Saturday, September 24, 2011

Here we go again ... this time, it's the guy's turn

Sondra Radvanovsky as Tosca
I've ranted here before about ladies in opera and the incessant pressure to drop weight. Oh, yes ... there was that time when Sondra Radvanovsky was profiled in The New York Times:
[Radvanovsky] has been trying to lose weight for Il Trovatore, which will be broadcast in the Met’s Live in HD series on April 30. “No one is putting pressure on me,” she hastened to say, “but I don’t want to look like a big, fat cow on the movie screen! And it’s sad that I’m saying that, but it’s the truth.

There is an inevitable tension among singers, she said, who are conscious that a camera will be monitoring their every facial tic. “If you get a bad angle, they’re looking up your nostrils,” she said. “We’re singers and we make funny faces, and this is broadcast around the world. I think a lot of my colleagues have done various things to make themselves look better on camera.
Indeed they are.

I'm sure by now, most of you have heard about the blog Barihunks. You know what I'm talking about - the blog that covers ... or rather UNcovers ... baritones that some might consider to be hunk-ish.

Being a bass baritone that is in *no* danger of being posted as one of these hunks, I don't have reason to traverse there unless some sort of news-worthy item points me in that direction ... which actually has happened a few times.

So, today's item comes to you courtesy of Nashville Opera who brought this link to my attention. CBC Radio Canada posted the following:
Barihunk - hot or not?

If you're heading to a night at the opera, you may be pleasantly surprised to see a barihunk or two on stage. And by barihunk, I'm referring to a new breed of male opera performers who are admired for their voices and their bodies, including Daniel Okulitch, the Calgary-born bass-baritone who recently starred in
The Fly and Don Giovanni at New York City Opera.

Daniel, and many other buff baritones, are celebrated at barihunks blog. The founder of that site believes that a growing emphasis on stunning male singers is a positive direction for the opera world.

Would you be more interested in going to the opera if it featured a barihunk in a starring role?

Personally, I've found it difficult to believe some opera performers who, despite having wonderful voices, just don't look the part. For me, those unbelievable performances come across as badly as a sour note and they detract from the opera as a whole. So bring on the barihunks, as long as they can flex their vocal cords, too.

Tori Allen, Q producer

Here's a sample image of Daniel Okulitch, who is often featured on the barihunk blog
Let's be clear about something - anyone who uses the argument, "I've found it difficult to believe some opera performers who, despite having wonderful voices, just don't look the part..." must be spending more time watching opera on DVD or on a movie theater screen than they are watching it live. Because honestly, when you're sitting in a theater - sometimes 25, 50, 75 or more feet away from the stage - is it really possible for your experience to be "soured" by whether or not a lady is a size 4 or a gentleman is hunk-ish? Really? Come. ON!

I know that some will say, "Well, I can see up-close with my opera glasses." Clearly, if you're going to the opera to catch some baritone in his grape smugglers, you're not there for the pleasure of hearing beautiful singing - you're there for a different pleasurable feeling.

As you've heard here before ... we are at a place in opera's history when it appears that the fundamentals of the opera world are changing. Opera is a big art form which requires big orchestras, big voices, big gestures and big personalities. It has always been centered around the voice and around making a sound big enough to cut over the orchestra and to fill a house without amplification. Indeed, opera now seems to be metamorphosing to fit a small, very confining screen. Let's be honest, even a movie theater screen is a small screen compared to the grandiosity of opera.

Part of the metamorphosis is the focus on singer's looks as opposed to their voices. To that end, opera is becoming like everything else out there. In order to work, you have to be a thin lady or a hunk-ish guy. It's so hollywood.

So, I ask you: When did we decide to mold our art form into looking like everything else that's out there? When did we decide that Hollywood's ideal should be our ideal, too? The most important question of all, however: when will this metamorphosis from operatic-grandiosity to Hollywood-fabulosity begin to take it's toll on our art form? Because you *know*, Chiclets, that sooner or later it will take it's toll.

Indeed, the days numbered for opera singers who sing and act the hell out of a role, but don’t have the Hollywood looks or size. Are we going to turn our backs on the future Monsterrat Caballe, Joan Sutherland, Marilyn Horne, Jessye Norman, George London or even Luciano Pavarotti because they don't fit the new “mold”?

The author of the CBC post is certainly advocating for that.
Would you be more interested in going to the opera if it featured a barihunk in a starring role?
I for one can heartily say - uh, no thank you. Not because I'm prudish. Not because I've got some puritanical ideal of what aspects of opera productions should and shouldn't entail [ie: I'm not afraid of nudity]. But, in fact, I would not go simply because of what this Barihunks thing represents. The hollywood-ification of opera singers.

