(with apologies to Judith Butler for appropriating that title out of context)
In response to the controversy that resulted from several critics’ unsavory remarks on a singer’s body in their reviews of Glyndebourne Festival Opera’s Der Rosenkavalier, Alice Coote penned ‘an open letter to opera critics.’ In it, she insists that opera is ‘ALL about the human voice.’ Setting aside for a moment the other aspects the contribute to a production (such as sets and lighting), I want to address the question, Do bodies matter in opera?
Perhaps the most straightforward case is that of trouser roles like Octavian (the role that started this whole brouhaha). Even the names for these parts (“trouser role,” “breeches part,” “pants part,” Hosenrolle) emphasize the singer’s body. Women playing men typically fool no one, but the ambiguous eroticism that arises from the resulting androgyny is part of the appeal of opera. Terry Castle describes the opening scene of Der Rosenkavalier in her 1995 article, ‘In praise of Brigette Fassbaender’:
What we see before us—in the intoxicating boudoir scene at the start of Rosenkavalier—is Fassbender, the diva, draped langorously across another, making passionate love to her. No matter how artfully ‘true to life’ the boyish gestures, Fassbender-in-drag fools no one: the fact that the body is female, that the voice is a woman’s voice, remains inescapable. […] The very butchness with which she tackles, say, a role like Octavian—the sheer, absolutist bravado of the impersonation–infuses it with a dizzying homosexual charge. The more dashingly Fassbender pretends, the more completely she fails.
The scene is ‘intoxicating’ not in spite of its lack of naturalism, but because of it.
Peter Brooks, in a 2000 essay in the collection Siren Songs, more broadly articulates the centrality of the body to opera:
What you get in opera is a body thrust upon your attention–a costumed body, staged and lighted, representing a certain person in a certain dramatic situation. Here in fact is the glory, and also the embarrassment, of opera: the claim that visual embodiment and voice coincide in the singer. […] The demands made on voice and body for dramatic representation are not the same, and the claim for their coincidence will very often demand a large dose of faith on the part of spectator/listener, a willingness to accept an as-if that would seem to be excluded from a genre that traditionally seeks, in its stage settings and effects, such a large measure of illusionism. Lovers of opera do of course accept that as-if. […] They revel in the weird excess of the situation. They revel in a form that combines illusionism with clear impossibility, the height of artifice with the most natural of instruments, the human voice.
I think Brooks is spot-on in his assessment. Opera is not merely about the voice; the body ‘thrust upon our attention’ cannot be ignored.
My practical conclusions are that body type is a legitimate casting concern in many directors’ operatic visions and in critics’ reviews (though there are better and worse ways to comment on it), but directors and critics can and should also take opportunities to revel in the ‘weird excess’ of ‘clear impossibility’. Audiences don’t need to expect naturalistic believability from productions—they can instead expect artfully managed tension between the believable and the impossible. It’s actually more difficult to achieve than naturalism, I suspect, but it’s also more fun.