Juliet Dunlop: Sex still sells and that includes classical music

Juliet Dunlop. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Juliet Dunlop. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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A drum roll is called for. Something brassy from the horns. A comedy whoop from woodwind and a great big “ding” from the man with the triangle.

News emerges from the orchestra pit: classical musicians have been sexed-up! The Woman’s Hour presenter, Dame Jenni Murray, picked up on the alarming, if not exactly new, trend this week, and she is absolutely sure it is Not A Good Thing.

The Radio 4 host says female classical performers are being marketed in a way that is extremely sexist; that only the most attractive women succeed in the cut-throat world of concerts and album sales. She highlights violinist Nicola Benedetti and trumpet player Alison Balsom as examples, claiming that they, among others, have been forced to “go along with the old idea that sex sells”.

She has a point. Last year, a tabloid newspaper described Benedetti as looking as “fit as a fiddle” and pondered whether she’d thought about posing for a “lad’s mag”. Balsom has apparently earned the nickname the “trumpet crumpet”. So far, so predictable. Certainly, both women are by all accounts hugely talented and yes, very pretty. In the case of Benedetti, her face would not look out of place on the ceiling of an Italian church, and she, like Balsom, is not averse to wearing nice clothes and make-up.

But are we really shocked and surprised at the idea – however old it may be – that sex still sells? Can we really blame marketing executives and record companies for promoting glamorous women who will make them money?

Another Dame, the famous soprano Kiri Te Kanawa, thinks that we can. In a recent interview she laments the pressure young female opera singers are under to win roles. She claims she has come across young women at New York’s Metropolitan Opera who were “starving” and “hungry” because they felt they had to lose weight to succeed. (The ingredients for a modern but ultimately tragic opera are all there).

She told the Radio Times that rather than aim to be skinny, the opposite should be the case; that “you’ve got to have beef on you if you’re going to sing.” Although she acknowledges that her looks didn’t hurt her stellar career, she still thinks there is too much emphasis on appearance. Singers, she says, are “sometimes more beautiful than their voice, and that’s a bit of sadness.”

Interestingly, Dame Kiri also reveals that she has very little time for “popera” – the classical crossover stuff that’s usually fronted by the young and attractive.

Now, given her views about thin, overtly glamorous opera singers who appear to put style before substance, her thoughts on Katherine Jenkins might be less than flattering. Jenkins, who seems to typify all the things she and Jenni Murray are railing against, was recently dropped by her record label.

Not so very long ago the mezzo-soprano rose from the Welsh valleys like an exotic bird, or was it an angel? But lately she’s been picked apart by sections of the tabloid press. She’s been derided for trying to crack the American market, hounded on Twitter and even criticised for daring to wear lip-gloss while running the London marathon. Indeed, rumours that a series of “diva demands” – she is understood to have asked Warner Music for £1,500 a day for hair and make-up – have damaged her.

Yet who can blame Jenkins for wanting to look perfect at all times when her entire image has been built upon her looking just that? Her voice should have been her fortune, not her face (her £5.8 million, three-album contract was the biggest classical recording deal in history) but that was the way the record company wanted it. There is the fall in sales to consider…but it appears Katherine Jenkins is being punished for being a celebrity.

So you see, women can’t win. Even in the rarefied world of classical music. Female musicians and opera singers are up against the same problems faced by women across the so-called entertainment industry. They’re too young or too old, too fat or too thin, too pretty or too plain.

One suspects that many of them are also rubbish at blowing their own trumpet – not Alison Balsom, obviously – but we have to hope that talent will out, even if it doesn’t always sell.