For days I had been reading demeaning little snide comments against a piece that Danielle de Niese wrote for the New York Times. It was a fashion blog and it was not exactly claiming to be a de profundis look at her performing career or the world of opera.
When I raised the issue on Twitter yesterday morning having had the hunch, that a lot of the comments came from other ladies and that maybe they were envious of an attractive fellow colleague getting this ‘wrong type of media attention‘. The piece was roundly dismissed as fluff and shallow self-promotion. Just a consumerist, fashion label loving rant with no merit. I just found the reaction to be surprisingly humourless and not in accordance to the usual etiquette amongst colleagues. If the article annoyed you just let it go by, it will be forgotten in a couple of weeks.
To her credit de Niese responded with fairly good humour and pointing the obvious that I mentioned from the start. But this storm in a very small teacup made me think about ideas of promotion for a niche scene like opera.
Of course the two big questions are how to get a classical/operatic singers in a mass media medium like the NYT / a major TV channel and if glamour has a place within the operatic circuit.
The first question seems to be the source of most consternation by performers as it point to two obvious trends at getting mass media attention. It is either to diss you colleagues (a certain pop tenor comes to mind) or to talk about your pets, clothing, ways to spend your dosh …you get the idea. I would love to be able to open any paper worldwide and not to be amazed that there is an insightful article about a composer or musician that focuses on their works and career only…but I would be terribly naive to expect that.
The Classical and Opera category has been relegated to the back pages of listings magazines e.g. London edition of Time Out has the listings and feature after the main (not aptly named) Music section. It’s obvious the pop/rock scene pays Time Out a lot of money for all the gig adverts, while the Classical section has only one advert from the ROH and one from the Barbican over just four pages. Mass market publications like Time Out and all the major broadsheets are commercial enterprises that thrive on advertising, most classical and operatic venues have minuscule advertising capabilities that furtherly puts them in the margin. For a wide swathe of readers the whole classical scene is invisible, with major documentaries on opera and performances frequently being relegated to minor channels, no wonder the profile is low. On that front Miss de Niese at least showed the average Joe that reads the NYT that there are beautiful, vibrant opera singers out there, totally against the expectation for monstrous sopranos with horned helmets. And that is serious publicity, which benefits everyone with an interest in the scene or anyone that makes their living as a performer.
The question about glamour and performers is another thorny one. As I get as annoyed by seeing hyper airbrushed images of artists that are trying to sell classical to an audience used to pop iconography. But we have to concede that it is part of the whole package and we cannot pretend it doesn’t matter and discount it as record company fluff. Believe it or not good looking performers create a different set of expectations for a wider audience, they are an almost reassuring sign that maybe classical music and opera is not an arcane world inhabited by strange looking people who live only for their craft and nothing else. Any solo artist in any capacity (and increasingly orchestras) have realised that what they wear and how they look on covers helps them sell more.
Being popular and selling a lot of CDs and downloads is not an anathema, it should be the target of any artist that gives their all and want to be heard by as many people possible. Almost 35 years since the death of Maria Callas her recordings for EMI still sell like hot cakes. You can attribute that enduring success to her archetypal look of the glamorous diva, all bonnets and beautiful silk dresses. And of course her captivating presence in those recordings.
Sorry ladies (that had issues with Danielle’s fashion blog), she is continuing on a long line of glamorous singers that can do the day job with distinction and yet manage to captivate interest from outside the rather myopic world of opera. And even if you don’t want to recognise it, any mention of opera or classical performance by the non specialist media is an antidote for obscurity and irrelevance. And for goodness sake LIGHTEN UP!
*with apologies to RuPaul