A Heavy Fall from Grace
Already embattled, music critics have done themselves no favours by
attacking a young singer’s figure
Half a lifetime ago, I flew into Washington DC for a conference of music critics at which Isaac Stern told us we were writing the first draft of history. How history has changed.
Every large US city was represented at that conference. Every critic I met had a staff job with a newspaper or radio station. The chief critic of the New York Times bought me lunch on his company gold card. A critic was a person of substance, protected by democratic convention and public demand.
We heard rumblings in dark corners of pressures to highlight pulchritudinous young performers, but critics on the whole were immune from editorial interference and elevated by a linear rhetoric that ran through H.L. Mencken, George Bernard Shaw and Eduard Hanslick, the protoype Beckmesser, all the way back to Addison, Swift and Johnson in the coffee houses of 18th-century London. Critics were a protected species. Not even the most Eeyorish among us foresaw the critical Armaggedon that lay half a lifetime ahead.
Today, hardly any US city outside New York has a full-time staff music critic. Many of the newspapers I used to speed-read in Washington have been consigned to the dustbin of history. Sic transit media mundi. As Gutenberg lost to Gates, one of the least-sung casualties of print civilisation was the critical review, a format vital to the functioning of an arts economy and a free society.
The state of music criticism is now parlous, verging on terminal. Take London, once a world shaper of cultural opinion where the mid-market Daily Express, in the 1950s, employed no fewer than five concert and opera reviewers. In 2014, most music critics are on zero-hour contracts. Some are paid as little as £50 without expenses for a national review. The Independent on Sunday has abolished critics altogether.
The average age of London music critics is 60. The faces have not changed in a quarter of a century. Review space has diminished; some notices are published only in the newspaper’s online edition, where they languish unnoticed. Reviews have ceased to be required reading for dinner-table conversation. A preliminary row of stars, ranked from one to five, tells readers what the critic thought. That’s all they need to read.
Music criticism has suffered more than any other form during the fall of newspapers. Film, pop and visual arts reviews, focused on celebrity and extreme wealth, have maintained their space. Classical music and dance, edged to the margins, are forced to justify their relevance by means of colour and contention. Editors demand controversy. A good performance is no longer good enough.
Which goes some way to explaining the extraordinary furore that erupted at the start of summer over Richard Jones’s curtain-raiser at Glyndebourne, a production of Der Rosenkavalier replete with female nudity and the director’s trademark flourish of florid wallpaper. Neither of these clichés, however, alarmed the hackney-cab horses.
The opera’s opening tableau, exposing the post-coital Marschallin naked in a golden shower (actually, in a body suit), drew no more than weary yawns. What caught the critics’ eye was not the baring of Kate Royal but the flouncing of her adolescent lover, the boy-girl Octavian, sung by the young Irish mezzo Tara Erraught, who was seen in a frumpish dressing-gown looking generally well-satisfied.
Tara, making her UK stage debut, became the victim of what can only be called a critical lynching. Andrew Clark in the Financial Times called her “a chubby bundle of puppy-fat”. Michael Church (Independent) and the Daily Telegraph’s Rupert Christiansen both deemed her “dumpy”. Andrew Clements in the Guardian said she was “stocky” while Richard Morrison in The Times declared her “unbelievable, unsightly and unappealing”. It would have been more honest to call her fat; the euphemisms were more offensive than the intended meaning.
Within hours, the singing world was in uproar online at the unprovoked assault on a young artist, not for any fault in her performance — soon to be vindicated for all the world to see by a streamed Glyndebourne relay on the Telegraph and Arte websites — than by her failure to conform to the size eight dictates of contemporary fashion.
Divas went on air to protest. Dame Kiri te Kanawa said singers needed more helpful costumes. Alice Coote reminded us that “being underweight is far more damaging to a singer’s wellbeing and performance than being overweight”. Before the week was out, the fat-shaming flare-up at Glyndebourne was being discussed on breakfast television in the US and Russia, pushing Iraq and the Ukraine down the public agenda.
The critics were obliged to respond at two or three times the length of their original review. Christiansen bluffly stood by his every word; Morrison had the decency to apologise for the hurt he had caused an artist at the start of her career. Newspapers which had down-paged the original reviews now front-paged the consequent eruptions with a cupidity that verged on treachery and hypocrisy.
One editor privately admitted she should never have let the pseudo-fat word past her subbing pencil. However, as the storm broke, she swiftly commissioned a feminist and a singer to lambast her own critic, boasting of the resulting click-fest and proving that, in the online age, it is finally conceivable both to eat your cake and still have it.
No one had a kind word to say for the music critics, who were perceived to be misogynist, sadistic, collusive, sensation-seeking and altogether blinder than a Fifa referee at an England football match. Most, if not all, of these perceptions are false. The critics I have known are generally idealists who wish the world were better than it is and labour unsocial hours for low pay in a vain effort to elevate its condition. They are not, on the whole, random wreckers of young careers.
But a reckless night at Glyndebourne has done more damage to their embattled calling than any case in recent memory. It was long assumed that a newspaper would defend its critic’s right to an opinion before the highest court in the land as a guarantor of free speech in an over-spun society. No more. The speed with which newspapers turned upon their own in the furore was mark of a wolf-pack in retreat, abandoning the weak and turning dog upon dog for grim survival. It made a sorry start to the festival summer.