If This Woman is Fat, Then So Am I

It’s probably inadvisable to keep putting up these diary-like posts, but body image and the shame associated with it are not anything therapists will actually talk to you about. All they will do is give you pills because it must be a “chemical imbalance” because this isn’t a “real” issue. Still, I find the subject almost impossible to escape. At the same time I feel guilt and shame, shame on top of shame, for even being concerned about it. I say to myself, “People are starving in the world how can you possibly worry about being too un-thin.”

I’m going to use the word “un-thin” because it’s important to recognize that I’m not talking about a health issue but an aesthetic one. I haven’t weighed myself in a while because it makes me feel bad, but since my clothes fit the same way I can pretty much assume my weight hasn’t changed much over the past couple of years, which means that I’m just a little bit above the top of the recommended weight on the doctor’s height/weight chart. In fact, I might be an ideal weight in terms of life expectancy. I’ve be criticized in the comments for calling myself “dumpy”, but I think that’s the most accurate description to give readers an idea. I’m not fat and I happen to be short and only have average curves, so I’m not curvy or zaftig.

I’m wondering how much withdrawing from the world is necessary to keep myself on an even keel, at least for a few days until I feel better. Anyway, today I came across an article about an opera singer. I happen to like opera. I can’t sing myself. I have volume, but there’s something about my voice that is just ugly. Too deep for a woman and a little gravely. Actually, I sound a lot like Marianne Faithfull. The first time I went to see an opera I was just amazed that sounds like that can come out of a human body. I was totally and utterly enchanted. I haven’t seen half as many operas as I would like because it’s entertainment for a class to which I wasn’t born, and now I live in a town without an opera company. I used to like the New York City Opera and am incredibly saddened by its closure. Its audience has been driven out of the city by rising rents. On the one hand, it might have been inadvisable to click on an article with “sexism” in the title, but it also had the words “opera singer” in the title.

As anyone who’s read my last few posts knows, I’ve had a great deal of difficulty lately with a low sense of self-worth. I should mention that it is not my own set of values that is the primary problem but the sense of occupying a low space on the social hierarchy. My psychiatrist doesn’t understand why I care what other people think. It seems to me that that’s more than a bit myopic on his part and an easy thing to say for a man who occupies a fairly enviable position in his profession. However, as I see it, human beings are social animals. Our location in the social hierarchy is integral to our sense of well-being. This is a cruel fact, but a fact nonetheless. However, we have multiple, overlapping social environments. We go to work or school, sometimes both. We have lovers and friends. We have our families. Frequently we have other groups to which we belong due to our interests. We may be low in one environment, but high in another. While we may feel devalued by the broader society, we may at the same time feel highly valued by our friends and families which offsets that. I’ve complained quite a lot about my social isolation. Needless to say, I don’t have those friends that can make you feel valued despite feeling devalued by the larger society.

I haven’t had a boyfriend in a few years, but I’ve stopped trying to meet men. Although I know that I’m not so heavy that no men would find me attractive, most ways that I can think of to meet people put me in a position in which I have to open myself to emotionally difficult exchanges. A few years ago, back when I had a profile on a dating site, a man wrote and asked me my weight. I wrote back, “135 pounds.” He was no longer interested. This is of course just one example that happened to be very clear. I got quite a few inquiries that asked about my weight, my body shape, how recent my photos were. In fact, I never put up photos that were more than a year old, however I was accused of lying about that. If these questions were coming from hunky men with whom I had nothing in common, it would be less discouraging. Frequently, these were the obsessions of men older than I was who had put similar interests in their profiles. It all just reinforced the sense that a woman’s only value lies in her appearance.

When I bring up my sense of worthlessness as it relates to my appearance and weight to therapists, they recommend dieting and exercise, as if that wouldn’t have occurred to me. What I would like it to develop a sense of self-worth that isn’t as fragile, that a change of ten pounds in one direction or another can have such a significant effect. Yet, try as I might, my self-esteem seems to be closely linked to my appearance, particularly my weight. For that reason, there was something especially discouraging about seeing the article about Tara Erraught.

A young woman in a sweatsuit.

Tara Erraught

Opera singers are rare people. It requires a combination of both natural abilities and lots of hard work. Acting, to use another performing art as a way of contrast, requires mainly hard work. A great many people have the natural prerequisites, so requiring an actor to be both capable and handsome is not a tall order. Even still, given the chance to see a good-looking bad actor and an ugly good actor, I’ll opt for the latter, however we don’t often have to make that choice. In Opera, frequently we do.

Two photos of Deborah Voigt, one very heavy and another about average.

Deborah Voigt before and after gastric bypass surgery.

