Big Opera-Feud: To say “dick” or not to say “dick”, that is the Question

The German word “dick” has many translations. It does, as so often, depend on context. It could mean “fat” or “tubby”. More likely it means: “big”, “chubby”, “corpulent”, “Rubenesque”, or “thick” (as in a slice of bread). It is a descriptive word. Like many descriptive words, it can be turned into an insult, assuming it is endowed with a bit of nastiness from said context.

That is what soprano Kathryn Lewek read into it when she caught wind of a review by Manuel Brug, one of Germany’s most renown music critics (and renowned for his unflinching, often provocative pen), about the Salzburg Festival production of Jacque Offenbach’s Orphée aux enfers. The production is Barrie Kosky’s and features sparkling vulvas and phalluses attached to can-can dancers, all set in an overwrought, burlesque world on stage; an atmosphere of superficial glitter; sticky, and aggressively sexualized.

Brug describes the shenanigans for two concise paragraphs before he continues: “That’s all fun and games, it’s plenty vulgar, and it’s got a nice pace to it. Once-upon-an-alto Anne Sofie von Otter represents public opinion as the Swedish pastor’s wife…but the perma-horny world of the Olympian Gods foils her moral plans. Unfortunately, this well-oiled machinery of puppet-theater soon exhausts itself, with its assembly line of big women in tight corsets spreading their legs in a variety of cubicles. Yet this is only one side of Offenbach. I notice in Kosky’s seventh (!) production this season (five more will grace the stages next season, not counting revivals) the signs of wear and tear: It’s getting old. Except that for the all-too-serious Salzburg Festival, this sexed-up firecracker is just the knee-slapping bit of fun the doctor ordered. Best of all: Enrique Mazzola made the Vienna Philharmonic play lustily and bawdy, indeed downright coarse. Kudos!”

You will have spotted the offending sentence. It doesn’t mention Kathryn Lewek by name—indeed, the generalizing plural doesn’t even single her out. A neutral reading might suggest that Brug is describing the aesthetic of Kosky’s production and not a particular singer, least of all body-shaming anyone. That’s not how the soprano saw it, though.

Her initial expression of offense set off a Twitter-tempest: “Why is it necessary to comment on a woman’s body in the same sentence you comment on her high notes? Made the mistake of reading some reviews today (thankfully everyone [loves] the production) but seeing comments on my #postpartum #breastfeeding body has me feeling low! [frowny face]”. Notice the strategic outrage-gathering hashtags. This was followed by another cry for support of her cause: “HELP! Please help me spread the word. Opera singers are often the targets of #harassment, #bodyshaming & #fatshaming from #operacritics. This must stop. #timesup on these juvenile bullies. Please share and join the discussion. Spread the word! #shameoncritics.” She has since suggested that Brug’s comments were personal, “antiquated”, and “ridiculous” and doubled down on the claim that they constituted a critique of her “postpartum mom-body instead of reviewing the show”.

The internet—Twitter, specifically—is naturally agog for such stuff. No reflection and nuance required here. “Bodyshaming”? We’ve heard enough; where is the bastard? Acting as flame-accelerator, as ever, was Norman Lebrecht, whose name and blog are a byword for sloppiness, factual unreliability, and click-bait hucksterism. In this case he pretended to take the woman’s side knowing this was the way the outraged clicks lie. (The irony is rich here, seeing how his headlines are a regular gallery of sexism and nationalism.)

Brug responded with 1500 words detailing how his 200-word review was hardly to be understood as a personal attack on a young mom, that writing about “big women” in a descriptive way was hardly akin to “The Fat Man Won’t Sing” (as the NY Post infamously titled an article about Pavarotti), and that almost every other review used generally similar, often even less flattering language to describe the production.

This appeased none of those who were already outraged, their minds being solidly made up (presumably without ever reading the article in question, much less a decent translation thereof). Certainly not Mme. Lewek, who cheered her supporters on: “Manuel Brug has responded with 1500 words on why its [sic] ‘right’ to call women FAT. More from me later: I’m traveling across the country today. Meanwhile, I encourage you all to read it and PLEASE TWEET your favorite highlights. [thumbs up]”

The ensuing feast of righteousness is something to behold; much of it reveling in “retaliatory” insults about Brug’s gender or portly looks. And most are missing the point. Not the least of which was that Brug never called Mme. Lewek fat but that he spoke of “big women” in the context of the production. You would think that offense can be found therein only by those who desperately seek it. The Twitter-comments meanwhile, are a masterclass in ad hominems and sloganeering: “all their male journalists look like saggy, bi-focaled mid-life desperation”; “Has he looked in the mirror! Really?!”; “What a cockwomble” (Mme. Lewek particularly liked that one); “reeks of male privilege!”.

