"But it's all about the voice!" Opera singers insisted. "Since when has opera been about appearances?"
Since always. Otherwise opera wouldn't be staged, we wouldn't go to see it, we'd close our eyes while the singers stood there and just sang it. The production in question began with the other soprano showering naked, so if they really didn't want anyone to be looking, maybe they should have sent a different message.
Many of the greatest divas who ever lived had faces and figures as beautiful as their voices, or else they knew how to act beautiful. Emma Calvé (famous for being the most beautiful Carmen of the 19th century) wrote about seeing Gabrielle Krauss sing:
"Her appearance ordinarily was unattractive, even ugly; but when she sang, she was transfigured. She became beautiful, inspired! She was able to thrill even the audiences of the Opera, that public of dilettanti so difficult to please or move!"
She then described an occasion on which Liszt almost refused to accompany Krauss because he thought she was ugly and he didn't like her vibrato, but as soon as she began to sing he was completely won over and begged her forgiveness in front of the whole audience.
Of course, I'm only mentioning women here, and that's the point that has been raised in this recent 'scandal': that it's a sign of the times we live in that women have such pressure on them to be beautiful and skinny. But that's not a new thing, either, and there's always been double the pressure on stage performers. When Nellie Melba wrote her Melba Method, one of her first pieces of advice was to get a personal trainer and not eat rich foods, because, she said, "a singer does not want to get stout."
In contrast, soprano Alice Coote has written this in an open letter to EVERYBODY:
"Singers and teachers know that being underweight is far more damaging to a singer's wellbeing and performance than being overweight. Similarly I can tell you that if our stomachs are toned anywhere near a six-pack our sound will suffer. The relaxation needed for low breathing is not aided in any sense by an over worked out body. I know from my own journey that I began to sing with far more physical authority when I got beyond a certain physical weight. Below that I just wasn't a strong enough vehicle to launch sound from freely into large theatres and concert halls."
That advice is far more damaging to a young singer than any amount of negative comments on appearance. She then goes on to compare singers to olympic athletes, and that's where we agree. Singers do need to train like athletes; you do need a six-pack to support your breathing; to get through an opera you need the stamina of a marathon runner. There is no excuse for laziness in singers.
And a singer needs to take care of their appearance - that means knowing how to present themselves on stage so that they can be credible in any rôle.
Pop singers see their weight analysed in the tabloids every day, and they work as hard on their image as they do their sound. It's an important lesson that opera singers could do with learning, as these days all the advertising around an opera is about the production, not the performers. But it's still a singers job to be as convincing as they can be within that production. Take a look at Lawrence Brownlee — no-one's laughing at him for being usually the smallest member of any cast because he holds himself so well.
Whether they like it or not, opera singers are going to have to accept that opera is a visual medium, and they need to learn how to use it to their best advantage.
And don't forget — I'm at Handel House on the 23rd November in 'The Fat Lady Has Sung'. See you there!