God, opera singers are touchy. You dare to analyse how they look, you dare to criticise the enormous subsidies they get, you have the temerity to call someone an opera singer who hasn’t been vetted by an opera commissar and they go all Al-Qaeda on you.
Yesterday the Today programme had an interview with Russell Watson, a decent, popular singer whose shtick includes shouty renditions of opera arias. The presenter introduced him as an opera singer and the poncey opera world went ballistic. ‘He’s not an opera singer!’ they bleated, ‘He’s just a singer!’ Note that twatty ‘just’?
No art form that was confidant about what it does would ever feel the need to puff up their chests like this. No art form would need to throw their toys out of the pram over something so slight. No other art form has such a chippy, proprietorial claim over certain words. Someone needs to explain to opera that the 20th century happened. You can no longer keep hold of definitions you feel to be sacred like they’re your teddies.
If the BBC wants to call Russell Watson an opera singer, they should be able to do that and not be forced to offer a grovelling apology. If the BBC wants to call Ken Dodd a performance artist, they can do that. Marina Abramovic won’t mind. Lots of people call Miranda Hart a comedian. I don’t demand a public apology. I laugh.
It’s part of a broader problem of operatic exceptionalism. Fat-gate was part of this. How dare opera singers tell us that, alone of all performers in any theatrical art form, the way they look should be off limits? How dare they police what we say about them? What, they think their job is less deserving of the kind of critical censure that pop and film gets regularly because opera singing is more difficult and, therefore, more virtuous? Seriously?
Of course, as with all exceptionalism, it arises from profound self-doubt and self-loathing and terror at the fact that – in its sclerotic, 19th-century form – it’s clearly an art form that is on its last legs. But please, opera people, get a room. It’s embarrassing watching someone have a nervous breakdown in public. See a therapist, have a holiday, leave us out of it.
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