I had been trying to put together some thoughts about the way women who perform classical music are viewed/described by the media, long before Yuja Wang made her controversial Hollywood Bowl appearance. And after sifting through dozens of articles and critiques, I have come up with at least some of what I want to say.
For those who are (perhaps blissfully) unaware of the media frenzy that has recently taken over the classical music community, Chinese pianist Yuja Wang, performed Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano concerto at the Hollywood Bowl on August 2. However, what has remained on everyone’s minds (continuing to be mentioned even 2-½ weeks later) is not her interpretation of the work, but rather what she wore.
The August 3 review in the LA Times by Mark Swed devoted a whole paragraph to the dress:
Her dress Tuesday was so short and tight that had there been any less of it, the Bowl might have been forced to restrict admission to any music lover under 18 not accompanied by an adult. Had her heels been any higher, walking, to say nothing of her sensitive pedaling, would have been unfeasible. The infernal helicopters that brazenly buzz the Bowl seemed, on this night, like long-necked paparazzi wanting a good look.
In a (follow-up article) on August 20, Swed defends his review.
For reference, here is a video of Yuja Wang (wearing a different – although equally revealing – dress) playing Scriabin:
The responses to the concert, and the review, have been plentiful:
Anne Midgette, music critic at the Washington Post, is familiar with the topic, having written a lengthy article for the New York Times in 2004 titled, “The Curse of Beauty for Serious Musicians; Young Women Find the Playing Field is Far From Level”. In recent days she, too, has contributed to the conversation regarding Wang’s dress, and criticizes LA Times reviewer Mark Swed’s take on the outfit, and speaks to larger concerns with how the classical music community is advancing and embracing change, or not.
And Amanda Ameer at Life’s A Pitch, commented on the dress, sharing her conflicted standpoint on a performer’s right to personal choice versus the expectations for a collaborative effort with the rest of the musicians. Many readers’ comments also raise excellent points on the implications of the general of beauty.
The Well-Tempered Ear is conducting a poll about what “appropriate” concert attire would look like, and rightfully addresses the differences in expectations for male and female soloists.
Adam Tschorn, also of the LA Times, shares his thoughts on the dress and the hulabaloo here.
An article in the Philadelphia Inquirer by music critic David Patrick Stearns likens Wang and her contemporaries (young soloists, like Lang Lang) as “rock stars”. Stearns believes that it is reasonable for young, talented, popular musicians to conform to the fashion of the day, but cautions that it’s going too far:
But it’s all getting so extreme, some might say classical music is turning into its own slutwalk, with artists seizing upon every possible media outlet, and looking as provocative as possible.
(Aside: Isn’t it interesting that he certainly purposefully chose that term and still misses the point, even with all the recent news coverage of slutwalks taking place across the country and around the world.)
Moreover, Stearns seems to be more concerned that fans of Wang will only be interested in attending concerts because of her attire and not her music, and then immediately calls to reference the other women that have faced scrutiny over the years
Overall, the classical world is a better place since violinist Anne Sophie Mutter began, in the mid-1980s, wearing strapless concert gowns that give her more freedom of movement, not to mention the sensual pleasure of feeling her violin close to her bare skin. Soprano Karita Mattila spends her spare time making her own form-fitting concert gowns; one could have worse hobbies. Both artists have exemplary careers with adventuresome contemporary repertoire. Also, visual desensitization set in quickly: After a few concerts, I stopped noticing what they wore and was all ears.
…and still seems to miss his own point.
As those of us who pay attention to these things know, it is not the first time that a critique of visual aspects of the performer took precedence over the music and its interpretation. Physical appearance has always played a role in music making – how a women presents herself physically is, and has always been, important to the society at large. There is a long history of women being prohibited from playing instruments because of how they required a woman to hold her body (think cello), or contort her face (oboe, trumpet, etc.). Instead, women were encouraged to play instruments that would enhance their feminine beauty.
When women first began to step into the spotlight in the 19th century as soloists (like Camilla Urso, for example), their attire was usually just as heavily critiqued as their performance. As Beth Abelson Macleod noted in her book Women Performing Music, many dresses were described “with an attention to detail generally reserved for bridal gowns on today’s society pages.”
And the bias that women faced in joining symphony orchestras, which was rampant in mid-late 20th century in the United States, and which continues in Europe, included commentary on physical appearance. In 1946 conductor Sir Thomas Beecham was quoted as saying,
I do not like, and never will, the association of men and women in orchestras and other instrumental combinations…. As a member of the orchestra once said to me, ‘If she is attractive I can’t play with her and if she is not I won’t.’
