Opera: all about the voice?

by James M. Potter

There’s a sort of war being waged in the media right now. It concerns comments made in reviews of a new production of Der Rosenkavalier. These comments focus on the physical stature of one of the performers in a way that has been widely seen as inappropriate. Rather than weigh in on social media (much as I enjoy wading through shrill, nuance-less chunks of opinion), I thought I’d set down a few brief thoughts. Not up to date? Here’s the Telegraph, Guardian, and Arts Desk (since edited, it seems). One of the most widely reposted responses to the situation has come from celebrated mezzo Alice Coote. “OPERA is ALL about the voice […] it’s not an opinion, it’s a FACT”, she writes. But I’m not sure I can agree with her single-minded focus on the voice as the medium of opera’s power to move and delight. I think that to talk about the art form in these terms is to reduce its stature. Opera is a branch of theatre, in which people happen to sing instead of speak. We generally use the term opera to refer to a staged musical work, sung throughout (indeed, many works of musical theatre fulfil these criteria as well). Staging, costuming, direction, lighting – all these play into our experience in the theatre. If it were all about the voice, noone would go to an opera house – we would stay at home and listen to the radio (not that there’s anything wrong with that). And can any critic honestly say that they have not attended a performance where a less vocally able singer has delivered the evening’s most moving performance by virtue of astute characterisation, aided by a sympathetic staging? I know that I have.

Let’s also remember what criticism is meant to be. An exact representation of what the reader would think of a show? No. Objective? Impossible. An informed argument detailing one person’s response to a piece of art and attempting to unpack that response? Yes, ideally. The problem then is one of consistency. It is considered appropriate for a critic to make comments about staging, musicianship, direction, costumes, and the quality of the singers – all properties of the theatrical production. Are the physical properties of the actors exempt, if, as several of the critics linked above seem to think, they interfere with the dramatic capabilities of the work?

Rupert Christiansen of the Telegraph found himself in a situation where his response to the production included finding a lack of credibility in an actor’s portrayal of a character. Upon attempting to reason why this should be, he came to the conclusion that it must have been the physical appearance of the actor that gave rise to this feeling. He hit upon the rather unfortunate phrase ‘dumpy of stature’ to convey this to his readership, and went on to criticise the way in which she was costumed. Now, there are all sorts of things we could say about this. For example, that choice of words was not a happy one, to say the least. We could perhaps also infer that his dislike of the casting of Octavian was because it was not what he was used to from previous productions. We might even say that plausibility is not a particular concern of the operatic medium (ah, that’s where my can of worms got to). We certainly can’t accuse him of dishonesty – though it was surely possible to convey his meaning without being insulting to the performer concerned. I don’t believe he is a rampant misogynist, and I do believe him in his response, where he writes that he would feel similarly uncomfortable with an underproportioned Falstaff. An open mind of course allows that said Falstaff might be a revelation.

At least he tried harder than some of the others, who seemed to delight in the deployment of some really quite horrible epithets to describe the young singer. Hopefully lessons will be learned. Critics have a heavy burden of responsibility. You might argue that opera critics have more than most, in that they must be both music critics and theatre critics. They must be honest, and endeavour to be constructive, and informed. They must think carefully about how their words will be read and interpreted. They must realise that in their hands they cradle the fragile egos of young performers, and that simply by twisting a little, they could do considerable damage. After all, a cruel comment about a singer’s body can be at least as damaging as one concerning their voice.

One thing’s for sure – I really, really want to see this production for myself, and I would encourage anyone venturing an opinion on this to watch the livestream on the Telegraph’s website on June 8.