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Page last updated at 16:38 GMT, Friday, 24 April 2009 17:38 UK

The singer not the song

Elina Garanca
Many opera singers, male and female, are cosmetically beautiful


Whatever our thrill at Susan Boyle's performance, it remains the case that audiences expect cosmetic beauty, says Clive James.

By now every media commentator in Britain on every subject including global warming has delivered his or her opinion about Susan Boyle, the woman of unremarkable appearance who went on Britain's Got Talent and proved to have such a remarkable voice that an aria from Les Miserables acquired the celestial overtones of a solo passage from a cantata by Bach and even such exalted arbiters of taste as Piers Morgan and Simon Cowell were reduced to helpless protestations of awe.

Limping along two weeks behind the action, I can only hope, as I add my groat's worth of opinion to a mountain range of accumulated wisdom, that I have something to say which might prove useful.

Clive James

Even the more oafish members of the studio audience, who could have come by time travel straight from the Roman Colosseum on a day when children were being fed to the lions, were instantly won over

All the obvious things have been said. But it is sometimes worth asking whether all the obvious things that have been said are quite true.

Barely had the last ringing note of Susan Boyle's beautiful voice faded in the air before the first media commentators were out of their box to lash Piers Morgan and Simon Cowell for their coarseness in having concurred, with their facial expressions, in the loutish mirth of the studio audience that had greeted Susan Boyle before she began to sing.

I looked at the footage carefully and I'm bound to say that I didn't find either Mr Morgan or Mr Cowell looking any more crass than usual.

They seemed to me to be striving to be polite while they contemplated her admittedly unshowbizlike appearance, just as she seemed to me to be striving to be polite while she contemplated them - two men whose faces are surely fated to inspire laughter, in the way that faces do when they belong to the kind of man who is deeply, sincerely concerned with the impression he is making.

Mr Morgan, at some stage early in his career, decided that an air of irrepressible shrewdness should be basic to his image, and after many hours of training before the shaving mirror he managed to perfect a look of penetrating scepticism.

Poet's voice

Mr Cowell, for his own part, has a set of teeth so uncannily perfect that you can see why he has to spend so much time in America, the only country that will admit such a display of radiant gnashers through customs without X-raying the rest of the body they are attached to, to see if any part of it is made of enriched uranium. Yet Susan, face to face with these two improbably refulgent paragons, was unfazed, and launched without hesitation into her song.

Within four bars she had established herself as a talent. As Seamus Heaney, a great critic of his art as well as a great practitioner, has told us, we recognise a true poet's voice immediately by its inherent strength, its integrity, its coherence and its clarity.

Anna Netrebko
Anna Netrebko is a respected figure in the world of opera

We recognize a true singer's voice in the same way. Susan Boyle has got it, and even the more oafish members of the studio audience, who could have come by time travel straight from the Roman Colosseum on a day when children were being fed to the lions, were instantly won over. When Susan finished, there was a fitting tumult.

The next bit, however, was harder to interpret than some of the commentators let on. They assumed that Mr Morgan and Mr Cowell had no advance knowledge that Susan would have a voice. I suppose it's possible, although I must say it seems unlikely to me. I spent 20 long years working in the front line in television studios and I seldom saw circumstances in which a surprise of such magnitude could be kept secret.

But really it doesn't matter much whether the two men were choosing their words of praise on the spot, without acting, or whether they had had time to think the words up. What mattered was what they said, and it was very instructive.

Mr Morgan was the more blatant in letting the world know that he was stunned. The message from both men was that they had expected Susan's performance to be as nondescript as her appearance was lacking in glamour.

Sense of entitlement

By emphasising these previous low expectations, they underlined their subsequent large-heartedness in praising her to the skies.

Many commentators were able to spot that both men were suffering from an overdeveloped sense of entitlement, in which, while expecting the rest of us to admire them because they were so ready to admit they had been wrong, we would not despise them for having held such low expectations merely because the lady was not a glamour puss.

In the opera house, music ought to matter more than anything but it remains true that one of the reasons people flock to hear Anna Netrebko and Elina Garanca singing together is that they look the part almost as well as they sing it

With those commentators I was in agreement. The conceit shown by Mr Morgan and Mr Cowell was deeply off-putting and if I had been on a special judging panel to judge the judges I would have told both of them to beware, because a name made from giving opinions in a television studio is a name written in water.

