Category Archives: Body Image

The Wrong Ways to Talk About the Body-Shaming Reviews of Der Rosenkavelier

Have you been following the story about the horrendous, sexist, tasteless reviews of Tara Erraught’s performance last weekend in Der Rosenkavelier at Glyndebourne?  Of course you have, but if not, you can do some quick catching up here

Der Rosenkavelier

Tara Erraught pictured on left.

In spite of the fact this story is days old now, practically pre-historic in internet time, I have some more things to say that I can’t fit into 140 characters.  Mostly that I’m not entirely okay with the direction some of the (very-well intentioned) discussions of this issue have taken. 

Let’s have a look at each of the erroneous arguments that have been swirling around one by one, shall we?

1.  “Tara Erraught isn’t even that fat!”

This is most emphatically not the point.  Whether a singer is a little bit heavy-set, or morbidly obese shouldn’t matter if her performance is on point.  It seems to be widely agreed by Saturday night’s audience, and the cruel critics who railed against Erraught’s appearance, that her performance of the role of Octavian was, vocally and dramatically, excellent.  These stick-in-the-mud, middle-aged, white dudes, found it hard to believe that a woman as tall and thin and beautiful as Kate Royal’s Marschallin would fall in love with an Octavian that looked like Erraught.  This perpetuates the kind of bullshit thinking that leads to tales of karmic justice like this one  and the supremely frustrating phenomenon of men who love big women, feeling ashamed of their preference and trying to deny it or hide it. 

In case you didn’t realilze it, here’s the truth:  Women can love short and/or fat men.  Men can love fat and/or tall women.  It happens every day in the real world.  It doesn’t happen nearly enough in the movies, or on TV, or even in opera.

2.  “Skinny people aren’t as good at singing as fat people!”

Even though I adore Alice Coote, and respect her as one of the most intelligent singing actresses in opera today, this is a fairly problematic argument for several reasons.  First, it plays into the super annoying, never-ending discussion about how opera is being “revived” with a generation of young, hot, singers, which I belive to be utter bullshit.

Secondly, I’m not entirely sure I agree.  I’ve seen very thin singers put out lush, theater-filling sounds just as often as I’ve seen fat singers with lighter voices. 

And what about thin singers whose size has changed?  The terrible saga of Deborah Voigt’s weight loss surgery is well documented.  And what about Anna Netrebko’s weight fluctuations?  Does her move into more dramatic repertoire have to do with her new voluptuous figure, or is it a natural maturing of the voice that comes with age?

I think Jenny Rivera put it best on this week’s Opera Now! podcast when she said that a singer is at his or her best when their body is in its natural state.  That is, if you are someone who is naturally thin, then being thin probably won’t harm your singing, but if you’re someone who is naturally a little more meaty, then, in my opinion, pushing yourself with intense dieting and exercising to look like a model might have a less than desirable effect on your voice.  Basically, opera singers need to be healthy and strong, two words that are not necessarily in my mind synonymous with either fat or thin, in order to be able to perform the vocal athletics that our art form calls for.

3.  “The original Octavian was also zaftig.  That’s how Strauss/Hoffmansthall would have   wanted it!”

What if I said, “Verdi never intended for La Traviata’s doctor to be lurking silent on stage througout the entire opera, calling Violetta’s attention to a giant clock that is ticking down to the end of her life!”? (I know I reference that production constantly, but it is just my favorite, okay?)  My point by saying that is this:  Richard Jones’ interpretation of Der Rosenkavelier for Glyndebourne was hardly what you’d call “traditional,” so it is fallacious to apply the kind of curmudgeonly anti-regie arguments that get used so often to lament the increasing popularity of so called “eurotrash” opera productions.  Opera is a living, breathing, evolving art form, and we should keep experimenting with new takes on our favorite works, whether that means Valkyries on motorcycles, Gilda stuffed in the trunk of a Cadillac, or (gasp!) an Octavian who isn’t tall and thin.

