Stage presence, or what’s the BMI got to do with it?

This post on tumblr was too good to not comment on it, and, as usually, my reply got a little longer. How to summarize? “Do appearances matter in a singer, or would Netrebko be yet better with a thigh gap?” 



Let’s just get this away with first: Anna Netrebko is one of my favorite singers. She was just hitting her stride when I first got into opera, and I essentially grew up with her becoming the reigning soprano that she is today. I can really credit her for getting me interested in opera, in some part. Let’s get something else straight (no pun intended). I am not attracted to females. My love of opera has no relation to the way Anna Netrebko looks. I like her because she sings with straightforward, honest expression, and is one of the most dramatically engaging singers I’ve seen. And lest you think I’m some sort of naïve teen that only listens to modern singers and discounts the past, I do also love Callas, Sutherland, Price, etc.

So let’s address the issues at hand.

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I’m not a huge Trebs fan but I give you some HUGE, mad props for this. People DEFINITELY need to stop bashing her for things like her weight. People also need to stop criticizing her for not becoming the next Callas or whomever. She is her own singer in her own right and people need to stop expecting the singers of this generation to vocally immortalize the singers of the previous generation. If we are to be a respectable fandom we need to start acting like adults. *insert slow claps for a most excellent post*

I agree to all of the above, but I would like to add something. Looks and aesthetics matter. The discussion now goes on for hundreds of years already, literally, where the ones who claim it doesn’t matter are name-calling the others as shallow, while the others name-call the ones who claim looks don’t matter in turn as hypocrites. This is not the same thing, let me stress this beforehand, as saying all singers have to be good-looking or fitting your aesthetic ideal.

It is interesting that you brought up Callas. She declined Leonore in Fidelio, because she felt too fat, and she would have had to wear breeches. She drastically lost weight to fit better with the idea she had of her own roles, first of all Violetta and Mimi. (I assume many other reasons played a role as well, but I think it is safe to say that for La Divina, music played the most important part in it.)

Now what am I trying to say with this – people are different, and they have many facets to them to be real people; Netrebko is not Callas, as little as la Caballé is Callas – she never significantly lost weight for any role, and Callas in turn held her in great esteem.

Beauty? Go away.

A singers’ appearance is about more than beauty. It is about presence. A voice doesn’t exist independently from your body. There doesn’t have to be a perfect alignment between the looks, and the role, referring to the looks that people care to see in their soft-p*rn aesthetics. One of my favourite singers of all times is Thomas Quasthoff, who makes you think about Don Giovanni from a different angle. What is it exactly that makes Don Giovanni so successful with women?

This is Hvorostovsky’s approach:

And this is Quasthoff:

You don’t even need to look at them – their approaches are very different, and both are valid. Hvorostovsky’s, needless to say, sounds a lot more physical. He counts on the sheer sexiness of the voice, while Quasthoff makes up for the lack of what I would call an extremely sensual voice with the flawlessness of his phrasing. If it was only dashing looks that Elvira, Anna, etc., would be looking for in a man, he wouldn’t need to woo them.

Does a singer have to be handsome/pretty? 

Do they? No. They need to be more than that. To be really good, they have to be one of their kind, just like their voices.

Pretty is for stock-photos. I don’t want the stock-photo equivalent of a voice either. Just by the way, I detest the style of most cover and promo shoots of Classical artists from the bottom of my guts, but I will refrain from providing examples.

What is beauty?

That’s complicated. There seems to be some agreement, over at the barihunks faction, but my own physical ideal is a different one, e.g.. This is not to say that there is anything wrong as such with a six-pack.

A singer is not necessarily built and shaped like a body builder or a p*rn actor, and they don’t need to be. There are so many types of people, and some enjoy working out, some not; the same goes for singers.

It’s something different if I look at a picture of a body I like, or if I am falling in love with a person. Every good singer manages to make us evolve a little crush on them, at least for the duration of some glorious notes.  Once this love gets serious, I tend to enjoy the little flaws, and imperfections of a singer, vocally, but concerning their physique as well.

But what happens on a stage? You ideally forget the singer, and get washed away by the music when the singer gets absorbed by his role.  That’s the magic of it. The same happens when we watch a good movie.

To hook the topic off singers for now, let’s take a look at an actor, and look closely. I deliberately chose a mug-shot perspective fist. This actor is called Benedict Cumberbatch, and he has recently been voted the sexiest man alive by the British. (For me, he scores a close 2nd 1/2) .


Now … is he pretty? Hm, no. His face has many things that are too much of a certain thing. Nothing is usual about his face. The eyes are not even remotely symmetric and very far apart. His eyebrows function differently than those of other people. The Amor’s bow of his lip draws attention to his unusual mouth, his chin is not quite manly, because it is too round for that – “too.” This face has too much of everything, it seems, to be “pretty” – because pretty means average.  Now let’s get away from this mug shot, and look at this:

cumberbatch seriously f

Well, okay. Now what is there the other picture was lacking? Not just a great photographer, a good setting, clothes, and a good light-setting. It’s about the look he gives us.

