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THE WORLD’S LEADING PERFORMANCES ARE REHEARSED TO PERFECTION

Most of the world’s leading opera companies and soloists when rehearsing are accompanied by a Steinway piano, and the reason for our success is simple. In a mass produced and price conscious world, Steinway has not compromised. Each Steinway piano owes its unique characteristics and incomparable sound to the people who carefully and individually create it. Suffice to say that those at the very top of their profession, as well as those who simply want the best, invest in nothing less.

ST EINW AY HALL, 44 MAR YLEBONE LA NE, LO NDON W1U 2DB TEL: 020 7487 3391

WWW.STEINWAY.CO.UK ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM

By the Editor

Writing this in early January, when many people may have gained a few festive pounds, I realize that it’s not altogether tactful to raise the issue of anyone’s size, let alone that of singers. But here goes—it’s impossible to ignore some of the discussion on the fringes of the operatic press following the Royal Opera’s remarkable new production of Tannhäuser, one of the great Covent Garden evenings in recent memory. There was no controversy over Semyon Bychkov’s magnificent conducting, and precious little over Tim Albery’s stimulating staging. The singing was highly praised, too; but singled out for some fatuous, fattist and deeply insulting remarks was the undeniably bulky figure of the Tannhäuser himself, Johan Botha. Not, of course, in these pages: as Rodney Milnes puts it in summing up his review (pp. 226-9), ‘Botha may not be the Laurence Olivier of tenors, but with Albery’s help he presented an entirely believable protagonist’. Quite.

Now, I’m not suggesting that Botha is many people’s idea of an operatic pin-up, or that a few of the comments weren’t genuinely humorous. But Botha’s presence seemed to provoke an alarming outbreak of stupid, cheap-shot criticism, and not only on a website that should know better. Not all my critical colleagues are themselves the slenderest chopsticks in the drawer, so I was surprised to read one declare that Botha had put ‘the cause of opera as credible music-theatre back 40 years’. Never mind the fact that this production had been sensitively designed around Botha, or that the sight of his awkward figure on a somewhat lonely-looking chair emphasized the poignant isolation of this Tannhäuser. And what about the fact that Covent Garden had cast probably the best voice—certainly the most reliable—for this role today? The elephant in the room, if you’ll excuse the pun, is the following unaddressed question: why is it that in this politically correct era, when even harmless personal remarks are frowned on, is it still OK to be grossly rude about weighty artists?

The theatre is a place of illusion, and the very opposite of television, where everyone has to look like, well, TV stars. Every mature (of mind, that is) opera-goer knows that it’s perfectly possible—indeed, quite likely—to be more deeply moved by the great voices of singers who for reasons or age or size might not pass the verisimilitude test of a TV screen, than by singers cast entirely for their looks. In an ideal world, it would be nice to encounter singers who sound and look fabulous, but I’m not the first person to note that we’re not living in an ideal world. So thank heavens for music’s transforming power, which means that sopranos and tenors who may look unconvincing until they open their mouths can be enthralling when they start to sing.

This is an issue that is not going to go away, especially not with the proliferation of operatic telecasts. Opera singers are not meant to be seen in close-up, and some of today’s most important and even popular stars might best be described as ‘good from far but far from good’ (one or two may even fall into the ‘body from Baywatch, face from Crimewatch’ category). Let’s hope that cinema-goers don’t follow a few misguided journalists in demanding the removal of physically-flawed singers in favour of more plausible-looking figures. Otherwise opera really will be in trouble. Opera, February 2011 131