Big-boned and thick-skinned

When Irish mezzo Tara Erraught was hauled unceremoniously over the coals by critics for her physicality while performing the role of Octavian at Glyndebourne’s production of Der Rosenkavalier, it baffled and angered hundreds of opera singers and fans. What on earth does your body size have to do with how well you can sing?

As a teenager, I, along with countless dozens of others, memorised the words to all the New Kids on the Block’s singles, and yes, I desired (but never got) a device for making my hair look like crinkle-cut chips (I would borrow my friends’). But I soon began to observe a phenomenon among my female classmates: they were becoming obsessed with how they looked. They would huddle in groups and read the fashion mags and long to look like Kylie, Demi and Nicole, and they’d go to great culinary and chemical lengths to try to achieve a similar level of whatever it was. Their levels of self-esteem seemed to correspond with their ability to look like someone else.

I thought it was all rather odd; these girls were making themselves miserable because they lacked the resources, both financial and genetic, to make themselves look like their idols. It dawned on me that, along with the advice my parents would give when being bullied for being ginger, if you ignore it, it might just go away.

So I ignored it, and went off to choir practice.

But it didn’t go away.

Over twenty years later, and I’m saddened to see articles that STILL try to tell us women how we should look in order to be attractive. Magazines that STILL reveal the “circle of shame” of some celebrity’s cellulite (heaven forfend); the comedian Sarah Millican having abuse thrown at her for recently wearing a dress to the BAFTAs that she liked and felt good in, and countless other citations. Who ARE these people? Does it make them feel better about themselves to hurl abusive comments around?

I’m fat. I’m 5’8″ and a size 18. I’m not expected to fit in society’s version of what hot. I sometimes wear cut-off leggings under a summer dress because my thighs rub when I walk. I sweat when the temperature goes above 21 degrees. But wait. What’s this? I’m voluptuous. I’m womanly. I AM hot. My boyfriend can’t get enough of me.

More importantly, I work in an industry that celebrates the most natural thing a person can possess: the human voice. The voice, whether it’s in pop, rock, jazz or opera, can enhance and transcend the five senses we use to observe the world around us. It transforms, heals, comforts and uplifts us far beyond the ability to squeeze into a dress better suited to a slightly tall child.

There are more than enough industries set up around the world to make women feel bad about themselves. We don’t need it in the classical music world too, thank you very much.

So, critics, if you really MUST criticise us (and goodness knows why you should even do that in the first place), then please take the time to learn what it takes to hone our craft. Understand that the training we do is sadly not on offer at Virgin Active. If it’s the case that you simply don’t like the sound we make, just say you don’t like the sound we make. That’s entirely valid. But don’t make sexist and puerile remarks about our figures; at best, it’s childish, and at worst (for you), it dilutes the currency of everything else you have to say.

PING! Ooh, there’s the microwave.

39 replies
  1. Christine Marsden
    Christine Marsden says:

    Wonderful! You are truly beautiful and I mean that in the sense of your personality. I want to hear you sing and will seek out your voice because you have something to say and to sing! XX Christine (still singing & teaching & not as young or as slim as I used to be!!)

    Reply
  2. Shannon Whidden
    Shannon Whidden says:

    What an unfortunate and antiquated approach to opera these particular critics apparently have. Personally, I think Ms. Erraught is beautiful – in every sense the word can convey…vocally, physically…a beautiful human being.

    Reply
  3. Nancy Smiralia
    Nancy Smiralia says:

    Thank you, Elizabeth to have the courage to speak out to simple minded people who obviously have a great deal to learn about real beauty and art. I have never had the opportunity of hearing you sing, but right after this I will seek you out on youtube. I can’t wait! I have always envied ” gingers” as you call yourself. You truly are an inspiration to all of us larger then a size 1. You are determined, bright, witty, and talented beyond measure to be able to sing opera. God bless you and now I’m off to listen to your lovely voice.

    Reply
  4. Bronek
    Bronek says:

    Well, a membership at Virgin Active would not cut it anyway – if you have so much time and consider wasting some, do it so it either gives you some tangible fitness benefits, OR, so that you really enjoy it 🙂 Being this or that, in terms of fitness, look, etc is, in most cases, simply a matter of choice. HOWEVER, one needs to be happy in their own skin, and that counts the most.
    On the other hand, once you’re in media, you’ll be always subject to the public’s comments, judgement, criticism – all formed by the media’s pressure to look and behave in such and such way and buy such and such things.

    Well, IMO 🙂

    what should one do? Switch off the television and stop listening to the radio. Hey, not such a bad idea 🙂

    Reply
  5. David
    David says:

    Good on you and well said. When I was reading the articles yesterday one thing stuck out for me which was that some of these critics are supposed to be well respected; in other words I really thought more highly of them than these remarks. I’ve lost a lot of respect for those critics in question.

    So your final remark resonates particularly:

    “at worst (for you [critics] ), it dilutes the currency of everything else you have to say.”

    Reply
  6. Thomas Silverbörg
    Thomas Silverbörg says:

    Right on- I’ve often felt that critics, as well as many administrators, act this way solely due of jealousy- it must be hard for them, craving the limelight as they do, to admit that they cannot sing or play anything. What a lovely job for a case of arrested develoment. I know Ms. Erraught, a lovely lady, fabulous singer, and very professional colleague. Perhaps these are the virtues to be extolled.

    Reply
  7. Leila
    Leila says:

    Bravo for you Ms Erraught!You are my hero!I posted this so all people will see that your talents in voice ,and expression are the number one thing that a critic should focus on!You are an inspiration to all of us as singers and creative artists!