When Tara Erraught went onstage as Octavian last weekend, she didn’t look the way some critics expected an Octavian to look, that is, tall and thin.  But why should she?  She is not Joyce DiDonato or Susan Graham, she is Tara Erraught bringing her own interpretation to the role as Richard Jones directed it.  Do we really want to live in a world where every Octavian (or Marschallin, or Sophie, or, for that matter, Mimi, Aida, Siegfried, or Peter Grimes) looks or even sounds like a cookie-cutter cut out of the one that came before?  Art is about exploring possibilities.  It’s about imagining a world that could be, or a world that can’t be, or a world that we hope will never be, or even the world exactly as it is.  But it certainly isn’t about fitting in to a prescribed notion from some stuck-up opera critic about how it it ought to be.

Finally, to Terra Erraught and the fat and thin and tall and short and dumpy and black and white and latina and asian and gay and straight and trans opera singers of the world, I dedicate this song to you:

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How my Body Issues are Negatively Affecting My Singing

Hint:  Not in the Way You Might Expect . . .

Relax and breathe!”

My voice teacher has said these words to me a thousand times.  Sometimes it’s, “Relax and breathe!” and sometimes its “Relax and Breathe!” 

The funny thing about studying something as finely detailed as classical singing is that your teacher can say the same thing over and over again until finally one day you suddenly understand what she means.

“Relax and breathe.  Relax your belly and breathe!”  She said, and with the addition of those two extra words it hit me. 

You see, as a woman, a kind of big woman, a woman whose body tends to store extra weight front and center, a woman who has on at least one occasion been mistaken for pregnant, I have trained myself to “suck it in.”  My default, as I go about my day, is to hold my abdominal muscles in a way that pulls my belly as much as possible in toward my spine so that it appears slimmer.

I never realized that this was holding my singing back.  In the privacy of my teacher’s studio, I allowed myself to consciously relax my “suck it in” muscles and let my gut out.  I inhaled.  I sang the phrase again.  It was stronger, cleaner, and easier.  It was a major revelation.

And I realized, that I’ve got a major hang-up to get over if I want to be able to sing well.  If I’m going to release those muscles in order to take a decent singer’s breath, I’m going to have to learn how to not be ashamed of my pot belly, something I’ve been trying to hide for my entire life.  Even when I’ve been at my thinnest, I still felt like I had a bit of a gut.  But when I let go of it the difference it made in my singing is undeniable.

I don’t know what it’s going to take to feel comfortable enough to “let it all hang out.” I don’t think of myself as a woman who hates  her body.  I’m generally pretty comfortable in my skin, and I have learned how to find clothes that are flattering, and I own more than one pair of Spanx.  I’m rather proud of my breasts, I’ve got great hair and I often get compliments on my complexion.  I’m not model-thin, but I’m not huge either, and I’m healthy.  I’ve just got this one issue.

I think the first step is just to make a habit of releasing when I’m alone in the practice room.  Maybe then, that habit will unconsciously carry over to the concert hall.

 

“I Wanted to be Beautiful. I didn’t Want to be Judged.”

Opera Singer Lucy Schaufer Discusses her Experience of Performing Nude

Have you ever had one of those dreams where you’re just going about your business, only you realize that you’re naked?  It’s supposed to be one of those universal dream scenarios, and is often rooted in deep anxiety about exposing ourselves, physically or otherwise.

And it’s sort of a funny thing, because we humans are really the only animals on earth that feel the need to cover up.  Clothing was probably invented out of necessity to protect ourselves from the cold or from the sun, but now in modern society, most of us only feel comfortable disrobing in the most intimate of situations, or in a place secluded from the opposite sex.

Then again, in an age where a great deal of value is placed on achieving a certain physical ideal, we are bombarded with images of extraordinarily beautiful (often impossibly so–Link NSFW) naked or nearly naked bodies.  They are mostly women’s bodies, but men’s too.  In the interest of realistically portraying certain scenarios in drama, it’s not too unusual for performers to be asked to disrobe.

As a performer myself, one who might like to sing Strauss’s Salome one day, I wondered what it must be like to appear nude, on stage, in front of an actual audience, an audience of both women and men.  I’ve written before about how annoying the talk of body issues has become in Operaland, but when it comes to singing in your birthday suit, it feels like a whole other thing.  I read this lovely essay by actress Louise Brealey about the time she did a bit of naked acting in a play called Trojan Women, but I wanted an opera singer’s perspective.  Mezzo-soprano Lucy Schaufer was very kind to share with me her experience of appearing nude twice(!) in the 1997 world premier of Hopper’s Wife at Long Beach Opera.

