The Queen of the Fat Aria

WTFTara Erraught is singing Octavian in the Strauss opera Der Rosenkavalier. It opened Saturday night. Of the six opera critics from London who reviewed her performance, 5 of them body shamed Erraught in their reviews. Some called her names, some suggested that it wasn’t possible that she could be a thin person’s lover, one wrote a review of about 250 words that failed to mention her singing. It seems that the only female critic was also the only one who didn’t body shame Ms. Erraught. (A writer for NPR compiled the egregious reviews and examined the critic’s reviews of fat male singers finding that *shockingly* no body shaming occurred in those reviews, but there was quite a bit of discussion of their talent as singers.)

In our society we choose our entertainers – singers, actors, dancers etc. – based on how closely they can approximate a single, unattainable, photoshop stereotype of beauty.  This is so common that when someone who doesn’t look like this displays talent we share it on YouTube, completely flabbergasted, with titles like “YOU WON’T BELIEVE THIS” as if talented people who aren’t stereotypically beautiful are completely shocking.  That’s because we’ve been absolutely brainwashed to believe that only people who fit the current stereotype of beauty could possibly be talented.  We add another layer of crap when men get involve and try to enforce this stereotype of beauty based on their preferences.

In this iteration, five men who are opera critics have decided that they do not find women of Ms. Erraught’s size attractive.  They have also decided that, as professional opera critics, how attractive they find the singer is not only important enough to be worth comment in their reviews of the opera, but is in fact more important than how well she sings.

This idea – the women have must be attractive to men in order to be allowed to pursue our dreams, talents, goals etc. is rampant.  I get tons of hatemail that just says “no man would fuck you”  as if the most hurtful thing that any woman could ever hear (regardless of her sexual orientation) is that men don’t want to fuck her.

This, to me, is one of the critical intersections of feminism and size acceptance.  If we want to dismantle the patriarchy,  a huge part of that is ending this tradition of having “I would screw her” as an entrance requirement to the jobs we want or the ability to engage in things for which we have talent.  We have to stop allowing men to use the poor treatment of fat women as a way to try to control the behaviors and bodies of thin women.   What men find attractive should not drive who gets to sing, dance, act, be an administrative assistant, get into medical school or anything else.  Men who are paid to critique opera and instead choose to critique women’s bodies should be reprimanded and, if necessary, fired and replaced with people who are willing to critique opera.  To be clear, while I’m focusing on the treatment of women in this piece, these things aren’t ok when they happen to fat guy, or fat people of any gender.

If someone “can’t believe” a fat woman in a role because of her body size, it’s because that person holds prejudices against fat women.  That’s not necessarily surprising considering the culture we live in – where fat girls are relegated to the secretary or teacher in the school play, fat actresses almost never get to be the love interest but do get to deal with tons of concern trolling, and fat people who are successful at anything other than weight loss are ignored because of the ridiculous notion of “promoting obesity” until fat people are denied positive fat role models and representations of ourselves, and everyone else is denied these as well.  The fact that it’s not surprising of course does not make it ok, and we can and will continue to call it out when we see it, until the thing that is seen as clearly wrong is the body shaming opera critic and not the talented Mezzo Soprano.

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57 thoughts on “The Queen of the Fat Aria

  1. I’d expect opera critics to be better musicians than that. Some – in fact most – of the best singers I’ve known have been fat, simply because opera is fairly physically demanding and your body has to stand up to a hell of a lot of strain just singing, let alone moving around on stage while doing so (which is hard).

    Shame on those critics and much respect to Tara Erraught – I haven’t seen that production of Der Rosenkavalier, but I’d like to.

  2. Very pleased to see you have caught this ridiculous wave of “Let’s Beat up the Fat Girl in the Opera!” I and many other voice professionals I know are outraged by this onslaught. Frankly, there are beautiful people in opera at any age but the richer, mature voice does only come (usually) post 30….. The directors and ultimately the public can’t have it both ways. Do we forsake the essence of the operatic sound for physical appeal? No, I don’t think so and if we do, this is truly a mirror to the sorry state of the world we currently live in!
    I read a comment somewhere, made glibbly that singers need Liopsuction. Does Tara Erraught really need Lipo? In my opinion she is a young and very beautiful woman who has no need to feel ashamed of herself….. and should any of us!? If you can do the job, no one has a right to criticise based on their own predilections of body type!

