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Jane Kelly: You don’t need a face like a cat in a high wind to be an opera star


Despite years of feminism, youth and beauty are still at a premium. In fact, more so than ever before. The ‘commodification’, as the Left put it, of pulchritude is a component of advanced capitalism. In other words, beauty and sex sell like nothing else, and  are integral to the ‘Disneyfication’ of our culture.

The model of international beauty is, of course, the new First Lady, Melania Trump. She has squeezed and stretched, exercised and possibly had herself sculpted by knives and injected with chemicals to look the way an American leader’s wife should. Next to her on the platform on inauguration day, poor Mike Pence’s less than ordinary looking wife Karen seemed completely out of place. I don’t know how she had the nerve to stand there.

This ideal of feminine beauty; tall, thin, narrow, small head, sloping shoulders, face like a cat in a high wind, is most obvious in fashion. Gone are the elegant, rounded, somewhat mature women of yesteryear preening in expensive well cut clothes. They have been replaced by androgynous pre-pubescent looking girls in strange sacks, which can only be sported by the very young.

Demand for extreme youth and loveliness is most evident in casting for the stage, TV and screen. Emma Thompson, always lithe if somewhat toothy and bony, recently admitted that she didn’t move to LA when her film career took off because she realised she would always been seen as too fat. Last month she revealed that in 2008 she threatened to leave a British film production of Brideshead Revisited because the young lead performer was being harassed about her weight.

‘So many actresses into their 30s simply don’t eat.’ She said. ‘I said if you speak to her about this again on any level, I will leave this picture. It’s evil what’s going on out there and it’s getting worse.’

Dancers now suffer from enforced starvation too. Old film of Margot Fonteyn in her prime reveal thighs that look astonishingly thunderous by today’s standards. In film casting, the American ideal of beauty is now fixed. The recent film Denial, financed by the BBC and ‘Participant Media’, an American film production company dedicated to entertainment that ‘inspires and compels social change,’ went in for didactic casting.  The brilliant American lawyer, Deborah Lipstadt who is not a pretty woman,  was played by Rachel Weisz, an English rose.

Even more sadly, Another Mother’s Son, a new film about the German occupation of Jersey, produced by Bill Kenwright Films, tells the story of humble shop keeper Louisa Gould who, along with her brother Harold Le Druillenec and sister Ivy Forster, sheltered a Russian fugitive. Louisa was gassed in Ravensbrück concentration camp in February 1945. She was a wonderful character but an almost comically plain, unassuming little woman. That is the story, but she’s played in the film by Jenny Seagrove, all tall, blonde and earnest looking. You know when you see that kind of casting that the film won’t be worth watching because it lacks basic integrity.

In the past, when the BBC still dealt in quality drama instead of looking insistently at what the American market might require, Louisa might have been played by a British character actress. We used to have plenty, such as Brenda Cowling or Jean Alexander. But ravaged faces, the black comedy and irony which easily issue from them, have been junked in favour of visual candy and the apparent virtue and safety tied up in prettiness.

We are also now in an age where medical science can keep people alive longer than ever before, but which fears natural ageing and death more than ever before. Billions are now spent on plastic surgery and even cryogenics, in the hope of cheating death altogether.

According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, sixteen million cosmetic procedures were performed in 2014, an overall three per cent increase from the previous year. Americans spent over twelve billion dollars on cosmetic procedures, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, where five million procedures were done. Females made up ninety two per cent of all cosmetic procedures, with 13.6 million procedures in 2014.

A record number of Brits, fifty one thousand, had cosmetic surgery last year. According to the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons , the number of cosmetic ops last year grew by thirteen per cent since 2014. Women’s cosmetic surgery rose 12.5 per cent from 2014. Men account for just nine per cent of cosmetic surgery ops in the UK, but their numbers have nearly doubled over the past decade from 2,440 procedures in 2005 to 4,614 in 2015.

