Claire Black: The idiocy of body shaming

HAVE you ever seen an opera critic? I’ve come across a few in my time, begins Claire Black

Octavian (Tara Erraught) left , and Sophie (Teodora Gheorghiu) in modified rapture.  Picture: Bill Cooper
Octavian (Tara Erraught) left , and Sophie (Teodora Gheorghiu) in modified rapture. Picture: Bill Cooper

They are, without exception in my experience, white, male, utterly unremarkable in their squareness and often balding. Are you shocked by my superficiality? Does it seem inappropriate that I’m reducing these presumably intelligent, fully sentient men, in this way? What on earth does the state of their pate have to do with whether they know a fine Don Pasquale from a flat Tannhäuser?

Nothing. It doesn’t have anything to do with it at all. And yet utter irrelevance never seems to have any impact whatsoever on the constant and crushing fixation on women’s bodies which passes for the socially acceptable. Or at least has until recently.

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Of course, the reason I’m picking on opera critics is because of the shameful spectacle of five broadsheet reviews of a recent performance at Glyndebourne each ripping into the physical appearance of mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught, who was making her debut.

Erraught, who sang the role of Octavian in Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, was pilloried for being “dumpy”, “stocky” and “a chubby bundle of puppy fat”. Oh yes, and “unsightly and unappealing”. By all accounts Erraught has a majestic voice, it’s just a pity she’s not a size 0 seemed to be the gist.

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And here I declare an interest: I love Der Rosenkavalier. It’s my favourite opera. The duet sung by Octavian and the Marschallin is one of the most heart-meltingly beautiful in opera. The subject matter grips too – it’s about getting older, fading beauty and the inconstancy of men. Oh the irony. For me it’s always been heightened by the fact that it’s sung by two women – I always happily forget that one of them is supposed to be a teenage boy. But there’s the rub – Octavian is a boy, the part to be sung by a woman. He is supposed to be androgynous, appealing both as a young suitor and also when disguised as a maid. There are few mezzos who look like this. But then again Pavarotti never looked like a starving poet when he sang Rodolfo in La Bohème and Bryn Terfel might not be your idea of a typical lothario although he’s managed to make Don Giovanni one of his signature roles.

And this baffling stupidity doesn’t only infect the opera world. Comedian Sarah Millican wrote magnificently recently about how the excoriating criticism of her dress ruined her Bafta night last year. Singer Alison Moyet on Desert Island Discs last week also spoke brilliantly about the unwelcome attention on her appearance that she’s had to put up with in a 30-year career, as well as her take on the significance of her body: “I need a body to walk my head around”. It’s not dissimilar to how filmmaker and actress Lena Dunham puts it: “I think about my body as a tool to do the stuff I need to do, but not the be all and end all of my existence.” Or movie star Emma Stone: “We’re always too skinny or too fat or too tall or too short. We’re shaming each other and we’re shaming ourselves and it sucks.” I couldn’t put it any better.

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Iran’s fight for the right to party

THE least happy news of recent weeks must be that a group of six young Iranians, men and women, were arrested and publicly shamed for making a video on a mobile phone of them dancing to Pharrell Williams’ addictive tune Happy. Laughing and busting some rather fine moves on a rooftop in the city of Tehran, it was a joyous video. It’s one of thousands that have been made and posted online in response to the Williams’ original which has been viewed more than 250 million times on YouTube. As far as I know, these six Iranians have been the only ones arrested and, according to reports, forced to strip and do squats, before then being paraded on TV, where they were “interviewed” in order to show their contrition. “It is beyond sad that these kids were arrested for trying to spread happiness,” said Williams on Facebook. Yes, man in the ridiculous hat, on this we agree. Hossein Sajedinia, Tehran’s police chief managed to boast with a straight face that it had only taken his force six hours to identify the completely undisguised dancers. Depressing then, but with a hint of something more positive, perhaps? The country’s president, Hassan Rouhani, 
tweeted in support of the Happy dancers. “#Happiness is our people’s right,” he wrote. “We shouldn’t be too hard on behaviours caused by joy.” Hear hear.

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Redemption for drones

In Mumbai last week, a pizza was delivered by a drone. In the good ol’ US of A, domestic guru and one time jailbird, Martha Stewart, has one for taking photographs of her vast Westchester County estate – and before you cry celebrities are crazy, just remember Lady Gaga has “some EMF-meter” to ward off evil spirits and George “Nespresso” Clooney has his own spy satellite. But drones, they were once a science fiction fantasy, then they became a weapon of indiscriminate murder and a ruthless tool of the capitalist system – but could they be on the verge of some kind of redemption? I mean pizza is a good thing, right? And if they can make one that takes out the recycling, put me on the waiting list. «