  3. My “favorite” part of one of these reviews was where the reviewer talked about the other female lead’s weight, too. Only in Kate Royal’s case it was to say she was “unusually slim, young” and “coped bravely” with the demands of the role… but then he went on to say she was a “brittle soprano” whose voice sounded “in need of warming up.”

    But the “chubby bundle of puppy fat” Erraught was criticized as unsuitable for the role despite her parts being “gloriously sung,” and he admits that part almost grudgingly.

    His review, in particular, really aggravated me. He dissected both women down to their body types, rewarding one despite apparently not thinking much of her voice, simply by virtue of her thinness, while reviling the other one, whose voice he clearly thought more of, simply because she’s not as thin as he feels an opera singer should be in that role.

    While is certainly the epitome of thin privilege, if I were EITHER of these women reading this review, I’d be horrifically offended. He’s insulted both of them, just in different ways. It reminded me of Linda Bacon’s essay on thin privilege, and the ways in which it hurts thin people, too. The feeling you’ve only been rewarded for something because of how you look… and while, sure this may mean you get more opportunities, it’s harder to take pride in them when you have to wonder “is it only because I look the way I do?”

    Personally, I’d rather be rewarded solely based on my talent and credentials. We don’t live in that world… at least not yet. But it’s through work like yours, Ragen, and Dr. Bacon’s that I still hope we someday can.

    As a side note… using fat only as a descriptive word, and not one loaded with bias and judgment, I simply don’t look at Tara Erraught and see a “fat” woman. I see a woman who is probably on par with the average woman, possibly even smaller. I can’t help but wonder if her so-called”unusually slim” co-star’s size impacted the perceptions of the critics. Beyond that, I hear a woman who is brilliantly talented, boldly confident and I see a woman who radiates with both. How any so-called music critic could fail to see and hear the same is beyond me.

  4. While I’m not surprised that these critics focused on appearance rather than talent, I am disappointed and saddened. Some of the comments to the NPR story were interesting, too. It makes me strengthen my resolve to not give a crap what other people think of how I look and to focus instead on living my life on my terms.

  5. what forking fools these critics be.

    in 1911, when der rosenkavalier premiered, the western world still remained under the heady–& heavy–influence of lillian russell [aka airy fairy lillian] who often weighed two hundred, or more, if she weighed an ounce. &, while she was the reigning sex & beauty symbol of her time, she was not alone in her proportions.

    one of the lovelier qualities of the pre-postmodern years during the beginning of the last century & the end of its predecessor was that ideas of attraction were not confined to very narrow, if you will, attributes of weight, age, etc & ect. before the gibson girl introduced the tall & thin from whom we have yet to be parted, beauty took many forms & was related to things like one’s lovely color, or liveliness–not how well one fit a pre-prescribed & -proscribed rôle.

    here, btw, are some photos of lillian russell:

    bigger than tara, yes?

    ps. even while the beauty standard narrowed throughout the last century, it took until the 1980s for the idiotic, if you will, & cruel, if you will redux, equation to be made between thinness & morality. centuries ago the equally absurd link of beauty to morality was made–however, it took until we threw away most of our morals in service of mammon–in the eighties, not the seventies–for things to become as bad as they did about weight.

    & just when i think things have improved comes this one-two knockout punch from the last place id’ve expected it–the last drizzle of highbrowism…..

  6. In the midst of all this ridiculousness, the thing that stands out to me is the fact that, for the longest time, female opera singers were EXPECTED to be fat. The prevailing wisdom was that they NEEDED to be fat to physically support their voices. Whether or not that is true, a thin diva was considered unusual.

    So that’s what surprises me most about an OPERA critic harping on a singer’s size. That’s, by far, not the only issue I have, but I figured that in OPERA, of all places, size was a non-issue.

    1. Once upon a time, that really was the case… but sometime in the seventies, that started to slowly change.

      Today it would be virtually impossible for Marilyn Horne, Jessye Norman, or Luciano Pavarotti to begin a career in opera, simply because of reviews like this.

      And I’d just like to note here for the record that one of the most glorious evenings of opera I’ve ever enjoyed was the night I got to hear Dame Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne sing together in Norma.

