Tuesday, June 17, 2014

After Dark, June 17, 2014

On Fat
How do performing arts deal with a growing reality
by Gaëtan L. Charlebois

A discussion that was once ridiculous has now become important. It is the one about fat and opera. A young singer, Tara Erraught, had the temerity to play in a production of Der Rosenkavalier - in a pants-role - and be, all the while overweight! There were no less than four articles in just The Guardian about this catastrophic event. First there was the male critics mentioning her weight.  Then there was an outcry. Then there was the male commentator defending the men.  Then no less than two female writers slapped the men down

The fact is - as recently as 15 years ago - this was hardly an issue. Quite simply: the voice was everything. Then, in 2004, the magnificent dramatic soprano, Deborah Voigt, could not get into a dress designed for a production at Covent Garden. She was fired. There was a hue and cry but, nevertheless, Voigt underwent gastric bypass surgery. It did not ruin her voice (one of the common mythic dangers of singers losing weight). Indeed, she turned in one of the finest Brünnhilde's I have ever heard or seen in Robert Lepage's Ring Cycle.
But the gauntlet was thrown down. Artistic directors started to hire the emerging talents who were as slim as they were talented. Moreover, the discussion about the aesthetics of opera aimed at one reality: to seduce young audiences into opera houses one could no longer rely on "the magic" of opera and, for good or ill, casting was done along the lines of a singer looking young, or slim (ie: consumptive), or even falling within vague paradigms of "loveliness". Even as colour barriers fell (no one looked twice if a black singer was playing Rigoletto or Gilda), the barriers of looks went up. In short: opera was complying with the guidelines of the rest of Western culture - film, theatre, dance. 

The present argument about this one singer is germane for the simple reason that what she looks like or weighs has very little to do with the role she was actually playing in Rosenkavalier. The comments about her were, to my mind, obscene. However, I have allowed comments about looks on this site which have angered some. When Shannon Christy mentioned Ben Heppner's appearance in his review of the COC's Tristan und Isolde, he was making a valid point (even after he was warned about possible consequences - and there were consequences). What was particularly valid about it was that it also said that if the sauce was good for the goose, the gander should not be spared.

I think we need to discuss all aspects of live performance. When do weight, colour, looks become an issue? Should they be an issue? For men? For women? For both? What is beauty? And that is the dangerous territory every commentator walks into - it's a minefield. The problem is that it is also a discussion that is often stifled by misaimed outrage that is meant to silence anyone who even wants to ask the question. If a significant part of an audience does not "believe" a performer in a role, then what?

What we see on our stages has to reflect (even with a cracked mirror sometimes) the world off stage. It's fine to dream on stage - to offer a Utopia - but by doing that blindly, one is just reminding the audience that what is before them is not real. And poetic Utopias on some stages, represent very big problems on others. 

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