Lucy Schaufer as Ava in Hopper's Wife

Lucy Schaufer as Ava in Hopper’s Wife.  Photo by Keith Polakoff.

The opera explores the relationship of “high art” and “low art.”  In it, Schaufer sang the role of Ava, fashioned after Hollywood Golden Age actress Ava Gardner, who models for an artist, Hopper, in the opera. “As it was in the context of posing for a painting, it felt substantiated.” Schaufer told me, “The character of Hopper appeals to Ava’s inner beauty, saying she has ‘roses inside her’ and speaks of her ‘bloom’ – she buys it hook, line and sinker.”

In another scene, Schaufer sang an aria which describes performing sexual favors in order to get ahead in Hollywood, from a bath tub and, in her words, “Ended my aria standing in the bath tub, starkers with bubbles dripping off my nipples!”  That moment, according to a reviewer from the Orange County Register, “deserves a place in the operatic hall of fame.”

Now, when an opera singer prepares a new role, there’s a lot of work to be done on music, language, character development, etc., but for this role, Schaufer had a bit more to think about:

“I swam a bit, not much, and mostly worried about getting pimples on my back! Vanity, vanity, vanity.  Also, how to handle or not to handle pubic hair in this situation.  Set in the 1940s, well, a girl wouldn’t exactly wax it down to a Brazilian, would she?  Therefore, how au naturel does one go?  What is “comfortable” as far as how to protect your bits from wiggling in the wind when you’re naked, standing in 3 inch heels on a steeply raked stage.  Turn up stage and you’re gonna be winking at the audience.  I don’t mean to be crude but anatomy is anatomy.”

Having a fit, and well-groomed body is one thing,  but in a society where we’ve been trained to cover our bodies pretty much from birth, there can be another hurdle to get over. “I had a whole row of family out there watching this show,” said Schaufer, “My parents, my aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews, nieces – and it’s a strict Catholic family!  So shame was a personal issue I needed to conquer.”

But Schaufer found that her sense of duty to the production overrode that shame. “I didn’t want to be a sissy or a problem.  Get on with it and do it.  Courage!”

And with that, Schaufer took on the issue of getting herself used to it, and getting the rest of the cast and crew used to working with a naked woman.

“In rehearsal I selected the prettiest matching bra and panty set I had.  These were special and that’s what I went down to every time.  Then I bared all in the stage and orchestras.  Final 3 or 4 rehearsals.  First of all, in order to help the crew know how warm the bath had to be so I didn’t catch a chill, and then for the orchestra to get used to the fact that I was naked so they weren’t distracted.  You’d think it wouldn’t be a big deal but it’s like a car crash: you can’t help but look.  Same for my colleagues.  It is only a 3-hander but still, Ava has a whole conversation with Mrs. Hopper while in the tub and at one point I decided to flash her my crotch (covered in bubbles, of course) but she needed an opportunity to know what that was like so it didn’t throw her.  The more you do it, the more integrated the performance and the reaction belongs to the character, not the actor.”

Now, it seems like whenever you have live theater with nudity, the nudity itself can become the headline (and it is now occurring to me that this blog entry might be part of the problem).  Schaufer didn’t necessarily find that was the case with Hopper’s Wife, but one review of the production began by cautioning potentially sensitive opera-goers about the show’s nudity, pornography and…tobacco smoke?  Ok, whatever, but Schaufer did mention her frustration with the media’s obsession with nudity and sex, “I want the choice of being nude on stage or in film to be a question of the story telling, so I wish the media/PR people would get their collective heads out of their sometimes small-minded arses and stop sensationalising the beauty of the human body in order to drum up ticket sales.”

I asked Schaufer to touch on how performing in the buff might be different for a woman for a man,and she pointed out that there is a bit of a gender gap.  “We women have been objectified for so long that it’s not so much of a ‘big deal’ – we don’t see men’s penises on stage very often.”  She referenced the 2012 movie The Sessions, in which Helen Hunt plays a sex therapist who works with a man paralyzed by polio, played by John Hawkes:  “look at Helen Hunt’s performance in The Sessions – she’s full frontal.  Not so much John Hawkes, because that would have tipped it from an R rating to an X, I bet,” she suggested, “Again – not equal footing in the eyes of ‘censors’ or the law.  Infuriating and it adds layers of emotional baggage and garbage which doesn’t belong.”

