Does this (pants) role make me look fat?

“I hate looksism,” I told my friends the other night at dinner, though truth be told, I’m as guilty of it as the next person.

I was reminded of this while reading an article in the May 24 edition of The New York Times’ Arts section titled, “What Matters More, the Singer’s Shape, or Her Sound?”, in which critics Anthony Tommasini and Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim spoke with reporter Michael Cooper about the brouhaha over Tara Erraught’s appearance – emphasis on the word “appearance” – as Octavian in the Glyndebourne music festival’s production of Richard Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier.”

For the uninitiated, “Der Rosenkavalier” is an easy-on–the-eyes-and -ears opera about an older woman learning to let go of her young lover. (It has a justly famous waltz that makes gorgeous use of sequential phrases, played by the orchestra’s string section, which George Balanchine used to cap off his glittering ballet “Vienna Waltzes.”)

The older woman, called the Marschallin, is one of those glamorous soprano roles, sung by the likes of Renee Fleming.  At Glyndebourne, it was filled fetchingly by Kate Royal. The lover, Octavian, is a pants role in which a mezzo has to pretend to be a handsome youth. Erraught, who apparently sang gloriously, is a woman with a classic pear shape, which neither lends itself to pants nor suggests slim-hipped James Deans. And the (male) critics let her have it, signaling out her “puppy fat.”

Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim’s analysis got to the heart of the problem for those critics:

“From the reviews, I gather that the production opens with the soprano Kate Royal (as the Marschallin) showering onstage in the nude. Now Ms. Royal does have a conventionally beautiful body by contemporary standards. (In Strauss’ time, she would have been derided as too thin.) I suspect that at the sight of her, many male viewers went, ‘Whoa!’ and swiftly zoomed in on Octavian as the lucky kid who – at least for a while – gets to have her. And something about Ms. Erraught ruined that fantasy. As if she weren’t miscast as Octavian – but as the fantasy image the male viewer wanted to inhabit.

“To display an opera singer stark naked on the stage is to invite a particular kind of gaze. When the critics turned that same gaze on another, clothed singer, they found her wanting.”

Brilliant though that analysis is, the situation is more complex than that. World culture is first and foremost visual, especially in our post-MTV age. We even eat with our eyes. Opera may be mainly about singing, but it’s also a visual medium, too, particularly with the introduction of The Metropolitan Opera’s “Live in HD” simulcasts, which render everything larger than life on a movie screen. Though it’s cruel to describe Erraught as “a chubby bundle of puppy fat” (Andrew Clark of The Financial Times) and “dumpy of stature” (Rupert Christiansen of The Telegraph), the fact remains that her womanly form doesn’t lend itself to trouser roles. But then, what woman’s body would, save for the most boyish? I thought Joyce DiDonato was fantastic in the pants role in Rossini’s “Le Comte Ory” at The Met a few seasons back– swaggering about the stage – but you still knew she was a woman. Maybe that’s the point. Maybe all those male composers were after a little girl-on-girl action when they created those pants roles and weren’t merely looking to blend soprano and mezzo voices sublimely.

Having said all this, I think that sometimes you just have to suspend disbelief in exchange for glorious singing. I mean, how many Japanese sopranos actually sing Madama Butterfly? And yet when I saw the “Live in HD” simulcast of Rossini’s “La Cenerentola” (“Cinderella”) on May 10 – this time with DiDonato in the title role, looking every inch a woman – I prayed that Juan Diego Flórez had recovered from his recent illness so I wouldn’t have to see Javier Camarena as the prince. Anthony Tommasini, no fan of Flórez, takes exception with a woman who told him that Camarena didn’t look princely subbing for Flórez earlier in the run:

Juan Diego Flórez by Pietro Spagnoli. 

Juan Diego Flórez by Pietro Spagnoli. 

“To me, Mr. Camarena is perfectly nice-looking with maybe just a touch of a belly, but an appealing stage presence. And what a fabulous, exciting singer! If you don’t get this about Javier Camarena, then you are just not part of the target audience for opera.” But what Tommasini doesn’t seem to get is that the target audience for opera is shifting toward a younger, more tech-savvy crowd that wants to be satisfied visually as well as aurally. Given that Flórez is a gorgeous singer in every sense of the word and that Camarena’s physical appearance is instead “nice-looking with maybe just a touch of belly,” it makes sense that some, maybe even many, would prefer to see Flórez in the role of the prince. 

Face it: If two people apply for a job with all things being equal except that one is much better-looking than the other, who do you think is going to get the job? See the problem?

Only it’s not just a problem for the Tara Erraughts of the world any longer. In our post-feminist, Internet, gay-rights age – in which male beauty is celebrated on sites like the witty, tasteful Porn for Women – it’s a problem for the Javier Camarenas of the world as well.

As my beloved Aunt Mary always said, “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”

And plenty of us like to take a gander at beautiful men.