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.)
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.
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.