Non sequiturs abound, with many comments suggesting that either the looks or the dress of a singer in an opera production should never matter and, indeed, never be commented upon. It’s an old canard, but try telling that to the costume designer and the director who spent much time to specifically create a certain aesthetic and look. It hardly follows from the basic decency of not judging a person by their looks (certainly not their vocal ability or character) that we do not describe their look at all. An artist on stage, certainly in costume, is like a brushstroke in an artwork. It is part of the whole and legitimate subject to criticism (in the neutral term of the phrase). The looks of a character can and need to be discussed while no judgment is (or certainly ought to be) personal.

Even the Festival’s President Dr. Helga Rabl-Stadler found it necessary to comment on Facebook. Laudable though it is to defend your artists, she did it in a way that suggested she hadn’t read the article of offense, either: “A rather influential German critic whose appearance I don’t comment [on] in order not to put myself on the same level [our italics] has accused Kathryn for being too fat as Eurydice in Orphée aux enfers. However, the director and the audience agreed that she is perfect for this role—comedic, seductive, smart. No wonder that even the supreme head of the Olymp adores her. The fact that she is now defending herself against such unobjective criticism is intended to encourage all women to be sexy and sparkling witty beyond arbitrarily propagated ideal measures.” What a way to spectacularly miss the point while committing the same sin she decries.

Another example among responses finds a small American opera company—retweeting the BBC’s report on the story—chiming in thus: “Critic defends himself for body shaming the beautiful soprano @KathrynLewek.” What looks innocuous enough at first glance is emblematic of the insidious nonsense that gets spread online: The conclusive opinion shapes the headline that should, if anything, read: “Critic defends himself by stating that he wasn’t body-shaming the beautiful soprano Kathryn Lewek.” You might buy Brug’s arguments or not, but misrepresenting his argument to fit one’s own views, starting with the headline, isn’t proper conduct. Particularly by anyone whose whole point is being insistent on propriety.

There are a few ways to interpret @KathrynLewek’s reaction. I prefer to think that, discovering a Google-translated sentence that was presumably referring to her as “fat” (in a review that made no mention of her singing, which was widely reported as having been excellent), she was legitimately hurt in her feelings. It’s nothing one would want to read about oneself, and while being upset, she got things rolling with her emotionally charged response. The Twitter-bubble being self-reinforcing as it is, and this being a cause that fits the Zeitgeist like a glove, the response was immediate, fierce, and very mollifying. She will have felt like she was onto something and never had time to check out the nuance of it all. Meanwhile, Manuel Brug’s initial Twitter-response (I paraphrase: “Haha; I’ve got myself a shitstorm”) will have reinforced her and her legion of defenders’ view of the author as a misogynist pig who had it coming. Once the affair attained momentum, there was no time to look back and coolly reflect that it might have been a misunderstanding all along. The world out there was now clearly delineated: Into those outraged with her—and monsters…without room for middle ground or doubt. (The social media’s curse.)

The less kind interpretation would be that the whole spiel was always—or became at some point—a cynical ploy to further her own career through manufactured outrage about a deliberately misunderstood and deliberately misinterpreted phrase in a review. Admittedly at the expense of a critic, sure (whose head is called for as a matter of course in these moral crusades), but who cares about a critic? Or free speech? Or reason and sensibility? Because the cause is noble—who wouldn’t be against fat-shaming a breast-feeding mother and fabulous soprano—the rallying cry is easy and the response indignant, self-righteous, morally superior, and above any criticism even where it fails to uphold the very standard it wishes to enforce. Alas, the whole world of Mme. Lewek’s outrage is constructed on a clear misinterpretation (deliberate or not) of Brug’s point.

Of course, everyone has a right to be outraged, offended, hurt. Decent persons, even critics, will always try to avoid or minimize this. But not everywhere offense is found, offense is also intended or even self-evident. Hurt feelings are lamentable regardless of intent. But what they do not justify is a witch-hunt. Anyone interested in a society where the cause of free speech is a more noble one than that of the right not to be offended would do well not to confound the fact that Kathryn Lewek deserves our empathy in her hurt feelings while also admitting that she is wrong in her claims against Manuel Brug.

With most partakers looking the worse for participating in this Twitter-feud, one voice of sanity stood out: mezzo-soprano Alice Coote, who briefly interjected herself, writing that she “would like to propose that those leaving abusive messages about this critic’s appearance, feeling that [they] are proving a point, are in fact demeaning everyone and any argument there is for full respect of one another’s bodies as an indicator of worth, even in opera [smiley] or art [prayer-hands].” A clear case of life mirroring art: It’s always the mezzos who provide the respite of common sense amid operatic drama.