Back in Washington DC for a week with the WNO YAs, which is always a joyous and inspiring time for me. This comes on the heels of some beautiful weeks of work and growth for my students back at CCM, and a satisfying recital back in Ann Arbor. It’s been a full and fulfilling late winter.
But tonight, I’m really sad. Like, chips and guacamole for dinner sad.
It started this afternoon with a Twitter thread. The violist Sam Bergman asked for casual examples of sexism in the classical music biz. Not groping behind closed doors, or the threat/promise of career help in exchange for sex. Sam was looking for the offhand comment, the thing probably not perceived by the speaker as sexist, the sort of thing we learn to ignore or laugh off or not take “so seriously.”
And the stories began, so familiar and so innocuous. A composer telling a female student that her writing was “pink cloud” music. The usual comments about conductor’s bodies and whether women who marry and have children are serious about their careers. I contributed a couple of things that I’ve written elsewhere, but as I watched the thread go I felt a sort of heart-heaviness. It’s something to look at the comments other women have absorbed and to know how much we’ve heard in common, how much we work to ignore and get past. But yanno, as everyone keeps reminding us, it’s the hashtag me too era. I’m used to these discussions and always happy to see people talking about subjects that were never public when I was a youngster, or even middle-aged.
Then my fabulous, fierce star of a friend Tracy Cox got on board, saying essentially, hey, let’s talk about the casual body-shaming comments we’ve experienced, or the ones offered to us as helpful advice.
So first of all, I hope you go to Twitter and find this thread, because it’s heart breaking. My friend was advised by the head of an opera company – I am not making this up – to wear a dry cleaning bag over her body, under her clothing, and to walk the five miles to the theater every day. I have to admit that one surprised me.
But the rest of it did not.
It’s a tragedy, that beautiful voice housed in that body.
Don’t you realize that more self-discipline will yield you a better career.
She sounds great, too bad she’s ugly.
And on and on and on.
Between the opera houses I’ve worked at and the audition panels I’ve sat on, I have heard so much of this. My participation has varied. I’ve sat in embarrassed silence, I’ve made lame, ignored comments, and every now and then I’ve spoken up strongly.
And many times, I’ve sat with female colleagues and essentially said, well, that’s reality, what are you going to do. There’s wisdom in that, right? Because how you look is part of the “package.” Best to be realistic. If you want a life on the stage, young one, best to look the part.
Except the poison doesn’t stop. What is the magic number, the magic look, where the criticism stops? And what does this way of policing bodies do but drive us toward conformity? This has terrible effects on diversity, not just centered on body size.
Recently, the beloved and sovereign soprano Monserrat Caballe passed away. I devoured her recordings and adored her singing. But when I was a young music student and had not yet ever heard her, guess what? I’d already learned that her nickname was “Monsterfat Cowbelly.” And I laughed at that with all of my friends. I already knew that this woman in a big tent dress was ridiculous – a bunch of clueless kids in Arizona, dumbly ambitious of some kind of musical lives, already knew that. That’s what we knew, first, about one of the greatest singers of her generation.
I’m sad tonight because of this weight, all this weight on my heart. I look at the finest artists I know and I see the beautiful variety of bodies in which their intelligences and voices are housed: big, medium, small, tall, short, dark, pale, traditionally gendered, gender queer, hairy, smooth.
Every single one of us can speak up for quality.
Let’s do it. Every single time.