Beauty. It’s a touchy subject, I know. It is difficult to even discuss the idea of beauty without discussing the ways in which beauty is co-opted, exploited, commercialized, and used as an ideal that creates enormous suffering for people in our society. Traditionally, this has been more true for female beauty, but the ad industry—which makes billions of dollars encouraging people to compare themselves to an ideal and find themselves lacking—is targeting men more often and more intensely. This is a human tragedy, and an unfortunate by-product of an overly image conscious society.
It is understandable, in the face of this oppressive and dehumanizing trend, to want to deny that beauty should have any value, especially in the world of opera, which has always placed the highest premium on the beauty of the human voice, not the body. Even if we agree that vocal quality and musical expression should be paramount, however, both the idea of beauty and the reality of it play large roles in the lives of singers. Those roles can be destructive in a couple of different ways.
In some ways, this is a gold standard that changes with every generation and with every cultural wave. What is considered beautiful in one era may be less so with the next. No matter how unplugged from media reality one is, however, we have evolved as humans to find some things attractive. In the same way that we are hardwired to like babies, with their widely spaced eyes, we are drawn naturally to certain physical characteristics, such as symmetry. I don’t find anything inherently harmful in this reality.
The suffering arises when we continually compare ourselves to this ideal and find ourselves lacking. Companies that want to sell us something to make us closer to that ideal encourage us to feel inadequate in this way, so you won’t find a lot of support for the idea of just acknowledging that beauty exists, or even for enjoying it in others without having to compare ourselves to that ideal.
Getting into a comparing frame of mind is a great way to make yourself miserable. Someone will always be more beautiful—or a better singer, for that matter.
I had an experience many years ago that opened my eyes on this subject. I was in acting school and had a classmate who was very beautiful. We had studied together for several years. She was already getting a good deal of professional work. She also had a nice singing voice and was a good dancer. Beset with plenty of youthful insecurity of my own, I often thought of her with a feeling of envy.
One day, after this beauty had done a scene in class, I ran into her in the ladies room. She had burst into tears and was sobbing. I was very surprised. I had never seen such strong emotion from her, on or off stage.
I asked her what was the matter. She was so upset, she could barely get the words out. “How am I supposed to get better if he won’t give me any criticism?” she said. She was referring to our acting teacher. He had complimented her nicely on the scene and that was it. I hadn’t thought about it, but she was right. He hadn’t given her any constructive criticism. When I thought about it a bit more, I realized that this was often the case with her work in his class, and with our other teachers as well.
Before this experience, it had never occurred to me that being beautiful could be a hindrance. I was routinely raked over the coals in class, as were most of my classmates, and it helped me grow as an actor. How was this beautiful woman supposed to grow and improve without that kind of feedback? I don’t think the teachers were engaging in any intentional bias or preferential treatment. I think that beauty can have that effect, putting people in a sort of a trance.
Many years later, I had that kind of experience as a teacher. I had a student who was a very beautiful young woman. Early on in our working together, she sang through a song. For a moment after she finished, I couldn’t think of anything to say. It was lovely. She had a pretty voice, and a pretty face, and it was just, well, pretty!
At first, I thought I might not have anything to say. After a moment, I came out of the trance. I realized that we had much to work on in both her interpretation and her technique. For a moment, I had the experience I think those acting teachers must have had, captivated by a lovely but not compelling performance. If my student wanted to improve as a singer, however, I owed it to her to work with her. I didn’t want to deprive her the way I had seen my classmate deprived all those years ago.
As it turned out, the beautiful voice student didn’t stay with me for very long. I don’t know for certain why she stopped her lessons, but I know that in our working together, I could sense that she was unaccustomed to criticism, and my guess is that she just didn’t like it. My classmate had been hungry for help and ways to improve, but this particular student seemed complacent. I suppose she was used to people being complimentary to her and wasn’t comfortable with anything else.
One possible lesson: If you are a pretty singer, it may be more challenging to get the level of coaching and criticism that could make you a great singer. You may need to stand up and ask for more, and, if you’re not used to it, change your tolerance for criticism.
A character in literature faces this reality. A young woman in George Elliot’s Daniel Deronda is considering a life as a professional singer. She has some talent but as she puts it, “has been ill taught.” She goes to a famous musician acquaintance for his advice and opinion. “You are a beautiful young lady,” he says. “You have been brought up in ease. In sum, you have not been called upon to be anything but a charming young lady, whom it is an impoliteness to find fault with.”
She is not easily discouraged, however, and presses him for more. Eventually, he speaks more bluntly. “You would find, after your education in doing things slackly for one-and-twenty years, great difficulties in study: you would find mortifications in the treatment you would get when you presented yourself on the footing of skill. You would be subjected to tests; people would no longer feign not to see your blunders.”
Pretty or not, a certain level of skill is necessary for a career as a singer. In our industry, competition for jobs is fierce enough that I don’t think horribly underqualified singers garner jobs just because they are good looking. There is a difference between the kind of singing that makes you say, “Wasn’t that lovely. Where shall we eat?” and the kind of singing that makes you stay in your chair after the performance and feel that you have just been changed forever.
Classical music in general, and opera in particular, is struggling for survival. Let us hope that in an effort to compete in a look-conscious society, we don’t hasten our own demise by adopting priorities that devalue our essential reason for being: the magic, mystery, and beauty of the human voice.