categories, most revisiting age-old debates.
There’s the question of what comes first in opera, words or music. On one side of this debate are those who hold that opera is a musical experience and therefore looks are not as important as sound (witness the success of extremely large singers such as Luciano Pavarotti and Montserrat Caballé). On the other are those who aver that opera is also a theatrical experience and that appearance matters. Guess what. You’re both right. I’ve been at opera performances where the staging was awful but the singing was glorious, and nothing else mattered. I’ve been at opera performances where the production was so compelling that I was willing to overlook so-so singing. These things have to be taken on a case-by-case basis. Any time you make rules about what art “has” to be, you’re doing it wrong.
There’s the question of what the critic’s role is, or should be, which rears its head in various forms every time a critic’s remarks engender controversy and always seems to me to miss the point completely. People have spent a lot of energy trashing the appearance of the critics in question, which is perhaps emotionally satisfying but irrelevant: A singer’s looks do have some bearing on his or her performance, while a critic’s emphatically do not.
And inevitably, in any argument involving critics, some people will triumphantly present two arguments they consider incontrovertible: “Could the critic himself have done it better?” and “My grandmother used to say, If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” I hear these arguments a lot and wonder what the people who present them think they are actually saying. Of course, if a critic were able to sing an opera him- or herself, criticism would be the wrong line of work, and a critic’s job is predicated precisely on considering and saying not what people will like to hear, but what needs to be said.
However, I’m not sure those are, in fact, the real issues at play there. The reason that “Taragate” has blossomed into such a focus of opinion and argument is that it encapsulates current flash points in our society: how we talk about weight and think about weight and how we look at and evaluate women and women’s bodies.
In recent weeks, the comedian Louis C.K. got national debate going by writing a role for a heavy-set woman into an episode of his TV sitcom, “Louie,” and having her go off on the protagonist about the double standard society holds for the “fat girl.” Meanwhile, under the hashtag #YesAllWomen, in response to the mass shooting in Santa Barbara, Calif., women around the world posted examples of harassment, objectification and horror stories about what it’s like to be a woman in our society. The opera world may be out of touch in some regards, but “Taragate,” alas, is right in tune with the times.
Opera, indeed, has arguably had to deal in a more upfront manner with the issue of weight than many other entertainment fields, simply because the fat singer is such an object of stereotype. Critics have been calling out heavy singers for centuries. “Short and squat, with a doughy cross face” was the 18th-century critic Charles Burney’s assessment of the diva Francesca Cuzzoni. We haven’t come far from here to a 1988 profile of the soprano Aprile Millo (by writer Lisa Schwarzbaum) that opened by describing the singer’s “short, chunky figure.”
Description has a place, and an important place, in criticism; the reviewer’s first job is to convey what it was like to be at the performance. The question is about the line at which description crosses the line into indecency and at which women are more subject to a particular kind of analysis than men are. In the case of Erraught, one decisive factor is that the singer is not, in fact, fat. Had she been obese, rather than simply curvy, I believe the press would have held its collective tongue. We’ve learned enough not to call the fat lady “fat” in her own hearing, but when she’s merely zaftig, it seems, she’s fair game.
But there’s also a disingenuous way in which male critics (and the majority of performing-arts critics are still men) protest that it is perfectly relevant to criticize a woman not for what she does, but for how she looks. John Simon, the longtime theater critic of New York Magazine, was particularly notorious for his descriptions of female actresses’ breasts and physiques, as in his famous sketch of Liza Minnelli in 1977: “the nose always en route to becoming a trunk, blubber lips unable to resist the pull of gravity, and a chin trying its damnedest to withdraw into the neck, apparently to avoid responsibility to what goes on above it. It is like any face, one that could be redeemed by genuine talent.” In short, any and all criticism is warranted if the subject of that criticism doesn’t have enough talent to deflect it.
Of course, Simon is deliberately trying to be colorful. So was Macaulay with his sugar plum quip. So are the British critics who took potshots at Erraught. So are all of us who engage in the quixotic pursuit of trying to describe performances in meaningful and evocative ways. But taking cheap shots at a woman’s body in a performance review is a form of intellectual laziness. Rather than putting in the hard work of describing what happened on stage, you focus on the equivalent of a still photograph. (Indeed, one reason that the Erraught affair has gained such traction is that you don’t have to have attended a performance to have an opinion about it.)
I will defend the right of critics to have strong opinions and unpopular opinions and to offer blunt and unflattering descriptions of performers. And I continue to aver that people would be even more upset if critics went away and there were no criticism at all. But it’s naive in a #YesAllWomen world to deny the implicit sexism of the discourse here. And to offer it is less an offense to our womanhood than to our intelligence.
“Der Rosenkavalier” will stream live on the Telegraph Web site on June 8. Availability may vary depending on location.