I've to got say that Barihunks, although contributing to it, is certainly not the problem. They do go out of their way to highlight singers of yesteryear - like today's post celebrating the birthday of legendary baritone Ettore Bastianini. Something tells me that Mr. Bastianini was not parading around the stage naked - more concerned about the quality of his muscle cuts than the quality of his voice - and, it seems the Barihunks author understands that.

As per usual - this is when I have to say that I am not advocating that all opera singers be morbidly obese. I am not advocating that opera singers shouldn't be healthy. What I am saying is that it is time for us to really take a good hard look at where opera is going. I believe that opera is on the path to a place where emphasis is no longer about what makes opera unique or what makes opera grand, but instead a place where emphasis is focused with laser-like precision on people looking like the Hollywood it-crowd. All so people can fool themselves into thinking that opera is becoming more "mainstream" - which, it's not ... nor should it - and, so people like that CBC writer can get all a-flutter about going to see a Barihunk sing in his underoos.

Care to disagree? Leave a comment below.


Anonymous said...

Bravo! I'm glad someone said it.

You know something else that bugs me? Opera directors, conductors, etc. are all too eager to say that they would gladly cast the next Caballe or Sutherland because an iconic voice is an iconic voice...but they neglect to mention that Caballe and Sutherland did not magically spring forth sounding the way they did in their prime. They spent many years honing their art with lesser known opera companies that were willing to hire them despite their weight.

So now, if opera companies stop hiring singers who look less than perfect, how will the next Caballe or Sutherland get the experience they need to hold their own at the Met? And how will these singers get the exposure they need to be noticed by Gelb and his contemporaries?

Anonymous said...

I certainly agree that voice should come first. But that said, I also question a lot of voices out there that aren't coming out of particularly sculpted physiques. Yet there they are, just the same, on major stages.

It's not as if all the jobs are going to good looking people. Many very mediocre "less then some crazy idea of perfect" people are also out there.

Full disclosure, I have been on Barihunks...I was standing behind several of them in a few shots.

Grace Bawden said...

Great article and very valid points. As I see it rather than opera emulating "Hollywood" the industry is increasingly, it seems, emulating the recorded music industry - no doubt heavily influecned by "Hollywood" (aka. the artists signed by the likes of David Foster).

Truth is, Sony Classical and other similar labels almost dont release oepra artists globally any more, but when they do, they are all "the complete package" so coveted in the recorded music industry - often the looks above all else matter.

And then there is the factor about what the top artist managemers are seeking out and promoting. Bottom line is that unless you can make your own career because the people you need to know already know you (ie. you live in the right country/ region/ state and can get past the gate-keeprs to be noticed & entertained by the top A&R reps, producers and record label executives in the industry), it is likely that the best managers are recruiting on their artist roster only artists they know are going to be an "easy sell" - lock, stock and barrel.

By way of example, I am a very average sized female, but I cannot count the number of times I have been told to "get fit and healthy" which is really code for "lose weight fast". Its a cold hard reality.

Fortunately, my size has not been a barrier to me as yet, though as I get older it is conceiveable that it may become a barrier when compared with a new 19 yr old, size 8 soprano...

Sure, labels will sign bigger sized, perhaps "less attractive" artists, but not unless they can bring a ready made, million+ fan-base to the table.

Opera in Australia is a very small market so without internet it is hard to even hear about or learn about new emerging "starts" in the industry. Even ABC Classics doesnt make opera stars in this country a household name. In fact, Australia has not had an operatic "star" become a household name since Sutherland.

Most people would hardly know Yvonne Kenny, but since Yvonne none have even reached her comparable level of popularity.

It took me forever to learn about Cecilia Bartoli, Renee Fleming, Anna Netrebko and Angela Gheorghiu, but how beautiful are they... all now well into their forties!

If not for You Tube, Id have little hope of discovering the beauty of unsigned artists whose voices are exceptional, even if their size is above average and their facial features, less so.

That said, if I go to an opera only the voice and its power to tell the story matters. The same goes for the artist CDs I buy.

In fact, the CD I have possibly most enjoyed and almost worn out is the Operatunity Winners featuring Denise Leigh & Jane Gilchrist purely for its variety and choice of tracks, however, unless discovered by popular reality-tv shows it will be a long time before newer artists of their ilk emerge with the major record labels, but when they do one can be reasonably sure they will be young, slim and pretty (ie. marketable).

At a time when many classical and opera companies are struggling to put "bottoms on seats" and reliant on taxpayer funding, corporate sponsors and private bequests, many may be forced to pull in "popular" or "celebrity" artists with a media profile via the labels/ Hollywood or whatever other assets and networks they have to pull an audience in.