And he wasn’t alone. Franz Reiner, who conducted the Pittsburgh Symphony, said around 1945 that “I’ll take any man in the country before I’ll take a woman.”
The inherent bias was so troubling that blind auditions (where performers auditioned anonymously behind a curtain) were put in place in the 1960s and 1970s to allow for the possibility of merit to be the qualifying factor.
In the following decades, more women found their ways into professional orchestras, and earned success as soloists. But though expectations for appearance changed, it was never removed from the equation. Women instrumentalists have often found their attire to take up more room in their concert reviews than any thoughtful criticism of the performance. World-renowned violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter was one of the reviewers’ favorite targets in the late 1990’s. In a review that appeared on February 28, 1997, Toronto Star critic William Littler wrote:
The late English music critic Sir Neville Cardus, whose eyes were as open as his ears, used to say of the Viennese soprano Lisa della Casa that one should go to her concerts twice: once to listen, once to look. It is the kind of remark familiar as well to German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, she of the flowing tresses and off-the-shoulder gowns. It is a sexist remark, no doubt, for which those of us with trousers make no apology. Nature has been bounteous to such women and just a little bit cruel as well, because we can never entirely regard their artistry in isolation from their beauty.
Which brings us to the other side of this problem. Female solo performers are criticized if they choose attire that is considered too “racy”, as well as when they choose perhaps a more conservative ensemble. Lara St. John, Canadian violinist with a history of wearing un-conservative concert attire, received criticism of the latter kind from critic John Terauds in a February 13, 2004 review (also in the Toronto Star):
An almost matronly St. John shambled out on to the Jane Mallett Theatre stage in a wrinkled pigeon-coloured number that had to be one of the ugliest frocks to see stage lights this season….This violinist proved that what you look like says little about your music. Her music last night was as good as it gets. But it still might be time to buy a new dress.
(Midgette’s Times article, linked above, is written in response to this review by Terauds.)
Physical appearance in classical music continues to be an important factor for performers who seek to get ahead – particularly women. Over-sexualization of women performers is rampant, evidenced in part by the website Beauty in Music has been cataloguing “The Sexist Women in Classical Music”, which provided pictures of instrumentalists but neglects to include any names. And Norman Lebrecht at Slipped Disc had the audacity to suggest just a few months ago that EMI, having signed trumpet soloist Tine Thing Helseth, may have made an error in that they “already have a young, blonde trumpet player in Alison Blasom.” The implication, of course, being that there is only room in the classical world for one sexy trumpet player, and certainly not two, irregardless of their talent or creativity.
Men (perhaps increasingly) also face expectations and criticism – this evidenced by the listing of The Top 12 Classical Music Pinups (which includes men and women), and “breaking” stories about a composer who joined a modeling agency.
Expectations for vocalists are even more cutthroat than instrumentalists, particularly in this world of ever-enterprising, novelty-seeking and boundary-breaking operatic directors. The story of soprano Deborah Voight’s dramatic weight loss after being removed from an opera production because she couldn’t fit into a specific black cocktail dress is now infamous – and being retold by Voight, at Glimmerglass this past year as well as in an upcoming memoir. Australian opera director Lyndon Terracini has publicly and very clearly proclaimed his position in a recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald:
The fat lady has sung. And if Lyndon Terracini continues to get his way, she won’t get an encore until she at least shifts some weight.
Lest the man charged with overseeing the future of opera in Australia be accused of sexism, he is quick to point out that his shape-up-or-ship-out message applies to all performers, regardless of gender.
”If you’re seeing a couple making out and one of them is obese, who wants to watch that?” he says with a theatrical grimace. ‘‘It’s obscene. You just think, ‘Jeez, for Chrissakes, don’t let the children see that’.”
Apparently it is okay to be fat-phobic if you are not sexist about it.
There have been plenty of arguments as to why it is important to maintain the concert standards that were created decades ago – but also arguments to change the status quo. If classical music is going to thrive once again, isn’t it time to move beyond these trite and blatantly sexist criticisms, which further reinforce the patriarchy that we still can’t seem to shake? It appears more and more that talent is coming in second place to reinforcing flawed and damaging beauty standards. We expect classical musicians to look beautiful, but not be too sexy or glamorous or empowered. And if they don’t conform to what the resounding majority believes to be beautiful, then they don’t belong on the stage at all.
Performers are on stage to be seen and heard, certainly. Watching a performer engage with the music is why I attend live performances. However, I see no point in forgetting the music for the sake of being a beauty/fashion critic, other than to detract from what is more than likely amazing (and maybe threatening) talent for the sake of maintaining restrictive social standards for beauty and appearance.