The stereotype for what it means to be a female singer is set in place with the notion of the performers being perceived often as snooty, high bow, diva-ish, and over-confident. However the stereotype may not be too far off from the reality of the situation, as vocalists are produced in a way that requires them to build confidence and poise. In this essay I hope to explore the idea that the attitude of a singer may not be such a stereotype, but why society’s exaggerated view of it is be harmful to the way we pass judgment on people.
First I would like to explore a very “mainstream” view of what opera is to the general public by analyzing the 2004 film The Phantom of the Opera. The main opera “diva”, Carlotta, is one of the most stereotypical opera divas you can find. Carlotta embodies every horn hat wearing, over-weight, and arrogant opera star that everyone associates the art with. She even has her own song dedicated to how much of a prima donna she is where the opera house owners are begging her to perform and she refuses until they start to literally sing her praises. Although she is greatly exaggerated, the idea of her unappealing attitude is not so wrong. Singers are criticized and shut down for their talent more often than not. As a performer you are trained to accept negativity and that not everyone will enjoy your voice. Therefore the confidence in themselves to continue on when they are torn down for what they do must be incredible. So the way others perceive that confidence translates to bad attitude could possibly stem from the idea of judging people based off first impressions, where people forget that others are more than one dimensional beings and that their attitudes, personalities, and personas were all formed for reasons based off what those people need to do to live their lives.
The movie Pitch Perfect gets away from opera side of singing and is more focused on the collegiate, all female a cappella group and the attitude struggles within that different genre. The character I want to focus on in this movie is the student director of the girls group named Aubrey. Starting off in the film you see her as a younger member with a lot of pressure put on her to do well in competition from the older girls, then she throws up on stage and loses the competition for them. So the next year she takes the group so seriously to be able to make up for the loss that she fully blames herself for from the previous year. Therefore, the seriousness that she portrays is taken negatively by the new members who do not know her or why she is desperate to turn them into a winning group. It was perfectly correct for the girls to be taken back by her attitude and her critiques, and for them to want her to lighten up for them to stay together, but the theme I come back to now is how people are perceived based off poor introductions and snap judgements. People see the stereotype and stick to that perception of the person without being interested in learning their struggles or worries. It took a lot of her own self reflection to come to terms with changing the way she goes about addressing and running the group, but it took her a lot of individual work to get there pretty much on her own.
To look more into the history of what it means to be a diva I looked at the article “Anti-theatricality in twentieth-century opera” by Herbert Lindenberger. He starts his paper saying “The term operatic implies the exaggeration of a theatrical stance already assumed to be exaggerated. Thus, an opera that questions the nature and value of theatricality would seem to put enormous constraints on composers and performers, not to speak of audiences eager to experience the enactment of those high emotions that they would not dare to reveal in their everyday lives.” (Lindenberger paragraph 1). It is easy to be pulled in by a character to believe that they are that person in real life. If anything that is a compliment to the artist for putting on such a convincing performance! However, when the personality of the character is less than desirable, that can result negatively on the singer. In some cases it is crazy to believe that people could be their characters in real life: for example, in the opera Salome by Richard Strauss, Salome famously confesses her love to the severed head of John the Baptist and them makes out with it on stage. However, for the vocalist to be able to play that role she needs to have a larger than life personality who is willing to take risks and that confidence often scares people. It can be interesting and somewhat bizarre to watch your friend passionately kiss a bodiless head on stage while singing with incredible volume and technique. You can view such a scene (it begins around 2:06) here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kj99qASGCiw . Lindenberger argues that despite what comes to mind when one thinks of opera, the idea of transitioning into a new age of anti-theatrical opera is not so much a blow to the art of what opera has been, but an opportunity to view the performance in a new light from what has been traditional. He says that even though the larger than life diva persona that many of the women take on is usual, it might be time to stray away from that image to evolve to a new, calmer one.
The view of a calm performer, though incredibly possible in reality, may not become the general public’s idea of vocalists anytime soon with shows like Glee that create characters like Rachel Berry, a young high schooler that starts and becomes president of the school’s glee club. Her dream is to become a broadway star and get out of Ohio to live the life of a star. Her obsessive persistence to sing solos and correct other people give her a bad name right off the bat, and she struggles to maintain friendships in a group that is often competitive in nature. There is a scene where she and another member, Mercedes, are both auditioning for a role in the school musical where the role is Rachel’s dream role as Maria, and the casting people could not decide between the two girls, so they suggested them both playing the role but on different nights. When this was suggested, Mercedes turns down the role because if she was not the only star then she will not accept it. When the people Rachel must surround herself with to prepare for her profession are hostile and are willing to risk friendships to perform, it is not a surprise that she herself must be persistent and at times, ruthless, to launch herself towards her dream. Not to mention the fact that her dream career is incredibly difficult to break into, and her obsessive attitude and competitive nature are required for her to have a shot at making it onto a stage. She is often scrutinized for her efforts and is considered an over the top overachiever, but to people that do not understand the severity of what it means to try to be a performer it is right for them to see her that way. It is not uncommon for viewers to tune in every week to see what crazy antics Rachel will get into that week or how she will deal with rejection when she if often awarded everything. There are many professions that often encourage teamwork, despite people working for their own success, but with Rachel’s dream, and many other women’s dreams, of becoming a professional singer and actress it is almost impossible to create the healthy relationships with co-workers that can sustain a friendship. Many of these people are pitted against each other and watched closely to see if they can perform a role better or worse than that other girl. When the stakes are so high it is difficult to keep friends with other people that could be the person that got your dream role because when you see them living the life you wanted and trained for for so long it is hard to be happy for them. People that do not understand that world will look at this show, see how crazily passionate a character like Rachel is, then assume they themselves are just crazy in everything they do. They often do not take the time to look deeper, and when they see someone that is a mirror image of who that television character is they just assume that they are crazy too because all performers are the same.
Although this topic may not be the most important face of “injustice” that there ever was, and is, in fact, not so very important at all, it is interesting to look into the eyes of the people that watch someone like yourself on television or in a show and automatically label you as someone you just might not be. This essay looks into the idea that media morphs people’s images of what it means to be whatever you do rather than look into who you really are. Being someone who studies voice is something that I have made into my life but I often feel suffocated when people write me off as some naive girl with an unattainable dream or that I should skip studying and just try out for American Idol already. I feel it is important to look into how and why I am being portrayed the way people of my profession are, to understand where I fit into society by what they see me as. If they see me as someone who must be difficult to work with or if they see me as someone who must have the spotlight then that puts me in a negative light. This particular topic may not be the most earth shatteringly form of stereotyping, but it is interesting to see how you are viewed through others eyes.
Lindenberger, Herbert “Anti-theatricality in twentieth-century opera” Modern Drama, University of Toronto Press 2001
Murphy, Ryan, Brad Falchuk, and Ian Brennan. “Glee.” Glee. Fox. 19 May 2009. Television.
The Phantom of the Opera. Dir. Joel Schumacher. Warner Bros. Entertainment, 2004. Film.
Pitch Perfect. Dir. Jason Moore. Perf. Anna Kendrick. Universal, 2012. Film.
Salome. By Richard Strauss. Semperoper, Dresden, Germany. 9 Dec. 1905. Performance.
Salome Preview from San Francisco Opera. Dir. Nicola Luisotti. Youtube.com, 2009. Online.