    Reply
  8. John Counsel
    John Counsel says:

    As the father of two singers, one 44 and the other 24 (my eldest and youngest of five children), a former professional singer and a sometime music theatre critic, I’ve noticed a few things over the past 50 years of performing and writing.

    Two things have been surprisingly — and sadly — consistent:

    1. Skinny singers often find it difficult to produce and sustain a truly extraordinary performance in either opera, recitals or music theatre. There is a frequent and noticeable connection between physique, stamina and vocal brilliance.

    2, Critics who have not been singers are often bitter, mean-spirited, resentful souls who take perverse delight in trying to pull down performers whom they feel safe in deriding, for no better reason than to build themselves up in their own sad, stunted self-perceptions.

    I read the reviews — and the public and professional backlash — of Tara Erraught’s performance and was appalled by the irrelevance and offensiveness of the reviews of some critics.

    Brava! ladies… don’t allow these emotional pygmies to sour your joy. 😀

    Reply
    • lean beautiful talented chanteuse
      lean beautiful talented chanteuse says:

      John Counsel, what an utter rubbish. Singers do not need to be fat in order to be brilliant and strong on stage.
      And the funny thing I never heard about you nor your daughters .Fat or skinny.
      Besides now you are judgemental about lean people. Get a grip, man.

      Reply
      • Thomas Silverbörg
        Thomas Silverbörg says:

        He has a grip, it’s not important if he or his family is famous or not- talking plain sense is NOT rubbish, besides, he’s right. There are exceptions to every rule, but if you’re extremely thin, wearing hot costumes under hot lights on a hot day, you might have some problems before the performance is over.

        Reply
      • lean beautiful talented chanteuse
        lean beautiful talented chanteuse says:

        ummm…Thomas, did you read this blog? This lady herself sweats when it is past +21 Celsius! ‘I sweat when the temperature goes above 21 degrees’…
        But behold! there is air conditioning luckily available. Maybe not in the community hall, but in professional venues.
        Although lean people who are fit have no issues with breathing, moving and dancing and performing in heat all in all.
        I know it must be tough for you when some people seem to have it all.

        Reply
        • Thomas Silverbörg
          Thomas Silverbörg says:

          Oh dear, I thought we were having a discussion here, but I guess some folks would rather give vent to their little aggressions- that is not what it’s about.

          Reply
      • John Counsel
        John Counsel says:

        Hmm… I stated clearly that my observations applied “often”, not “always”. Also, It was a general observation, not a judgement. There’s a big difference… unless you have some form of emotional vulnerability that triggers such a vehement overreaction. I’m not in a position to know, since you reply anonymously. (My only judgement applied to some of the critics involved.)

        The fact that you’ve never heard of me or my daughters is not only irrelevant and smacks of arrogance (“If I’ve never heard of you, you can’t be famous”), but makes some risky assumptions. For a start, I write under a nom de plume, I live in Australia, as do my daughters — and, as adult females, had you not considered that they may have very different surnames from me?

        My own observations and experience are supported by many others who are qualified to know, including Alice Coote:
        http://slippedisc.com/2014/05/alice-coote-an-open-letter-to-opera-critics/

        May I suggest a little less heat and more light? 🙂

        Reply
      • lean beautiful talented chanteuse
        lean beautiful talented chanteuse says:

        Australia produces beautiful singers, with both voice and looks: Antoinette Halloran, Laurence Meikle, Cheryl Barker and even Yvonne Kenny is not in the obese department.
        Naturally, Weltha Wood, the voice is the most important factor here, but if you happen to have the whole package, you are very lucky indeed.
        I really feel for you if you feel you have been discriminated over your weight. But did it occur to you, that it actually could be your voice and not your appearance which is hindering your career path? Food for thought.

        Reply
        • John Counsel
          John Counsel says:

          I find it intriguing that my comments have been perceived in such an emotionally-charged way. I referred to “skinny” singers. At no point have I used words like fat, obese or even overweight. I made no reference to quality of voice, either.

          Reply
    • Weltha Wood
      Weltha Wood says:

      I find it interesting that your critic’s FIRST modifier is “lean”. Hooray for you. Hooray for you, too, Elisabeth. This American is so very tired of women being made to feel bad about themselves. Last time I checked, the quality one looks for in a singer is…the voice, and not the “looks.” Beauty is more than “standard” or “acceptable” looks. It’s nice to see self-confident women who don’t look as if they are all made of pale sticks with hair that is as straight as a doll’s. Thank you for being a person and standing up for ALL of us women who are persons and not cookie-cutter imitations.

      Reply
  9. Lucy Schaufer
    Lucy Schaufer says:

    Liz – thank you so much, well written. It’s been a hell of a weekend plus a few days. The quest for integrity in all aspects of our business and community is vital, and I am so very proud of all of us who stood up and acknowledged the line crossed. With admiration, lms x

    *kettles on – pours tea*

    Reply
  10. Rhodes
    Rhodes says:

    I don’t think I ever listen to your music, but I will make the effort, you seem like an amazing person. I just loved your comments

    Reply
  11. Louise Hosie
    Louise Hosie says:

    Good morning Elisabeth

    I’m a producer with BBC World News TV’s Global programme, based at our HQ at New Broadcasting House.
    We are doing a piece on our live TV programme this afternoon, about the row that’s broken out over the reviews criticising the appearance of the Glyndebourne opera singer Tara Erraught. We’d be keen hear your thoughts on this and to come and participate in the interview. This could be on set in our London studio, or from another BBC studio depending on your whereabouts today.
    I’ve included my contact details and look forward to hearing from you. The interview would be at 4.45pm.
    Kind regards
    Louise
    louise.hosie@bbc.co.uk
    020361 42500

    Reply

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