Is the British Opera press really a cabal of vindictive dinosaurs? I ask because last week, this otherwise fairly niche corner of the Fourth Estate has been catapulted from the back of the arts sections to the mastheads of the international press after they rounded on a bright, promising and embarrassingly talented Irish mezzo-soprano and savaged her, not for her singing, which is unanimously considered top-notch, but for her body shape.
Tara Erraught is a rising star in her field – originally from Dundalk, she is now principal soloist in the Bavarian State opera ensemble. But that, at the moment, is no longer the most famous thing about her. Instead, that distinction goes to the reviews by five opera critics following her starring role in Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier at Glyndebourne.
Here's a choice selection of the terms in which she was described: "dumpy of stature" and a "chubby bundle of puppy fat" complained the Telegraph and the Financial Times, respectively. The Telegraph then mused snidely as to whether the director was attempting to "make the best of her intractable physique".
Need I even mention that all five critics implicated in this row were male? If it weren't for how plainly wounding these descriptions are, one might on first reading, be tempted to think of them as almost quaint – the retrograde mutterings of a clutch of hoary old chestnuts let out for the evening, who casually appraise the merits of women on stage according to their figures first, and their ability to do their job well second.
Of course, it's the characterisation that they're taking issue with, they insist. Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier is (to confuse things) is a male character written for a female voice and is supposed to be plausible first as a legendary seducer and later as beguiling chamber maid. This imaginative leap became impossible for the critics to make, apparently because of how distracting they found Erraught's body shape. (And not distracting in a way that might leave them barking applause).
At least two of them have gone on record after the event to deny the charges of misogyny. One, Richard Morrison the critic for the Times, even sounded amusingly like a 1950s Mad Men executive when he invoked his wife as defence: "If there's one thing my wife and my ex-wife would agree upon, it's that I love women not too little but too well." Apparently Morrison was blissfully unaware of just how much this statement misses the point.
That this is common-or-garden sexism is so self-evident that it feels almost stating the obvious to point it out. But cries of sexism inevitably and predictably, result in yet another gender-based bun-fight in the media, in which both sides usually remain intractable. So perhaps it's better to be simple. Forget sexism, this is bullying. Had those comments been made about a young woman in the early stages of her career on say, social media, they would have been identified as bullying.
Had they been made in public by an average Joe about pop star or television presenter, we would have called it bullying, no question. But because they were made as part of a legitimate exercise of criticism, a formal artistic appraisal, the hurtful playground barb of basically calling someone fat in public, can be defended in the name of dedication to the job. Maybe the opera critics embroiled in this row really believe they were fulfilling their duty.
Or maybe it's just that, in a world where Silvio Berlusconi and Jeremy Paxman can sit down and discuss whether the former believes German Chancellor Angela Merkel is an "unf**kable lardarse" (as he is reported to have said) they feel they can say whatever cruel things they like. After all, what's Berlusconi doing if not finding a slightly cruder way of undermining a woman's performance on the basis of her "intractable physique"?
Perhaps we should review the role of the critic in cases like these, then. Colleagues of Erraght from the opera world have rushed to her defence.
Mezzo Soprano Jennifer Johnston was moved to write in The Guardian: "All singers need self-confidence to perform, and so it is on this level that it is particularly cruel and irresponsible of this set of critics to be so completely disparaging of a singer's appearance."
And she is right. After all, what use is it telling little girls that if they have talent, and work incredibly hard, dedicating themselves completely to a thing, they can reach a level of excellence at it that will be respected and admired, if when they achieve that level of excellence they find themselves dressed down and dismissed because of "puppy fat" instead.