      Funny thing, I know there were other people on that stage, but all I remember is those two spectacular voices mingling so beautifully. Who cared what they looked like? They sang with power, passion, and precision.

      But as it happened, I did enjoy looking at them, too. Not only was there some amazing singing happening on that state, but some pretty kick-ass acting, as well.

        1. To this day it remains one of the Ten Great Moments of Twistie’s Life.

          And while I didn’t witness this, apparently on opening night as they took their bows to thunderous applause, Marilyn Horne turned to Joan Sutherland and said: “Not bad for a pair of old broads.”

          I still get a giggle out of that.

    2. “So that’s what surprises me most about an OPERA critic harping on a singer’s size. That’s, by far, not the only issue I have, but I figured that in OPERA, of all places, size was a non-issue.”

      Right?? When I think “female opera singer”, the image of a fat woman with blonde braids and a Viking helmet immediately pops into my head!

    3. I pretty much thank Maria Callas for that. She was the one who started the operatic movement towards thinness. She was terrified of being fat. She even resorted to swallowing a tapeworm to keep her slim. (No, this is not a myth.) The fact that she ruined her voice through all her anxiety and dieting apparently doesn’t faze folks. It’s pathetic. I don’t have enough epithets to hurl at these jackasses.

    4. Yeah. Doesn’t that phrase “It’s not over till the fat lady sings” stem from this idea that most female opera singers were fat?

  7. Thank you for an insightful blog. Many directors, producers and theatres proudly post casting calls as “non-traditional casting”, but in reality the phrase is limited to ethnicity.

  8. Wow thanks for this post…shocking although, so what’s new? I was on a panel at Indiana University and one of the other panelist’s talk was entitled “Lies my Drama Teachers told me”….but I was shocked to learn that now even the schools are telling students that if you are not “Blank”…pretty, thin, blah blah blah…they will not even cast you in school productions, because it’s about the real world!…and if you are at all different? Forget about it. Tragic!

  9. I looked her up, expecting to see someone who looks like me, you know, opera singer fat. Fat, fat. I know your point is not to compare fat to fat, but I am going to go there. This is fat? Are we supposed to disappear altogether? I know the answer to that question, never mind. Gosh, I’m so looking forward to doing television in the Fall. I think we should start a betting pool now on how many people who don’t read my book say I am a bad role model for children and am promoting obesity, because I look like a beached whale, Jabba The Hutt, a disgusting tub of lard that should die (whatever they called me last time, P.S. tubs of lard don’t die). Whatever. She’s freaking hot. Not the point, I know. Still.

    1. Absolutely Rebecca….. Tara Erraught = FAT? I think not! Ridiculous notion. This has however been goin on for years and began with Maria Callas’ issues with her own weight. I remember attending an ATOS (Association of Teachers of Singing) many years ago now where we had a guest speaker (about 1980 ish) from the US working in Opera as a coach I believe. He said there was a particular female singer who, when being filmed, was too large to get around and therefore, directors were then not wanting to employ them. As a youngish singer and weighing about 19stones (266lbs) I sat there shrinking into my seat in the hope that I wouldn’t be noticed…. I look back now and realise I went into singing because I *thought* it was a safe place for a *fat girl* to be!
      Now look at what’s going on….. I’m not sure if Jane Eaglen is still on the opera circuit but she has taken many a bashing over the years!

  10. “P.S. Tubs of lard don’t die.” That made me actually giggle out loud, I love it! Although of course it’s not right that you may have to deal with haters at all, it sounds like you’re more than capable of holding your own against them :P.

  11. So many fat opera singers have ruined their voices by starving themselves and it just breaks my heart. There’s a reason for the old saying “It ain’t over till the Fat Lady sings” — it used to be that everyone understood that certain types of voices only occur in fat bodies. A true Wagnerian soprano, for instance, just almost HAS to be fat. The resonance and timbre of a voice coming out of a thin body are just different. Light, flexible coloratura sopranos often are average-sized women; but full, rich dramatic or Wagnerian soprano voices live in fat bodies (of course there are always rare exceptions, but I’m talking generalities here).