Perhaps the commercialisation of opera may be inevitable without younger "stars" emerging to pull in a younger audience. Most 17 year old boys would cringe to have to sit through watching a 40 yr old Juliette, and I dont see too many 16 yr old girls packing in the seats to watch a fat 50 yr old Mario Cavaradossi.

If not for my mum's influecne maybe I wouldnt at this age either...

Gramilano said...

Well said!

When Marilyn Horne and Joan Sutherland were judges at the Cardiff Singer of the World competition in 2001, Horne voiced her doubts about the probability of their careers taking off in the 21st century, as she talked about her in-built "launch-pad" to get those high-notes up and flying.

Yet it seems that even opera fans are getting caught up with this mentality. Just yesterday I posted a comment after a Newsweek interview with Netrebko, unusual in the fact that the interviewer speaks Russian. Before my comment someone had written "she's like a little russian whale walking on chicken legs. Bellissima?". I tagged on to the end of my comment the fact that, especially in the context of opera singers and not Hollywood starlets, she was a good-looking woman. This was immediately greeted with:

"Are you serious? She is gross. There's plenty of other opera singers better than her - Danielle de Niese, Natalie Dessay, Joyce DiDonato, Renée Fleming, Sumi Jo just to name a few. Not even Angela Gheorghiu is such a rude shark as this Russian woman is. But you're so biased you wouldn't admit that even if she burped right into your face."

and by "better than her" he's talking about their looks not their voices. Leaving aside the rudeness of his approach, it is sad: if Netrebko is "gross" where would that have left Anita Cerquetti?

Here in Italy our opera magazine called, unsurprisingly, 'Opera', loves attacking Cecilia Bartoli, even over the airbrushing (or Photoshopping) of her album covers to slim her down. Though Eaglen, Caballé et al have been taking away those double chins for years, nowadays even an attractive woman like Bartoli is accused of cheating. Yet this is the cheating that is done on stage every night with corsets to give a better line, darker make-up under the chin and cheekbones, and lifts in the tenor's shoes. Despite her size, Caballé on stage was never ridiculous, even as Mimì. Yet HD close-ups reveal and amplify those tricks - the wigs even have to be fixed differently when the cameras are in - so sadly it looks as though casting for the filmed evening may well be different from that of the opening night.

Vittorio Grigolo in an Italian interview last month said:

"With aero­planes we’re always on the move, you don’t always find a gym, or the right things to eat, which can be a prob­lem. You have to be always in form, which in the past wasn’t neces­sary. Beniamino Gigli and Enrico Caruso, the greatest yes?, but they trav­elled by boat, the pres­sure was dif­fer­ent. And they didn’t have HD video around when they put on an extra kilo…"

Grace Bawden said...

Love your blog Gramilano!

You may have already seen this many times in emails, but it always highlights for me the importance of publicity, marketing, image and of course resources..

It no doubt explains why so much incredible talent is still waiting tables or moving into other professions.

Anonymous said...

I have to heartily disagree. Although for many roles size doesn't matter. Who cares what Dido or Scarpia looks like. But I want a Billy Budd or Romeo & Juliet who look the part. I've been at operas where people are giggling because the characters are so fat and ridiculous for the roles. Should someone dying of consumption really weigh 300 pounds? It's ludicrous. I once saw a singer who couldn't get up from the ground. It was embarrassing and completely ruined the moment.

Moreover, there is the bigger question of health. Much of the reason that Jane Eaglen seldom performs is because her weight was an impediment. Pavarotti had health issues related to his weight, as well. What about diabetes and heart disease risks. Singers should aim to be healthy and fit like other people. Three cheers to BariHunks for making us think about this issue and to the CBC for raising the issue.

Now let's all hit the gym!

UK Troy said...

I agree with Anonymous. I was recently as a performance of Billy Budd. A woman sitting next to me looked bored until a shirtless Billy appeared. I heard her turn to her date and say, "Now this could get me to come to the opera." It may sound shallow, but it gets people in the door and allows them to experience the artform. It's why novels have sexy covers and movies/TV market sex. It has a broader appeal (pun intended) than Tyne Daly or Alessandra Marc in sweat pants and a baggy shirt.

Anonymous said...

I hugely disagree with you, but on a matter of verb tense. Not future conditional, but present!

"Indeed, the days [are] numbered for opera singers who sing and act the hell out of a role, but don’t have the Hollywood looks or size."

Yes, they are numbered, and that number is zero. Also, looks does not just apply to beauty, or size, but to age. "Leaders at the Met" has verbally stated that he will not hire any singer over 30 who does not have an already established international career. So instead of waiting for dramatic singer's voices to mature, they are putting their older Mozart and Bel Canto singers into the roles where they cannot be heard.

As for me, don't bother me to attend these celebrations of mediocrity.

Anonymous said...

I the photo of the baritone in the suit jacket supposed to be sexy? He looks ridiculous.

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