My hairy issues with Classical marketing

This is the kind of blog note I am not sure whether to post at all; maybe I would like to avoid my own bigotry to be showing too much. However, I think the question is worth giving a thought to, and I would be curious about your opinion, which tips the balance. So alright …

In the latest publicity shoots and appearances, both Joseph Calleja as well as Max Emanuel Cencic seem to miraculously have re-grown their hair. Some journalists have pointed this out, too, sometimes tongue-in-cheek, sometimes in a pretty mean way.

For me, it arises a more basic question: Is it a good idea, or even a necessity, to appear to have full-grown hair, or on the larger scale, to try to conform to the camera-friendly, standard ideal that seems prevalent in the Classical music industry? The recent success of Calleja as well as of Cencic seems to prove it. Of course, it might as well be a coincidence.

(Shots before + after, the rights to the pictures belong to their respective owners.)





What returned me to the topic was the reception of the latest Rosenkavalier at Glyndebourne where Tara Erraught was vividly bashed for not happening to coincide with some people’s visual expectations linked to the role of Octavian. I would like to add that physical appearance doesn’t matter, but of course this would be hypocritical. It does matter. I just don’t think that the differences between people are a turn-off, or that an opera singer should be ‘pretty.’

It’s my conviction that everyone is entitled to do whatever they like with their body. (I am not talking about cases of severe self-harm here.) This surely does include the question whether to wear a wig or whether to get a hair implant. Cher once said once that if she decided to have her breasts on her back, it was her decision – and she’s right, of course. However, let’s not forget that most people have aesthetic surgery done to be more pleasant-looking to others, or to appear more seductive. To be good-looking can greatly facilitate some things in our society. Even the argument ‘I am doing this only for myself’ is to be taken with caution. It just means that a certain standard we don’t feel to conform with has been internalized. (To unearth Nietzsche for a quote: “After all, what would be “beautiful” if the contradiction had not first become conscious of itself, if the ugly had not first said to itself: “I am ugly”?”)

I feel that for male actors at least, it is less pressing to comply with a beauty standard. There’s still the broad ‘character actor’ category; there is  a row of successful male actors who aren’t pretty by average standards. No one minds Peter Dinklage not being the standard pretty; he is awesome for his acting, and for what he has to say. Tom Hiddleston is not the instant looker of all times. If it wasn’t for his personality and his acting, no one would greatly care about him. The same goes for Benedict Cumberbatch. What elevates them over average is not how they look like; it’s what they are. The emotional depth actors can convey in the characters they play is usually the main thing that is really sexy about them. The same goes for singers. To show what I think is a good photo shoot, I added some pictures of Cumberbatch and Hiddleston. Of course, everyone has their own taste.


















What I have found is that, in short, especially the Classical music industry seems to have a focus on looks which is more conforming to a certain standard than Hollywood. I notice that, on average, pictures of classical artists are not as well-made by technical standards, and in most cases are not inclined to convey a character or tell a story. I think it’s symptomatic.

I’ve literally spent nights and days discussing plot-twists of operas, characterizations and certain shades of interpretation by a singer with my friends. To see a pretty-and-nothing-else photo shoot of a singer who managed to move me to tears insults my own depth of emotion, and every other’s who thinks likewise of course. I can go and fangirl about von Otter’s collarbone, or think a singer has a nice butt indeed, but really, this is not the essence of what moves me. Standard beauty is not what I look for in a classical singer. If the image is reduced to that, I am simply appalled. (Re-reading this, I feel the need to add that this is decidedly not aimed at barihunks or similar. This is entirely something different, as it mostly features on-stage appearances or random shoots, which also shows the singer of course as a person, how he is comfortable or not with his body, amongst other things. Plus, of course, no one would even look at the pictures if they didn’t know a singer, so the outward focus on physis is not at all what this page is about. But I digress.)

Let me add some examples, for what I find is unimaginative and frankly, boring, and on top of it not doing the artists  justice. There are different types of Classical promo shoots, it seems. For women, this means a) sexy b) sexy … c) did  I mention: be sexy? oh and d) either show you’re funny or be mysterious. (To pick two random examples, I chose Netrebko and Dessay.)

(Gender-switch the pictures, and you might see what makes me feel slightly uncomfortable.)

For males, it’s a) mostly a standard shoot, often a close-up  b) depending on the Fach, add some brooding, or ponderous quality to your expression.


Exception: In case of David Garret, add c) “Hair game going strong.”




If it’s Lang Lang, add d) hands





(There’s another category of promo-pictures I found to be on the increase, pictures that want to be very grungy, mostly with artists at night in some derelict parts of the city, or generally standing in places where they would be wise to not go, maybe to add some street credibility.)