  12. And about “looking the part” — this always just befuddles me. In 2007 I was lucky enough to hear the glorious Jane Eaglen as Brunnhilde in the Seattle Opera’s “Ring” production. The reviews included the usual fat shaming. Oh, come ON, folks — you can accept that these human beings are playing gods and goddesses; you can accept that instead of talking to each other, they’re singing; you can accept that their every word and motion is accompanied by a full orchestra that somehow they just never notice; you can accept flying horses and a talking (wait, singing!) DRAGON, for Pete’s sake … But you can’t accept that Brunnhilde is fat????

  13. I’ve been fat all my life. Started dieting at age 10. I discovered feminism first, and body positivity as an off-shoot of feminism. I wish more feminists would embrace it, really.

    My theory is that the reason we have an “obesity epidemic” now is because of the patriarchal backlash against Rosie the Riveter taking “men’s jobs” during World War II, and LIKING IT. “How can we get the little women back into their place? Make them lose their minds through diet!” That is about when the diet industry really took off, isn’t it?

    Yeah, I blame the diet industry, and the succeeding weight gain (dieting being a leading indicator of future weight gain), on the patriarchy. It lost some footing during the war, and had to find a way to regain it, and forcing women to fight themselves to fit men’s views of beauty and acceptability was perfect. After all, with so many men dead from the battles, there were too few to go around, and competition for men became fierce! Women had to fight themselves and each other to get the attention of the few men who were left, and that left us vulnerable to misogynistic attacks.

    What’s interesting about this particular situation is that, traditionally, the lead female roles in opera have been held by fat women. “It’s not over until the fat woman sings,” goes back to that. Of course, it wasn’t all about fat. It was also about lung capacity and core muscles, and they do add some bulk to the torso. An athletic opera singer, who really works those singing muscles, is not going to be as lithe and slender as someone whose focus is on toning the arms and legs, for example. Well, generally speaking. There are always exceptions, because bodies are weird, like that. Amazing, but weird.

    This phenomenon was touched on in a Terry Pratchett Discworld novel. I think it was Soul Music? Can anyone correct me on that? The one that was basically a spoof on the Phantom of the Opera?

    1. Soul Music is about “music with rocks in it” coming to the Discworld (spoof of Buddy Holly and his death). Maskerade is Phantom of the Opera, where Agnes Nitt sings Christine’s voice as well as her own.

      1. Maskerade! That’s the one!

        Yeah, that one made me mad. The thing is, Terry Pratchett really saw the ludicrousness in the way they valued looks over voice.

        I’m not fond of the “thin girl inside the fat one,” but he did create a really impressive fat heroine.

  14. On the linked article, commenter FLCPA said, “opera is as much visual as auditory.”

    Yeaaah, that’s why people have been buying records, cassettes and CDs of operas for as long as the audible media have been available to do so. Because it’s so “visual.”

    Granted, a good opera performer gives a believable visual performance (they need to be able to ACT), as well, but the heart and soul of the operatic medium is sound.

    Pavarroti, I believe, is the opera singer who caused a stir because he sang with his hands in his pockets. He said that his character was poor and cold, and such a man would put his hands in his pockets to warm them. He was acting. But what do people talk about the most with him? His voice. His singing. His vocal performance. Oh, yeah, and he could act believably on stage, as well. That was secondary.

    1. Opera IS visual as well. It’s what Wagner called the Gesamkunstwerk – it is intended as a collaborative art form integrating and fusing costume, drama, instrumental and vocal music (solo and ensemble), dance, theatrical spectacle, and visual art (painting, sculpture, etc.) into a rich new whole. It is intended that one be immersed in all of these things in order to enjoy a complete product. And yet, the music is the one piece that must be there – MUST be there! – or all else is pointless. The music carries the bulk of the story, which is why we can enjoy the sound of opera without the rest of the production.

      1. Absolutely–Helena nails it as usual. For me, sitting where I usually do (first or second balcony), large singers ADD to the Gesamtkunstwerk; far from their size detracting from the effect, their movements and their stage presence enhance the beauty of the whole. I mentioned Jane Eaglen as Brunnhilde earlier; Stephanie Blythe was Fricka in the same production and Oh.My.God (or I should say Goddess!). But the voice is the key. The voice comes first and foremost.