There are now three hundred cryogenically frozen individuals in the US. Walt Disney not among them, as that is just an urban myth. It’s coming here of course. Last year, a dying 14 year-old-girl from London insisted on having her body cryogenically preserved. Her grandparents raised £37,000 to have her body frozen and taken to a storage facility in America; only the US and Russia have them.

All this is worrying, not just for the individual but for the performing arts, which rely on authenticity and truth to have any worthwhile meaning. But I have recently discovered an untouched sphere where  the facile requirements of commerce no longer apply; the opera.

At performances broadcast live from the Royal Opera House to cinemas, audiences world-wide, about 60,000 people a time respond during the intervals by text and tweet. They always say they are having the best night ever, and the whole thing s spectacularly wonderful and charming. What they never say, which is strikingly obvious, is that the cast before them  is frequently  old, fat and ugly. That is NOT a criticism. Like opera audiences around the globe, I fully accept, even welcome, it, but I am also astounded. Somehow opera has managed to completely avoid Disneyfication of any kind. It is like a tiny corner of some forgotten cupboard, which no one has noticed and decided to revamp, sell off or destroy.

I first fully realised this at Verdi’s tragic opera, Il Trovatore, screened at the end of January. I didn’t know anyone in it, that is also a good thing. I like seeing productions where I know nothing about  the performers. I don’t care whether they’ve ever been on stage before as long as they can do it on the  night.  This opera is full of drama, energy and wild gypsies. The ROH uses that word on its website rather than Roma, although its use is now banned in the politically correct world beyond the opera house, as a sacking offence in most institutions.

Its blog says: ‘The opera’s themes of jealousy, revenge and love play out against a hauntingly beautiful, wintry landscape that has been riven by war.’ I could hardly follow the plot as the sexual machinations of the stout pensioners were so complex. I didn’t see anyone slim, bony, underfed, or even slightly lithe all evening. Emma Thomson would have been gratified. Even the youngest lead singers were corpulent.

At the end when they took their bow, a line of good looking youthful boys presumably hidden away in the chorus appeared. I had not seen them on stage before. They were well hidden behind

Ukrainian baritone Vitaliy Bilyy, who is the size of an ox and only forty two,  just made to look ancient by costume and make up, Irish singer Jennifer Davis and Armenian Lianna Haroutounian who between them must weigh about fifty stone. Lose your fat, lose your voice, they won’t do it. They have integrity and experience. That really seems to count. In no other art form is old age so prized.

Last week I joined the Puccini and popcorn brigade for Madame Butterfly live from the ROH. These transmissions are

now worth an estimated £15 million in the UK alone and no one is going along for the pretty faces.

Little Butterfly the delicate virgin seduced by a callous US soldier was played by the strapping Albanian soprano, Ermonela Jaho, aged forty-two. Astonishing coloratura voice, fine set of veneers, but unashamedly wrinkled, so non fragile, and so not Japanese.

Opera is a last refuge not just for real looking performers but for those of us who reject the dogma of multicultural casting. Perhaps there are not enough Japanese opera singers. There are scads of Japanese ballet dancers who I don’t really enjoy looking at, but in this production they were all played by elderly Europeans in grotesque makeup. It doesn’t look right, it is not permitted anywhere else in the theatre but it was authentic to the opera, based on a 19th century romantic western view of Japan.

Butterfly’s maid Suzuki was sung by US mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong, who is the size of a small car and resembled Peggy Mount. Obviously, a good actress as well as a gifted singer, now she would have been ideal to play the tragic Louisa Gould. When I suggest that kind of casting people usually reply that no one will go to see the film. In other words without a pretty face it won’t make any money. Only the proudly arcane cult of opera can now defy that craven, venal and depressing idea.

According to the ROH, the message of Il Trovatore is that there is always love and always hope. Verdi and Puccini didn’t know it, but sidelined by fashion and unnoticed by identity politics they have become a beacon of artistic truth and authenticity in an increasingly untruthful, meretricious world.

(Image: Marc Nozell)

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Jane Kelly
Jane Kelly
Jane Kelly was a journalist with the Daily Mail for fifteen years. She now writes for the Spectator and the Salisbury Review.

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