There is no more perfect recipe for self-delusion than to suppose that being a television personality is some kind of achievement in itself. The best insurance to stop it happening is to keep a recording of say, Beethoven's 7th Symphony nearby in order to remind yourself of what an actual achievement is.

Susan was a lot closer to the world of achievement, as opposed to the world of mere celebrity, than the two men. But right here is the area where the commentators have not yet gone, and ought to. Because the laws of nature had not been repealed, only momentarily jolted, and it remains a law of nature that appearance is a factor even in the world of serious singing.

The judges of Britain's Got Talent know quite a lot about the technicalities of putting a song over in a way that Ant and Dec might say wow to, but they don't know much about serious singing, which is a different thing.

Unlikely stimulus

The facts, alas, say that in every opera house in the world the chorus contains at least half a dozen people with voices as good as Susan's, and most of them won't become stars, so all the hoo-hah about Susan's sudden stardom was at least partly illusory, based on the dangerous notion that overnight prominence on television will always change reality permanently.

In the opera house, music ought to matter more than anything but it remains true that one of the reasons people flock to hear Anna Netrebko and Elina Garanca singing together is that they look the part almost as well as they sing it.

Things shouldn't be that way, but strangely enough they have become more and more that way in the last forty years, during the very period when feminism as a train of thought has done so much to educate us about the restrictive nature of expectations based on pulchritude.

Susan Boyle on CNN
Boyle has become famous around the world

When I first started attending Covent Garden in the early 1960s it was still quite common for the soprano to be an unlikely stimulus for the tenor's cries of passion. Today, most of the sopranos look like film stars. It could be said that the more our primitive male prejudices are broken down, the more we all become free. But one of the consequences of freedom is that ticket buyers are free to choose, and it is likely to remain a fact that ticket buyers of both sexes will choose to see the imported dreamboat.

Susan might very well, after this, get a job in the chorus and even sell a lot of records, but if the press expects more than that it could be adding yet another chapter to a long story in which discoveries have been shoved onto the boards to fulfil a role in a fairy story which is fated not to turn out well.

So unless all concerned are very careful there might be a worse injustice on its way for Susan than getting laughed at when she was first exposed to the audience of a show that depends on a regular supply of contestants who are there to be made a fool of. She might be trapped by an even more pitiless expectation: that she will go on being a big star beyond the point where she became a star because she didn't seem as if she could.

Susan's future has undoubtedly been altered but we can only hope it has been altered for the better. At whatever level of musical theatre, there is no automatic equality.

It all depends on people having unequal characteristics, and one of those is appearance, in which there is no justice. In view of that fact, a man might try not to bellow with scorn when he sees a woman he regards as a frump. And then, when he evolves into a man a bit better than that, he can try not to look quite so smug when he congratulates himself for admitting that the frump has done something remarkable, and so on.

I was there to see my generation of males being educated by feminism. I was one of the males who most needed education, and I am all too aware that the process is endless, and can have many setbacks. To many women, our purportedly civilized West still looks like a man's world. Perhaps it always will, and one of the things that freedom has confirmed has been a man's freedom to remain prejudiced.

But in Afghanistan right now there are women risking their lives to protest against religious laws that could mean they would never be allowed to leave the house without their husband's permission.

We might think that nothing could be worse that Mr Morgan generously assuring Susan, and I quote his sensitive words, "Without a doubt, everyone was laughing at you." But it's a free country, we were free to judge the judges, and Susan had her moment of triumph, which she carried off with far more grace than she was shown.

Here is a selection of your comments.

Susan can become a beautiful butterfly with some dieting, skilful cosmetics, eyebrow shaping and fabulous hairdressing.... add a flattering evening gown and she will astound everyone again.
Marlene, Pendle, UK

Susan Boyle shows us that there are thousands out there who have talents that go unnoticed for one reason or another, and that we should be more prepared to be entertained by unknowns instead of focusing on a tiny number of high earning celebrity performers. Go to your local venues, and don't reject the act they have on (be it a magician, a singer, a band, or a ballet company) just because you never heard of it on TV. Pay to go in, and you might see a new act that entertains you. That way, more talent will be rewarded with the income its possessor deserves to generate. Most performers just want a living, and there are a lot of Susan Boyles amongst them.
Robert, Minster, Kent

I would go further than Clive…not only are there many performers in opera choruses with voices as good as Susan Boyle's, but there are many performers in amateur choral and operatic societies that can equal her as well. She has a lovely voice…but so do thousands of others.

Amanda Holden's jaw dropped after precisely 8 notes…far too little time to seriously judge a singer's calibre.