        In 1997 or 98, something like that, I heard Renata Scotto as Mimi in Boheme at the Lyric Opera. By that time, she was in her early 60s, and of course she didn’t “look the part” of a 20-something with tuberculosis. But her voice made the whole thing believable, and her acting followed from her voice. Same thing in 1976 when I saw Fonteyn and Nureyev dance “Romeo and Juliet” in Covent Garden. Was the 57-year-old Margot Fonteyn a “credible” 14-year-old Juliet? Well, yes, somehow she WAS, just as Scotto was a believable Mimi and Leontyne Price was believable in any role she ever sang and so on. And in none of those cases did I give a flip how old, or how fat (or thin, in Fonteyn’s case), or how “pretty” the performer in question was.

      1. You know what I would just love to see? I’d love to see the producers of this opera start with an announcement.

        “We have received the following critical appraisals regarding this opera:” and reading those blurbs from those fat-phobic, misogyinistic twits. “We want our audience to have the best, so we are taking these critics to heart. We have dismissed Tara Erraught, and replaced her with a thin, and conventionally beautiful woman.”

        Then, for every scene in which Tara Erraught’s part would be, the thin, conventionally beautiful woman comes out, holding a sign that says, “Tara Erraught’s Replacement.” She stand there, maybe shimmies a bit, looks all sexy, but does not sing one note.

        Yeah, I’d love to see that.

  15. I’m coping/pasting what I wrote on FB on Body Love Wellness link to this article. – this is one of the reasons I stopped pursuing opera…even though I have a kick-ass voice. I still plan on pursuing oratorio work, but it’s a different venue than actual opera. Ironic how back in the early days of opera, women were fat and accepted, but it’s the complete opposite now.-

    I think her voice is beautiful as well as her looks. The ‘critics’ are douchebags.

    When I was a singer at Macaroni Grill, I overheard an asshole “it’s not over till the fat lady sings” after I had sung Happy Birthday to someone at his table. It broke my heart and spirit at the time and to this day…probably 10 years later, I wish I had said something snarky back, but instead, I kept my mouth shut. Oh well…I’m sure my boss at the time would have defended me too!

        1. At the moment, no, because I’ve been in school for the last three years and I just can’t do both. When things are over, a year from now, I may re-audition with the Kansas City Lyric. We’ll see.

          1. Yeah, count me in. I went to L.A. to get into the music business in 1998 and quickly realized that it was all about Britney Spears and the pop princess look. I knew I didn’t have it, and I was way lighter than I am now. I want to sing. I’m awesome, but karaoke is just a minor outlet for me now. :

  16. I know almost crap all about opera (except that it has pretty singing often in foreign languages) and even I know that voice, set and costume is more important than how the singer looks.

  17. You would think that opera would be the one place where a fat woman could sing without body shaming. I had seen these reviews and was disgusted. As usual, you said it better than I could have!

  18. Well, as a fat opera singer myself…this is just insane. And discrediting to the opera world which is barely keeping itself afloat these days. We’re having enough problems getting the seats filled without wanksocks like this tearing it down.

    And I would not think that Ms Erraught could be considered offensively fat. She and I look identical in terms of body shape and size.

    But you know…all that time rehearsing, studying music, everything you give up to be an opera singer…apparently means nothing because clearly you haven’t been seeing to the most important part…YOUR THINNESS.

    What a bunch of hooey. I hope she’d printed out every one of those negative comments and set fire to them. And quite frankly…those critiquers just sound ridiculous and childish. Maybe if we ignore them they’ll go away.

    1. I appreciate your reply. I’d like to challenge your use of the phrase “offensively fat.” I may be misreading but it sounds to me like what you’re saying is that there is some weight at which she deserves this treatment, or that there is some weight at which the people’s mere existence is an offense to the eye. I would suggest that there is no such thing as offensively fat, that people of all sizes should be able to live free of stigma, shame, concern trolling, and the suggestion that they shouldn’t be allowed to display their talent because of their body size.


      1. Sorry, Ragen, that came out wrong. I did a poor job explaining that.

        Apparently the reviewers were offended by her size or else they would not have brought it up. It’s beyond petty to mention that at all in an opera critique…sounds like they were really reaching to find something negative, and as you said above, “…there is some weight at which she deserves this treatment, or that there is some weight at which the people’s mere existence is an offense to the eye.”

