There’s been a furore over the reporting of Tara Erraught’s appearance in Glyndebourne’s Der Rosenkavalier, sufficiently so that I think it’s worth setting out my opinions on how singers’ looks should feature in criticism. I haven’t seen Erraught, so these opinions are general rather than specific to her or to that particular production, and they do represent our views as Bachtrack directors rather being merely my personal ones.

Joan Sutherland and Luciano Pavarotti in Bellini's I puritani (1976)
Joan Sutherland and Luciano Pavarotti in Bellini's I puritani (1976)

First and foremost, we don’t publish material that’s written to wound. Other publications may differ: there’s a long and distinguished tradition of criticism as blood sport that stretches back to George Bernard Shaw, Hector Berlioz and beyond. There are readers for whom that’s what criticism should be. But it’s not something I want Bachtrack to be involved in.

Having said that, opera is a visual and dramatic art as well as a musical one. Appearance matters. To what extent it matters is down to individual taste – personally, I generally steer clear of mentioning a singer’s looks, whether ravishingly beautiful or hopelessly unattractive. But if the critic finds that appearance materially affects their appreciation of the production, I think it’s fair comment.

Opera requires a generous lashing of suspension of disbelief at the best of times. When you have Violetta in La traviata, a young and frail consumptive, performed by someone several times the age and weight of the character, or the Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto, a dashing young aristocrat, performed by a tenor who can barely walk, it simply adds to the difficulty of suspending disbelief enough to enjoy the performance.

But there’s a balance here. On their day, I would have rushed to watch the tall and heavily built Joan Sutherland sing Violetta, or the obese Luciano Pavarotti sing the Duke, because they had such phenomenal voices that I would have been more than happy to put up with it. Generally, for me, the voice matters most – but not to the total exclusion of appearance, and certainly not to the exclusion of acting.

I think it’s up to whoever is doing the casting (director/conductor/impresario/etc) to consider all the factors and make their choice, and then up to the director to make the best of the singers they have. Wonders can be done with costumes, make-up and lighting, as becomes obvious whenever you meet the average TV or movie actor in the flesh.

By the way, I think it’s almost certain that the level of adverse criticism of singers’ appearance is unfairly biased against women. Sadly, that’s an extension of something found in many walks of life: for example, to get ahead in the corporate world, the standards of dress and make-up required of a woman are ludicrously higher than those for a man in the same career position.

Finally, regardless of whether or not a critic mentions a singer’s appearance in a review, it must surely be paramount to talk about their voice. This is opera, after all, and the power of the human voice is the reason for its existence.