Well, patriarchy, you’ve done it again! The emergence of yet another gender-based double standard has recently been illuminated by the blatant and callous fat-shaming of world renowned opera singer, Tara Erraught. The Irish mezzo-soprano sang Octavian in the Strauss Opera “Der Rosenkavalier” at the Glyndebourne Festival on Saturday night, and this was certainly not her first time at the rodeo. Tara is one of the few emerging artists to capture the attention of the international opera public, who won widespread acclaim in February 2011, for her leading performance in a revival of Ravel’s: “L’Enfant et les Sortileges.”
Despite her clearly impressive background, critics still denigrate her performance on account of her weight. This is especially evident in 5 publications by male critics from London:
Andrew Clark, writing for the Financial Times: "Tara Erraught's Octavian is a chubby bundle of puppy fat.” Then he adds, as an afterthought, that her performance was "gloriously sung." (Because as an opera critic, remarking on the appearance of the lead singer takes precedence over mentioning her actual performance.)
In The Guardian, Andrew Clements: "It's hard to imagine this stocky Octavian as this willowy woman's plausible lover." (Wow, imagine that! A love affair between people of different sizes!)
Michael Church, writing in The Independent: "This Octavian (Tara Erraught) has the demeanor of a scullery-maid” ( Of course, it would be beneath one of London's foremost critics to squeeze out even a glancing mention of the leading female’s actual singing.)
Richard Morrison in The Times of London: "Unbelievable, unsightly and unappealing." (Come on, tell us how you really feel!)
Rupert Christiansen in The Telegraph: "Tara Erraught is dumpy of stature and whether in bedroom déshabille, disguised as Mariandel or in full aristocratic fig, her costuming makes her resemble something between Heidi and Just William. Is Jones simply trying to make the best of her intractable physique or is he trying to say something about the social-sexual dynamic?" (I don’t even know how to comment on this one.)
Now just for fun, lets take a look at how these same critics reviewed male opera singers who were also “less than lean"...
May 4: Christiansen, writing about baritone Roland Wood in Julian Anderson's Thebes at the English National Opera: "The splendid cast is without a weak link, though a throat infection inhibited Roland Wood's Oedipus."
May 2: Clark, writing about a DVD release of Rossini's Othello: "John Osborn, Edgardo Rocha and Javier Camarena make a stylish trio of tenors."
May 4: Church, reviewing Mozart's Nozze di Figaro at the Royal Opera House: "With the remaining parts in the safe hands of Christophoros (Bartolo) [sic], Guy de Mey (Don Basilio), Jeremy White (Antonio) and Timothy Robinson (Don Curzio) fine ensemble work is assured."
So, while not all of these are rave reviews, I don’t happen see a mention of weight anywhere… Hey, do you smell that? *sniff, sniff * That, my friend, is the rancid stench of discrimination.
This double standard between overweight men and women is not specific to opera, it can be seen everywhere in the media- especially when it comes to comedies and TV sitcoms. Have you ever noticed that a significant amount of the most famous male comedians happen to be overweight, while the pool of overweight female comedians is very scant (I could maybe name one or two). Or that in more TV sitcoms than not, the husband is overweight while the wife is thin and pretty. Imagining a TV show in which there's an overweight wife with a slim husband is almost inconceivable. And why the hell is that?
This issue is symptomatic of more than just a double standard between overweight men and women. It's indicative of a societal preoccupation with female appearances, a preoccupation that prevents women from being taken seriously. This hits very close to home for all women, especially those in politics, whose thoughts and opinions regarding serious issues are often disparaged by people who’d rather discuss their shoe color.
This prospect of women being seen as “ornaments” rather than people is old news. We’ve been facing this kind of objectification since before human history was methodically recorded. Nevertheless, I'm optimistic, and while the numbers aren’t substantial, it seems like more and more people are starting to get it. Hey, maybe some would say I’m naïve, but I'd like to believe that with increased awareness, a world where women are valued less for their outward appearances and more for what they have to say isn’t too far off.