The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: When the proverbial Fat Lady sings, is it rude and sexist to call her “fat”? The opera world continues to weigh in on critics who attacked a female mezzo for being too overweight. | June 8, 2014

By Jacob Stockinger

Perhaps you already know the simple facts of the controversy:

A number of critics lambasted a relatively unknown Irish mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught (below top) when she recently sang the role of the young, handsome and androgynous Octavian (below bottom on the left) in Richard Strauss’ extraordinarily popular and moving operaDer Rosenkavalier.”

tara erraught

tara erraught (left) as octavian

All agreed that she sang gorgeously. But being overweight, she was also criticized for short-changing the believability of the theatrical side of the opera. One critic who lauded her singing also described her as a “chubby bundle of puppy fat.”

True, The Ear can recall when superstar tenor Luciano Pavarotti (below) was criticized for being way too heavy — indeed, obese and not just overweight — and lumberingly awkward to play certain romantic leads with any creditability. But, oh, that voice!

Luciano Pavarotti

But these new critical remarks seem to cross those boundaries and veer off into gratuitous meanness and rudeness that had more than a smack of sexism and bias about them. Unless you are a top female diva, maybe women do indeed remain second-rate citizens of the opera world.


Anyway, here are links to three stories that provide good summaries of the conflict and the kerfuffle.

Be sure to read the many reader and listener comments that greeted them. They give you a feeling for the state of the art when it comes to the public’s changing standards of physical fitness for playing the dramatic or theatrical sides of opera roles.

The first is the story that NPR aired on its excellent classical music blogDeceptive Cadence”:

Then other voices in other media weighed in.

Here are responses from The New York Times chief critic Anthony Tommasini (below top) and his colleague Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim (below bottom):


Corinna da Fonseco-Wollheim

And here is another piece done by NPR that provides a kind of post-mortem following the two weeks of scandal and reactions:

Plus in all fairness, you should also listen to the intelligence, charm and vivacious energy — to say nothing of her lovely voice in singing Rossini — that Tara Erraught projects in a Lincoln Center “spotlight” profile you will at the bottom in a YouTube video.

What do you think of the criticism of her size and weight?

Have TV and films made us more literal in what we expect in the way of realistic portrayals of characters in the theatrical side of opera versus the musical side?

If you find the critical remarks about physical weight inappropriate, how and why do you think so? Do you find them sexist or genuinely biased?

And am I the only person who thinks Tara Erraught — who I am sure felt hurt by the deeply personal nature of the criticism —  might well have the last laugh from all the publicity that has brought her to the world’s attention?

The Ear wants to hear.







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  1. […] Read more here: Classical music: When the proverbial Fat Lady sings, is it rude and sexist to call her “fat”? Th… […]

    Pingback by Classical music: When the proverbial Fat Lady sings, is it rude and sexist to call her “fat”? The opera world continues to weigh in on critics who attacked a female mezzo for being too overweight. | Tinseltown Times — June 9, 2014 @ 12:35 pm

  2. Unfortunately, Christiansen and the others don’t see the cloud their recent comments cast upon their role as critics. It’s hubris on their part not to at least look. If Christiansen is still standing by “every word of what I wrote” then his self-defense is a cavalier attempt to hide what is in plain sight: His response is not one of a discerning writer who listens, but of a prickly critic. Isn’t the experience of hearing an opera the magnificent vocal conveyance of beauty and darkness, of depth, and not surface? Until these writers reach inside for the meaning of their words, what they write is surface and shallow. It may come as a surprise to them that we readers learned this by way of reading their judgments that one’s appearance precludes the way to finding meaning. Many of us don’t believe that. I hope Ms. Erraught has someone she can trust who will protect her and tell her not to listen to what sounds like NBA “trash talk” only in a lower register.

    Comment by macstred2014 — June 8, 2014 @ 2:53 pm

  3. I think Corinna’s remarks, in particular, were very perceptive. I do try to suspend disbelief when I attend an opera. Good acting, both physical and vocal, can go a long way to make a character convincing. But once in a while, I have a problem. Perhaps Erraught should not have been cast as Octavian. It made us work harder to suspend disbelief. But the British critics went way over the top; it was like a feeding frenzy.

    Comment by Ann Boyer — June 8, 2014 @ 7:54 am

  4. Reprehensible. Americans have only gotten more boorish since Oscar Wilde’s visit in 1882, when he wrote “I believe the most serious problem for the American people to consider is the cultivation of better manners. It is the most noticeable, the most principal, defect in American civilization.” Of course she’s hurt.

    Comment by slfiore — June 8, 2014 @ 6:35 am

  5. these articles kept me rapt. Thanks for following up! Bev

    Comment by Beverly Taylor — June 8, 2014 @ 1:33 am

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