There’s been a growing complaint about opera becoming more focused on looks and less concerned with ability since Deborah Voigt was fired by the Royal Opera House in London for not looking the way the director would like in “a little black dress.” At the time, Anthony Tommasini wrote:

The Royal Opera is not just replacing one of the leading dramatic sopranos of the day with a little-known German singer (Anne Schwanewilms). It is replacing the greatest living interpreter of this demanding Strauss role. Ms. Voigt first came to attention in a 1991 production of ”Ariadne auf Naxos” with the Boston Lyric Opera. I was there. Her triumph was total. The audience was awestruck.

Furthermore, as Joshua Kosman wrote in SFGate,

It isn’t just that Voigt is one of the great lyric-dramatic sopranos of our time, and that Ariadne is her signature role — though that alone should have sufficed. San Francisco audiences have to think back no further than the fall of 2002 to recall how stupendous Voigt can be in the part.

It’s that Voigt’s artistry encompasses more than just a magnificent set of pipes. She’s a superb singing actress — expressive, responsive, witty and deeply intelligent. And although she’s overweight, she moves onstage with utter elegance and poise.

However, in that  same article Kosman also says:

Have we really reached the point where only the slim or the beautiful (the two terms are far from synonymous) need apply? Does artistic prowess now count for less than comeliness? Must every other consideration be subsumed to the visual?

Well, no — although some of the rhetoric that has been thrown around recently has tended toward such apocalyptic extremes.

No sudden apocalypse perhaps, but rather a creeping change.

Tomassini, in discussing the implications of Baz Luhrmann’s Broadway production of La Bohème in 2002, traces the beginning of this trend to a much earlier date:

The operating assumption of this [Luhrmann’s] approach is that opera remains an anachronistic performing art, in which tubby singers who can hardly move portray young heroes and tubercular heroines. Even in Ms. Tebaldi’s day, this was an unfair generalization. The visual component of opera has increased in importance since the late 1970’s, when live television broadcasts from the Met started attracting millions of viewers. Today, opera houses routinely recruit bold directors from theater and film (like Mr. Luhrmann), and many younger singers are as beholden to personal trainers as to vocal coaches.

The article is worth reading in its entirety. However, it should be noted that this attempt to make opera appeal to a broader audience in fact lost money, so the notion that audiences actually would prefer beautiful singers and would result in opera becoming a popular art form is not necessarily correct.

Deborah Voigt underwent gastric bypass surgery, lost over one hundred pounds and was allowed to appear before English audiences.

Now, a decade later, a new scandal has erupted over another opera singer and her weight, in another opera by Strauss performed in England, no less. This time it’s Tara Erraught who sang the role of Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier at the Glyndebourne Festival, an opera festival in East Sussex, England. This time, it wasn’t the director who complained of her weight. She did perform. It was the critics who complained. Andrew Clements writing for The Guardian, Michael Church in the Independent, The Telegraph‘s Rupert Christiansen and Andrew Clark in the Financial Times were all far more concerned with her appearance than with her voice. The photograph of Erraught accompanying the Salon article showed only her face. My morbid curiosity immediately made me search for other images of her. Scroll down her Facebook page where she has posted many pictures of herself. It’s not an apocalypse, but it is a creep. Erraught appears to me to be no less thin now than Deborah Voigt after her gastric bypass surgery, possibly thinner. It would seem to me that the standards for women opera singers’ appearance have gotten stricter.

This distresses me on a few different levels, not the least of which is what this could mean for opera if these critics are taken seriously by the people who run opera companies.

In an attempt to be fair to the critics, I did read their actual reviews. The complaint about Erraught’s appearance seemed least jarring in the review in The Guardian, probably because the critic seemed to be unenthused about the production overall, calling it “brittle and sometimes mechanically shallow, with real emotion in short supply.” Also, by using the phrase “this stocky Octavian” it seems less a criticism of Erraught’s body than of the way the overall portrayal of the character, perhaps including the costuming choices as well. I have to say that I was at least as jarred by the compliment paid to Kate Royal’s physique as I was to the criticism of Erraught’s.

A woman in costume sitting in a chair.

Margarethe Siems who first performed the role of the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier. “Royal looks very much the 30-something Marschallin that Strauss and Hoffmannstahl envisaged but is too rarely seen onstage.”

Kate Royal

With or without her clothes, Royal looks very much the 30-something Marschallin that Strauss and Hoffmannstahl envisaged but is too rarely seen onstage. And it’s hard to imagine this stocky Octavian as this willowy women’s plausible lover.

Royal’s physique is relevant since the production opens with her full frontal nudity, a bit of staging that was very appreciated by Rupert Christiansen in the Telegraph.