Why is this picture more likely to get you than the first? Why do all the characteristics of his face that would be considered flaws if compared to “pretty” average suddenly stop being strange, and his face becomes close to what could be considered as perfect?

That’s the magic. It’s still the same guy. The second picture has a calculated, specific emotion he transports in his look. That’s a role; that’s acting. And, let me repeat – this man is not “pretty.”

What if appearance and role just don’t match?

Well, sometimes they don’t, by no means. Yes, I want to see something when I go to the opera. However, I have to say, I have rarely seen a singer whose physical presence just wouldn’t match for me with the role.


1) Peter Rose

Billy Budd


Sorry, … , but congrats, Sir, to … Wonderful voice, too.


Another example where it takes me an effort to believe is the June Anderson/Marilyn Horne DVD of Semiramide. Marilyn Horne is supposed to be June Anderson’s son. Ooookay. I tried. It won’t match for me.

Well, what then? I don’t mind. The sheer vocal awesomeness of Horne and Anderson together wins in this case.

Fat, seriously?

Just because people keep comparing Netrebko to Callas in an awkward way there, let me stress:

Callas didn’t intend to be “pretty.” What she did was not healthy. People adored her, and made her appearance an ideal; it didn’t happen the other way round. She never succumbed to any ideal of femininity, and the comparison to Jacqueline Kennedy is invalid.

Kennedy never made faces like this in public.


Callas was bony and emaciated. She was at times frighteningly fragile. She made faces when she sung like no other ever had done before that I know of. She most definitely did not want to be pretty – she wanted to become the role she sang. Her life is somehow the tragedy of a method actor. She was different than anyone would have imagined, she was authentic, and she was herself. The same goes for Caballé, Moffo, and all the other great ones.

When people demand Netrebko to lose weight, they do that to make her fit into their concept. This is a different idea altogether. Netrebko has been said to be fat? Oh, she has a kid, just by the way – I still fight with my weight since I had a kid; it seems to me as if the body would want to transform itself into a perfect baby-mattress and stay that way. Callas, on the contrary, is rumoured to have had a miscarriage. Her being under-weight might have played a role in these events.

I am not a huge Netrebko fan, but I have to concede she very much evolved during the past years. There are even certain singers I particularly dislike, but the great thing about it – I don’t need to listen to them. To go around and flame singers because one just don’t happens to like them is completely unacceptable behaviour.

People wrote mean things about Jaroussky as well concerning his shirtlezz appearance in Gulio Cesare as Sesto, and some still infuriate me. I’m just bringing up this example of Jaroussky to show that this phenomenon is not gender-specific. It happens to men all the time as well, to some more frequently than to others it seems.

So … let’s think about that – Sesto. It is a perfect example. It would be new to my knowledge that the historic Sesto strived for a career in the adult movie industry, so this body seems fine for an aristocratic minor with a difficult relationship to his mother.


Jaroussky seems boyish, which is perfect, and I don’t mind the what I would guess are about 4 extra pounds that separate him from glossy magazine appearance. This is Sesto, and I wouldn’t mind if someone 5 feet tall and weighing 160 kg would sing the role if they sang it well – It would just be a different Sesto then. Jaroussky seems fragile, and awkward when his shirt gets taken off and he is strapped with a belt full of explosives. Fine, that’s in line with the role. I would guess the least of Sesto’s concerns go to “I should have worked on my abs” in this specific moment.

So, the body matters. A lot. But to only want to see glossy magazine perfection is just not opera. Go and watch musicals!

Things I hate in particular

  • You don’t want a black prince in La Cenerentola, or you think a Gilda should be blonde? Do take a seat, but – at a distance from me please.
  • You hate on singers because you think they’re in fact too good-looking? In my humble opinion, this is just as idiotic as to hate on singers not pretty enough for your taste.
  • You bash whole Fachs and whole voice types? “Are countertenors better than mezzo sopranos” or vice versa?  (I am not talking about “I like better” but about “are better than.”) You may proceed, but first, please do highlight why kitties are better than guinea-pigs, and I like the conclusion bit, where you decide one of these species should be eradicated.

regressives umfeld

Last topic on Amazon the other day: “Countertenors – do we need so many of them?”

  • You hog on singers’ sites who you happen to dislike and flame them? You seriously have time for that? Grow up.
  • Don’t ever dare to mix your puny racism and sexism with your criticism of a singer around me – you will lose all my respect in an instant.
  • You go for glossy magazine aesthetics only, and anything slim, young, and preferably wearing a low neckline or, respectively, a frock coat, will do?

thanks for your input

That’s all for now.


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