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Opera Grotesquely Superficial? What?

I didn't mention it here, but you probably remember the hubbub a couple months ago over American soprano Deborah Voigt, who was fired from Christof Loy's production of Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos this summer at Covent Garden in London. (If not, you can read Tom Bishop's article, How talent became an issue of weight, April 7, from BBC News.) The issue was not her voice, which by all accounts is first-rate, but the fact that her size was not suited to the costuming. This may come as a shock if you haven't been to an opera lately, but opera singers often have a purely physical gravitas that goes with the power of their voices. In that case, casting Deborah Voigt as the Primadonna makes perfect sense.

An article by Neil Smith (Soprano plays down 'fat lady' row, June 22) from BBC News asks some questions of Voigt's slimmer replacement, German soprano Anne Schwanewilms, who says that she was not aware that Voigt had ever been engaged for the role when she accepted it.

Schwanewilms says that the visual aspects of a production should go hand in hand with musical considerations. "You go into an opera house because you want to see something," she told BBC News Online. "Otherwise you would just stay at home and listen to a CD. In some cases it's nice to look at nice people on stage."
That last statement sure is a long way from being anything like nice. Ms. Schwanewilms, I understand, has some experience in singing Strauss, so I'm sure that she is more than qualified for the role. However, she has set herself up for some nasty criticism, I think. If her voice shows any weakness during the performance, listeners might start wondering if maybe they would have minded so much looking at Ms. Voigt's more substantial stage presence. Physical appearance has never been a problem in any of my operatic experiences. Butterfly does not have to be a Japanese teenager, and I do not require an actual giant to sing Fafner. There is a certain amount of suspension of disbelief that an opera audience will generously give without question.

The casting of slimmer, more attractive singers in some operatic productions is good, in some ways, in that it creates opportunities for younger singers. However, if Covent Garden knew it was going this direction with its production, why would they engage Deborah Voigt, only to fire her, disgracefully, later? Shame on them. Also bothersome is the double standard that is implied, but not stated openly, in the BBC article, which includes a photograph of Schwanewilms with castmate Richard Margison, as the Tenor/Bacchus. Mr. Margison is a perfectly nice-looking man, but if we lower ourselves to purely superficial considerations, is he really any more believable as Bacchus than Ms. Voigt was for her role? This sort of casting decision strikes me as the latest step in the disturbingly banal musical-theaterization of opera that gave us such Disney abominations as this. When opera directors start putting a higher priority on anything other than musical considerations, someone should electrocute them. Not fatally, just enough voltage to remind them of what the hell it is they are supposed to be doing.

Ariadne auf Naxos opened last night, June 22, at the Royal Opera House, in London, and runs until July 9.

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