The true shock comes not from the mismatch of ugliness and prodigious talent (as it has been portrayed), but more a case of a rather homely, ordinary-looking matron with a West Lothian accent breaking forth with a voice of someone twenty years younger in perfectly enunciated RP English. That's the true incongruity.

However, it's a novelty. Yes, there will be recording contracts while the phenomenon is still fresh in our minds, but ultimately, onstage presence DOES matter… it's a complete package.
Alan Fraser, Liverpool UK

And it's not just women who are required to live up to visual expectations. In the early '70s, when 'It Ain't Half Hot Mum' was a hit television comedy, I was walking through a department store when I heard the most amazing male tenor voice start to sing. I walked towards the wondrous sound, and was stunned, on turning a corner to see Don Estelle (aka Lofty from said show)standing on a box, singing his heart out. My dreams were dashed.
Laura Sobey, Buckingham

The article goes slightly too far in conflating preference for good-looking performing artists with sexism. No matter how egalitarian the intentions are of an opera-goer, it is very difficult to suspend disbelief when watching two monumentally ugly singers attempt to portray the love and desire of 'Tristan und Isolde'. Audiences want the whole package from an opera: stage, drama, music. The cosmetic appearance of some people is conducive to an entertaining stage performance, while people of lesser beauty - male or female - might well provide a lesser overall visual/auditory experience.
Peter, London, UK

The "stunned" reaction to Susan Boyle was a reaction to her gauche behaviour and grooming not her looks per se. She acted like a geek and made claims that many people with no talent do on these shows. The surprise is that all the rest have no talent, so everyone expected Susan to be the same.

By the way, Mr James is even more patronising than Messrs Morgan and Cowell. Miss Boyle has an excellent voice. More important it is interesting and cannot be dismissed as chorus material. Of course she is not a "serious" singer (Classical music snobbery perhaps?)

Don't be daft Clive. She will sell records by the ton!
Hank51st, Glasgow, Scotland

At last some sense about this talent contest, anyone would have thought that when she opened her mouth her voice was so remarkable and so beautiful that the world stood still - Rather she sang well with a nice voice like most of the members in my choral society and members of the chorus in many societies.

Susan is no more remarkable than hundreds of singers up and down the country It only proves how uneducated and how uncultured the general public is when they gasp when someone makes a decent job of a classical piece.

People for goodness sake go and see some local performers in your city or town. Hear them sing/perform and lets see what talent already is out there. Maybe then people won't gasp when someone who doesn't look like a movie star has a nice voice. My son exclaimed rather like the boy who saw the emperors new clothes that I had a better voice than her and so did many of the people in my choir. So if a teenage boy can see it - why is the rest of the world getting so hysterical?
Choral Society Singer, Sheffield

I totally agree, I've always said that at a job interview, the better looking you are is actually more important than your qualifications. Judging a book by its cover etc!
Martin Smith, Norwich

To say that Susan Boyle might get a job in the chorus, and to say that 'half the chorus might be as good as Susan Boyle' is to totally and utterly misunderstand the vast and enormous difference in quality between the chorus of an opera house and Susan Boyle's large but untrained voice, which would take years of training to get anywhere near 'opera house standard'. Her voice was naturally powerful, yes, but not remarkable, and absolutely not anywhere near the standard of the opera house chorus. It just happens she chose a rousing show song and the audience cheered far too loudly over her so that all the rough edges went unheard. If I were to see her in the chorus at Covent Garden I would feel massively short changed.
Alison, London

It is all well and good encouraging Cowell and Morgan to keep a copy of Beethoven's 7th close to hand, but I'm sure that to them the commercial achievements they aspire to far outweigh the artistic achievements of Beethoven.
Joe, Cardiff, UK

I cried tears of shame for damning this poor woman for her lumpen looks. Her voice showed the beauty her soul so clearly - a golden bird, trapped in a cage, dreaming of open skies. A much-needed salutary kick in the pants for my cruelty and arrogance.
Phil Weatherley, Bournemouth

Remember Gail Trimble and the anxieties produced there? One panicky response was to try to get her to strip for Nuts magazine, which would have allowed a deep sigh of relief. The fear that women will not comply is primeval, (and understandable). In Susan's case it could be the first in a series of 'fairy tales' to distract us from terrible realities. Make-overs will put matters right, Susan will be released from the burden of her 'unusual' appearance, and all will be well.
Janice Bumphrey, Huddersfield UK

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