        What I meant was “offensively fat”…in the eyes of the reviewers which is obviously anything that is not thin. Or whatever the writer’s perception is of “thin”. Apparently anything over whatever their perception is would be considered offensive. This was demonstrated in their comments.

        The article offers no middle ground in its language: “Chubby bundle of puppy fat, stocky, dumpy of stature, unbelievable, unsightly, and unappealing.” Pretty strong language there, particularly that last phrase which borders on disgusts with no room for misinterpretation. I know as a veteran writer and English teacher that language has degrees of meaning. She’s not just “slightly overweight”, she’s “chubby, dumpy, unsightly”. It also leads me to wonder what the reviewers would have said if she were slender, if they notice body size so much. I wouldn’t assume they would keep quiet either way.

        I wrote this response right after a 3-hour audition and my brains were a bit scrambled. Apologies for any misunderstandings on both our parts.

        1. The one who called her a “chubby bundle of puppy fat” did reference the body size of her co-star… as “unusually slim” and then went on to laud her brave performance, despite her “brittle soprano” that seemed “in need of warming up”

          So basically, the thin singer he deemed less vocally talented was praised. Erraught’s “gloriously sung” performances are only admitted to grudgingly and after some pretty serious body shaming.

          1. “Unusually slim”, eh? Good lord. What a narrow picture of beauty this twatwaffle has. Bet he looks at a clear blue sky and wishes there was more colour variation.

    2. Slightly off topic but I wanted to thank you for adding “wanksock” to my lexicon of Fun Things to Call the Bigots and Trolls. XD

  19. YES YES YES YES YES! Thank you for this Ragen! I am so sick of audiences and judges on talent shows being *surprised* when an unconventional looking contestant can *sing.* Susan Boyle is the go-to example known by most people (I hate how her career hasn’t been supported or taken seriously because the powers that be seem to believe that she isn’t visually marketable – also some ageism their too I think), but it happens far more often. I stopped watching “The Voice” when a male judge expressed disappointment in not picking a contestant when he realized what she looked like (i.e. young and stereotypical-hot). The auditions are blind – the judges turn around to see who they picked after they hear them sing. So this woman’s voice wasn’t good enough for him to pick her *in a singing competition*, but he was bummed he missed out on the eye candy? Bullshit. Hetero male-gazing bullshit.

    You can’t tell what someone is capable of just by looking at them. You can’t tell if they can sing or dance. You can’t tell how fast they can run or how well they can play a sport. You can’t tell how smart they are.
    The only thing you can see when you look at someone is what they look like.
    The only thing you really see when you look at someone is the bias of your own perception.

  20. Reblogged this on The Cheese Whines and commented:
    “If we want to dismantle the patriarchy, a huge part of that is ending this tradition of having “I would screw her” as an entrance requirement to the jobs we want or the ability to engage in things for which we have talent.”
    At one point in my life when I had starved and overexercised myself to a coveted Socially Acceptable Size (TM) I went for an interview as an administrative assistant. I was able to read upside down what the interviewer was writing. I noted that he wrote “cute little blonde.”
    In my current persona, I would have gotten up and walked at that point. I finished the interview, but my demeanor turned to ice. There was no way I was going to take that job.
    Neither of my parents understood my attitude. They said I should have seen it as a compliment. Sure, like I was going to see the fact that some lecher wanted to bend me over his desk as a compliment.
    Last time I checked, there is no adipose tissue on the vocal cords. Hence, a fat person’s potential ability to really “belt it out” is no different than a thin person’s. Proving the point that this woman dares to be “unfuckable” in a world in which women are supposed to exist solely to provide men with eye candy and easy sex, and so the menz are angry that she isn’t complying with their hormonal whims, which never made it out of junior high.
    Interestingly, the late Ronnie James Dio, who had a very small stature, was often asked how anyone as small as he is could have such a powerful voice. While Dio did not encounter the kinds of prejudice that large people (particularly large women) in modern society do, he did not fit the image of what a “manly man” is supposed to be. Therefore, his vocal abilities perplexed people. I’m still trying to figure out exactly what the man’s stature had to do with his vocal cords.
    Sometimes I think what it all boils down to is that the general population is comprised of thoughtless twits, and I don’t want to live on this planet any more.

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