The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music poll: For sexy, how does baritone Nathan Gunn’s bare-chested and beefcake opera singing compare with Yuja Wang’s micro-skirt piano playing? | August 27, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

The enormous brouhaha over pianist Yuja Wang’s micro-skirt (below) when she played Rachmaninoff’s titanic and difficult Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the Hollywood Bowl recently continues unabated, judging by all the hits the posting received on this blog and by other follow-up stories and columns:

http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/music/la-et-concert-dress-20110820,0,4569255.story

Wang’s critics are adamant that such revealing concert attire is or can be a distraction from the music, and that it is more a marketing and PR ploy than a genuine expression of taste and artistry.

Wang’s defenders are no less adamant is proclaiming that it is perfectly acceptable and maybe even desirable that attractive young women should be able to dress as they want in performance without being the target of outrageous and sexist criticism, especially if such attire doesn’t interfere with the performance of the music.

The Ear found himself thinking: Is there a male equivalent or comparable besides, say, Liberace’s infamous and cheesy hot pants?

The closest equivalent I could come up with is the penchant for the popular young baritone and opera star Nathan Gunn – himself a looker – to keep revealing his well-built and obviously pumped up physique, especially his chest.

Check out Nathan Gunn over the past several years in these various roles:

Here is Nathan Gunn in Tobias Picker’s “An American Tragedy”:

And here he is in Benjamin Britten’s operatic version of Herman Melville’s homoerotic classic “Billy Budd”:

And here is again in Georges Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers”:

Has anyone or any major critic accused Nathan Gunn of Rated X or R gratuitous bad taste because of his penchant for beefcake singing and showing off his six-pack abs?

Not that I know of. Still, the possibility must be on somebody’s mind.

Here is The New York Times’ chief critic Anthony Tommasini defending Gunn and proclaiming: “And he sings well with his shirt on too!”

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/08/arts/music/08tomm.html

But is he protesting too much? as some might say. I think it is a simply news peg question, but you be the judge.

And here is another critic’s ruminations — along with a photo gallery of Gun shirted and unshirted — on Gunn’s bare and beautiful chest:

http://www.thestandingroom.com/blog/2004/11/search_nathan_g.html

What do you think?

Is there any applicable comparison to be made between baritone Nathan Gunn’s shirtless singing and Yuja Wang’s leggy piano playing?

The Ear wants to hear.

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Posted in Classical music

13 Comments »

  1. Nathan Gunn doesn’t sing shirtless UNLESS it is appropriate for the dramatic content of the role, and opera is an inherently visual as well as auditory medium. A shirtless male or microminiskirted female playing classical piano is just crass and distracting. Time to go listen to recordings when such crude commercialism ruins great music.

    Comment by DR — June 18, 2013 @ 6:59 pm

  2. I think it’s sad. This classical musician does not dare sit with her legs facing the audience because there just isn’t enough material on her ‘one inch from the crotch’ dress to cover her. I dare say that most guys would not want their mother, their sister or girlfriend to be so exposed inquisitive male eyes.

    I’m not saying she can’t wear something attractive. But there is a difference between attractive and slutty. The dress she is wearing you can find on any corner of the red district in America. She’s dressed like a prostitute. If you don’t believe me, Google prostitute and go to images.

    Has classical sunk so low that it now needs to imitate the vulgar and degrading fads of rock and pop? Aren’t there styles of clothing that can accentuate her femininity and yet maintain her professionalism as a classical musician? Is she desperate for attention? Is it not enough that we admire her ability to play the piano?

    The message is confusing because we don’t know if she wants appreciation for her music or her thighs and buttocks. This is beneath the dignity of classical music.

    Comment by daniel cristancho — February 5, 2013 @ 11:42 pm

    • Hi Daniel,
      Thank you for reading and replying.
      You make many good points and ask many good questions.
      But you neglect to mention that pianist Yuja Wang is indeed a very serious musician who regularly gets rave reviews.
      Don’t blame the musicians as much as the marketers, who have taken classical music down this road for a long time.
      Many labels are desperate in the current environment in which digital downloads now outnumber CDs with covers.
      And blame the public.
      Sex appeal sells!
      Just more to think about — and to regret.
      Cheers!
      The Ear

      Comment by welltemperedear — February 7, 2013 @ 8:55 am

      • Yes, you do have a point about sex selling. And of course the marketers are there to make a profit. The question I have is why such a classical musician like Ms. Wang, has to bow to their demands? A master of the piano calls the shots. Everybody caters to their whims precisely because they are masters, because the public is hungry for their performances.