Throughout the discussion, Schaufer seems to be of the opinion that nudity is a tool that can and should serve art and story telling, and perhaps we should all just be adults about it. ” We have no issue or giggle fest when we contemplate a nude in an art gallery.  We observe our common humanity.  So grow up and allow us to embrace all we are, wrinkles, lumps, bumps and boobs.”

She also noted that every performer confronted with disrobing on stage will surely have his or her own reservations about it, “full frontal for both men and women is personal decision.  Respect and dignity for all, please,”  before going on to explain how she felt about her decision:

“If I am totally honest and withhold nothing from you:  I was scared that someone might think I wasn’t pretty, that I wasn’t attractive.  Now, I’m not sure how much of that was me or Ava – probably both, but in the end, it is Ava’s story because that moment of “release” is all she has to hold on to in the years that follow.  Now, I want to be perfectly clear that I, me, Lucy didn’t want to be desired sexually when I was standing there naked.  I wanted to be beautiful.  I didn’t want to be judged.  So yes, scared, nervous, but I’m damn proud I over came any worries, delivered what was asked of me and accepted the challenge I had set myself when agreeing to sing the role.  I had said YES: I stepped through a barrier, a personal barrier which led to a sense of freedom of mind and body.”

Edward Hopper's "High Noon"

Edward Hopper’s “High Noon”

 

Be sure to visit http://lucyschaufer.com/  for all the latest from Lucy!

Can we please stop talking about singers and body image?

Yesterday, Classical Singer sent out an e-mail blast requesting responses to a “Health Survey.”  I opened the e-mail knowing that health is very important to singers, who are constantly worried about catching colds, managing reflux, and all kinds of other issues which can affect our singing.  Tenor Jonas Kaufmann recently made headlines when he said that he avoids shaking hands with his fans because eeew!  Germs!

But when I read the survey questions for the article that Classical Singer appears to be planning, I groaned:

– Has the desire to lose weight led you to make unhealthy choices
(i.e. binge/purge, starve yourself, over exercise, use diet pills,
laxatives, fad diets, extreme dieting, etc.)?
– If so, what measures did you take?
– Did those choices affect your singing? If so, how?
– Do you feel that pressures within the singing industry to look a
certain way contributed to your behavior? If so, how?
– Have you ever received treatment for an eating disorder?
– If so, what type of treatment? Was it helpful?

Really, Classical Singer?  Another article about singers with body image issues?  Surely I’m not the only person in Operaland who wants to claw her eyes out every time the whole Fat Singer/ Skinny Singer thing is brought up?

What I hate is that everyone wants to make it seem like this is a new problem for opera singers.  “In the age of HD telecasts, singers have to look the part,” headlines proclaim.  Admittedly, ever since Anna Netrebko first danced on a sofa in a now iconic little red dress, becoming the poster child for a new wave of young, hot opera singers in the 21st century!!!, the furor over body issues among singers has grown, but let’s not forget that sixty years ago Maria Callas was famously rumored to have swallowed a tapeworm in order to go from
    to

Quite frankly, this isn’t a new issue for any woman anywhere, whether she’s a singer or a movie star or an accountant.  Women have always been pressured by society to conform to socially accepted standards of beauty, and they’ve always gone to extreme measures to do so.  Just ask any women’s studies major.

And, yes, it needs to stop.

But if I wanted to read yet another feature about a singer who lost huge amounts of weight, or struggled with anorexia, or was pressured to undergo gastric bypass surgery only to be told after she lost the weight that her singing just isn’t what it used to be, then I’d pick up last month’s issue of Classical Singer, or the one before that, or a recent issue of Opera News, or I’d read Norman Lebrecht’s obnoxious blog.

Now there is one article about singers and body image that I think may still need to be written.  I noticed in the last few weeks that some of my gay friends have been sharing links to articles about body image, eating disorders, etc. among gay men.  In light of the opera world’s “barihunk”  obsession, a piece about men who are going to extremes in order to look like Nathan Gunn or Keith Miller would be an interesting read.

Especially when you consider that women are so often told that they can’t be a believable MiMi if they don’t look like Mirella Freni, while, after a several generations of sitcoms have shown America that beautiful women always fall for fat slobs, Rodolfo so often still looks like Ramon Vargas.