Richard Jones’ staging of Der Rosenkavalier shows us a garishly wallpapered empty room with an alcove, where the Marschallin stands in a cockle-shell bath, tastefully nude and showered by golden rain – a Botticelli goddess of beauty, at once alluring and forbidding, holding Octavian in rapture.

At this point Jones wonderfully encapsulates both the sublimity and vulgarity of the opera: it’s a startling but enchanting moment, charged with the music’s slippy, voyeuristic eroticism as well as a brilliant coup de théâtre.

He notes, in the creepy preceding sentence, that the recently deceased George Christie “was a keen aficionado of the female form.” This is the kind of statement that has made me want to wear nothing but potato sacks ever since I was old enough to understand the intense and disturbing judgement of one’s body made by such “aficionados.” A form is not a person. It also left me wondering why Christie didn’t dump opera for exotic dancing. Christiansen’s criticism of Erraught’s physique seems all the more jarring because he seems to have enjoyed the production.

The other problem is Tara Erraught’s Octavian. There is no doubt of the talent of this young Irish mezzo, based in Germany, who sings with vibrant assurance and proves herself a spirited comedian. But she is dumpy of stature and whether in bedroom déshabille, disguised as Mariandel or in full aristocratic fig, her costuming makes her resemble something between Heidi and Just William. Is Jones simply trying to make the best of her intractable physique or is he trying to say something about the social-sexual dynamic?

How good could the production be if one of the leads is so bad, one wonders.

It would certainly be legitimate for someone to comment if a singer was miscast in a role, yet how much does appearance play in determining whether or not the singer is appropriate? I hope I will be pardoned for turning to Anthony Tomassini again. Regarding the earlier scandal with Deborah Voigt and The Royal Opera House he wrote:

The Royal Opera would seem to have forgotten the most basic truth of the genre. Yes, opera is a form of drama. But drama in opera has never been dependent on literal reality. Great music and great voices take you to the core of the drama and the essence of the characters. Naturally it’s wonderful to hear fine opera singers who also look good and act well, and the new generation who grew up watching opera on television seems increasingly concerned with staying in shape and looking the part.

I remember being unexpectedly overcome by a student production of ”La Bohème” at the New England Conservatory in Boston, sung in English and performed in an intimate theater. The endearing young cast clearly identified with Puccini’s Parisian bohemians. They even looked a little tired and hungry, as haggard students often do.

But my first ever ”La Bohème,” a Met production that I attended as a teenager, starred Renata Tebaldi as Mimi. Ms. Tebaldi did not remotely resemble a consumptive and penniless seamstress. She looked like a pleasant, well-fed Italian lady. But her lustrous and poignantly beautiful singing was the embodiment of youthful desire, of sudden love coupled with a wariness of heartbreak.

Next week the Met introduces a new production of Strauss’s ”Salome” with Karita Mattila in the title role. Ms. Mattila, a strikingly lovely and slender woman, has apparently slimmed down even further for this role. Attractive as she is, Ms. Mattila will probably not resemble the adolescent Salome of the Bible. It won’t matter, though. Opera creates its own kind of reality. What will matter is how well Ms. Mattila sings.

 

Karita Mattila as Salome

 

I’ve included all these photos so people can see exactly what we’re talking about. I can’t help wondering, would Karita Mattila be called “strikingly lovely and slender” by English critics if she performed for the first time today? Which brings another question to my mind, it was the English who fired the American Deborah Voigt and it has been the English who have been so harsh on the Irish Tara Erraught who is currently a member of the ensemble of the Bayerische Staatsoper in Germany. I am quickly put in mind of page three girls and the strangely excessive obsession with the bodies of female celebrities running down the right hand edge of the online versions of British tabloids. Is this something specific about British culture, and should the rest of us give a damn?

I feel hesitant to jump to Erraught’s defense since I haven’t seen this production. It will be aired online on June 8, although I must admit that I enjoy opera significantly more in a theatre. Perhaps, she is wrong for the role and would be wrong for the role at any weight. However, a prominent opera singer has achieved more in his or her life than most of us ever will. If it truly comes down to her weight, then women are not valued for anything more than their bodies. A few months ago, I wrote a post about the U.K. making blocking pornographic sites on the internet the default setting. One supposed concern was gender roles. This example, that it matters not in the least what you achieve because you will always be reduced to the desirability of your body, tells girls more about their role in society than a porn flick ever could. Most people understand that a porn film is fiction. This is real. To criticize pornography while giving these critics a pass would be, as my grandfather would say, like wishing in one hand and shitting in the other.

Eva von der Osten as Octavian

Tara Erraught has a career outside of Britain. If it’s only the British who don’t want to see her perform, then I hope she says to herself, “Well, then fuck ’em.”

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