So, let me go back right to the start.

What I really meant to say …

Cencic or Calleja were just examples of singers who seem to want to conform with an industry that has an odd focus on looks.  I really hope that the marketing of the big companies, and the professional photo shoots would perceive artists as the whole entities they are. To downgrade Classical artists to ‘pretty’, for me, is sort of an insult.

With over-‘pretty’ photo shoots, the Classical music industry seems to be complying to a pressure it largely creates itself. (As some evidence, it might serve that the facebook pages of artists are extremely popular and people seem to hunger for a backstage picture, or any picture really that isn’t photoshopped and airbrushed to death before being posted. The essence of a snapshot is its authenticity; something that most official pictures are lacking. )

The question remains who the music industry think they are complying to or targeting. I doubt it’s really the consumers in large numbers; the music industry might be producing for a target group that doesn’t really exist, or, the scarier option: They breed a certain target group or certain expectations. I might be full of illusions, but I think that the Classical music industry should start to market their artists for the personalities they are and the amazing things they do.





6 thoughts on “My hairy issues with Classical marketing

  1. There’s a classical music industry? They do marketing? You could fool me! If not for WQXR in New York, and the announcements of concerts in the Times, I would never know.

    Fortunately there are bloggers like you to give me the occasional clue.

    Those two singers at the top look photoshopped to me! Not that it matters.

    Of course, Jaroussky is very easy on the eyes!

  2. Well of course he is. In a different way Terfel is, and some other singers I really like. I like to watch people sing and act – at least sometimes – and I like to look at pretty things. That’s why i added in the first sentence “I would like to avoid my own bigotry to be showing too much … .” Well, but … Dita von Teese said, “You can be the ripest, juiciest peach in the world, and there’s still going to be somebody who hates peaches.” – which sums it up pretty nicely I think.

    Cumberbatch has been called “arse-named and horse-faced,” and no one can fathom the sh*t that Jaroussky had to take for his looks already. Critics in love are one thing; another is the kind of commenters that seems to flock youtube. If you’d have to draw him from the descriptions of some comments, you’d end up with a sketch resembling a cross between hunch-back, Rumpelstielzchen and the Tin Man from Wizard of Oz. Some people seem to polarize opinion and bring out the bigotry in many. Bigotry, because who would believe that all these people watched the videos by sheer accident and were repulsed. I like tumblr a lot, because there as a rule, you have to reblog something to be able to comment. Imagine you’d have a blog full of … peaches, stating with every picture just how much you hated peaches. People would justly assume that you have an issue there which is entirely your own.

    And yes, classical marketing I called it in lack of another more fitting term. At least the concert announcement here for the last concert of PJ was a collage picture of all the artists featured in the whole season, and I saw it in two places in total! The hall was full anyhow, which is a veritable marvel. The programme didn’t miss any opportunity to misspell something, including just copy pasting the lyrics of the arias from the CD booklet. After processing it through a text recognition program. Blame the italics, but it was full of “Alto Sfove” or similar. I threw it away on the way home. One issue is money, of course, but another is carelessness and lack of imagination.

    And hmm .. The CD picture of Cencic is heavily photoshopped. The others not so much. They look pretty okay too when I run them through
    But well, there is good and bad photoshop; I don’t mind retouching or filters or anything as long as it well done and serves the whole. (In blatant contrast to some of my own photoshops of course – but hey, I’m still learning!)

    I just hope that Jaroussky never starts dyeing his hair or does anything else to fit more into what an undisclosed mainstream apparently likes. I love his grey hair and also the hint of boy-boobs. Of course that’s just me, but I think he’s perfect the way he just happens to be. Some people will never like peaches.

    Another thing … I find the focus on singer’s looks – and not in a way connected to their personality or to their acting, as in physical presence, but in the way of looking at them as if they were models – wrong on many levels because of another thing. It adds additional pressure. Of course you want to look good when you go on stage, but … this in in fact not the issue on top of your mind. I mean … Erraught. Her singing was always mentioned somewhere in the about-last paragraph. Either the critics take the quality of her singing as a given, or it is really less important for them. It must be infuriating even more for a singer to see your art so disregarded.

    • This is why I love reading your stuff. I had no idea who or what Erraught might be, so I looked her up. Still young, and I can see what kind of comments the poor kid must get, although I think I remember many fine opera singers having a bit of heft on them. OK, maybe she shouldn’t do Cherubino… Do male singers get picked on this much?

      She is a pretty good singer, from the small sample I listened to. Maybe not a Bartoli, but not everybody is… Of course the quality on YouTube varies a whole lot too.