        Certainly, Ms. Wang has enough clout to say no, I’ll dress in something more professional.. I’m afraid this was more her choice than the marketers. No one can be forced to do anything. And while the demands of the public are ever changing, I doubt that educated men and women, connoisseurs of the classical arts, are hungering for the slutty look on the performance stage. Again, the music should be the focus. The music speaks of elegance and taste. The musicians should dress accordingly. I cannot help but think that Ms. Wang has done a disservice to her profession.

        Comment by daniel cristancho — February 7, 2013 @ 5:59 pm

  3. well, opera is a different thing from performance on a concert stage–though I LOVE the dress because it totally suits her personality and style of playing!

    Comment by Mary Gordon — August 28, 2011 @ 1:10 pm

    • and also she is , how you say, HOT in it.
      and you are right to say it matches her personality and style of playing.
      thanks for reading and replying so sensibly, mary.
      many people forget that, as the famous aesthetician and philosopher herbert marcuse pointed out in the 1960’s, beauty and eroticism are closely linked through sensuality and are inherently socially subversive and disruptive of the established order.
      yet more reasons to like art!
      best,
      jake

      Comment by welltemperedear — August 28, 2011 @ 1:36 pm

  4. Yes, I think it’s a matter of changing times. Female fashion hasn’t left a lot to the imagination, these past few seasons. I expect that a few years from now, this will be less of an issue. Of course by then, fashionable may mean covered-up!

    As far as bared chests, why not, if they’re good? Yes, it’s a bit distracting, but I agree that if the performance is a fine one, then it doesn’t really matter.

    Comment by Ann B. — August 27, 2011 @ 5:14 pm

  5. Jacob, this debate reminded me of a concert @ which I saw/heard Eileen Farrell @ NIU with the Bach Aria Group in the middle ’60s. Her voice was great but at the time she was so obese that if I were her, I’d record but avoid public performance. I sat in the front row, main floor as oboist Ray Still, cellist Bernard Greenhouse and other world class instrumentalists were part of the group and I really wanted to hear/see them up close. When Farrell started singing, she covered about the first five rows with spit. Sorta like comedian Gallagher, smashing watermelons with a post maul. I didn’t embarrass Farrell by getting up and moving but after the intermission, I enjoyed the second half of the concert from the balcony, outside Farrell’s spitting range.

    Comment by buppanasu — August 27, 2011 @ 11:05 am

    • Great anecdote, though in that case physical appearance did affect and distract from the performance.
      So you may be making the point opposite from the one you intended to make.
      Still, it is amusing and telling.
      Jake

      Comment by welltemperedear — August 27, 2011 @ 11:38 am

  6. To hear what some critics say is perhaps the best female pianist in the world play Rachmaninoff, it sure wouldn’t bother me in the least if she came on stage wearing a red mini-dress. If her musicianship, expression, technique is truly world class, I don’t really care what she does or doesn’t wear. And while I’m not an opera fan aside from some of the great overtures, if the guy wants to bare his chest and it’s anywhere near appropriate for the composition, good for him.

    Comment by buppanasu — August 27, 2011 @ 10:58 am

    • Hi Buppanasu,
      I couldn’t agree more.
      Let’s stick to the music,
      and let the peripheral issues remain peripheral, no?
      Jake

      Comment by welltemperedear — August 27, 2011 @ 11:37 am

  7. Nathan Gunn’s shirtless countenance has always been commensurate with the role he is playing. That is not the case with Yuja Wang.

    Comment by laurence — August 27, 2011 @ 12:33 am

    • Hi Laurence,
      Thanks for reading and replying.
      That is indeed one response and a seemingly sensible one.
      But if we play debate team and I play devil’s advocate,
      I would ask you:
      Do you think the composers of those operas stipulated
      that the roles be sung shirtless?
      I doubt it.
      Do you think we will see other singers perform the same roles shirtless?
      I doubt that too.
      Would you want to see many other baritones do that?
      In short, I suspect Nathan Gunn sings shirtless for the same reason Yuja Wang wears micros:
      Because they can.
      And because they do it well, without themselves becoming distracted during the performance.
      I would not want to see Luciano Pavarotti sing shirtless
      anymore than I would want to see Dame Myra Hess play in a micro-skirt.
      Besides, time marches on and fashions change — even in the world classical music.
      Let’s see what others think.
      Best,
      Jake

      Comment by welltemperedear — August 27, 2011 @ 9:37 am


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