      I spent a couple of hours yesterday indulging in Jaroussky and some other counter-tenors, instead of practicing the cello in preparation for our concert in 2 weeks (Mahler 1).

      • Oh, good luck for Mahler! And oh … PJ … It’s weird because I have so many favourites of his recordings, too many to count. Very popular works, not so popular works, and also the lovely little arias that are the equivalent of Baroque B-sides, e. g. this one:

        To Erraught … I am not even sure if the topic can be narrowed down to sexism alone. Obviously, body shaming is more common towards females, but Botha was and is criticized just the same way. Pavarotti was also shamed a lot. What I notice is that the two examples are mostly brought up by people who want to prove that sexism in opera doesn’t exist – I very strongly insist that I’m not doing likewise. Sexism exists. Look at the promo shoots of Dessay and Netrebko. Then it is perfectly okay to like or not like something, for everyone, and this includes critics. Newspaper critics though, more than bloggers, have sometimes a renomée that likens their word to gospel – it isn’t generally perceived as just another opinion. If the reviewer is a sexist, it will show in the review, of course. I can’t yet determine if some reviewers are sexist in particular or just general dicks. Just … if a man says before court, hey, yes, I hit my wife, but I am not a sexist – I hit my brother too, regularly! – it doesn’t make things really better, does it. Here are some links put together to the reviews and statements in question.
        (As I said, I don’t think the topic can be limited to sexism, even though it may play a part.)

        Asshole behaviour and bullying shouldn’t be indulged in in official newspapers. And it’s not opinion, it is bullying. I wonder if they ever thought about what effect their behaviour has on the artist. How are they to not take it personal; the very nature of this critique is that it is personal. Someone being an artist doesn’t absolve the other, how ever distanced, on general rules of conduct. Almost everyone of us knows how hard it is – more so with an artist’s lifestyle where you just don’t get to eat at regular times – to maintain any kind of shape, or to lose a few pounds. Pavarotti consisted to about 30 % of Cortison I heard towards the end, and I am sure that if Botha got to pick, he would gladly chose an athele’s body for a change. I hate it if people make comments about weight as if weight was a sign of defeat and a sign of weakness. Obviously, for most reviewers, it is a flaw that can’t be un-seen, much worse than if the singing would have been bad.

        I listened to a few of Erraught’s performances on youtube. Very nice in total, I have yet to hear her in any Strauß to be able to imagine her Octavian. And hmm why not Cherubino? It would just be a different Cherubino. There are 13 year olds in all sizes and shapes as well, and personally, I find it would add some poignancy even if it was a Cherubino who doesn’t just look good in breeches but really has to be creative, and gets the Contessa and Susanna with his stanza. And let’s not forget they dress him up as a girl – another Octavian parallel. For once, the statement how lovely he looks in a dress would be the truth 😉 And his reluctance to join the military would even be more credible. Again, BMI is not the drawback, it’s just the problem of the beholder who doesn’t feel they can be bothered to adjust to an image that doesn’t quite coincide with their premade one.

      • You are right – it isn’t the BMI, it is the voice and the acting. I had to look up Johan Botha; quite a nice tenor, especially with Wagner, where it is NORMAL for all participants to have a bit of heft. He got one nasty review for which the author was a little bit sorry later. Here is part of the response Botha gave (


        The question is also about acting. We might want to see Erraught as Cherubino, just to see what she makes of it. Not a question of her size, of course.

        Thanks for distracting me again!

  3. Oh, I just read the link. Now how would you feel if you were Botha? One thing is to observe that a body mass like Botha’s is not good for your health over a long time. But that is his own issue. People cared less about Caballé’s alleged chain-smoking than about her weight as well, so I don’t believe people are just feeling protective and are uttering health concerns.

    But … reflecting on my own bigotry .. would I cast Botha – if he was an actor – as Hamlet? I don’t know, but I think – maybe. I would like to see what he does there first. As Romeo? I would really have to twist around the setting a lot there as a director to create an environment where Romeo isn’t supposed to be a teenager and it wouldn’t be perceived as ironical, and a mock, but as poignant.

    When you stage someone, no matter his size, in a staging meant for another, it’s a mean trick. I think that happened to Botha quite often in his career. To perceive his size, and handle it, is the task a director has there. Otherwise it’s like …. I don’t know if you have been watching Game of Thrones, but it reminds my of Tyrion’s and Sansa’s wedding. If you haven’t watched it, here it is, at 6:30. Obviously, Tyrion can’t put the cloak around Sansa’s shoulders; he is not tall enough. It is a setting devised by Joffrey (he took away the stool) just to expose Tyrion and to give people a cheap laugh. There seem to be many Joffrey-like stage directors around.

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