Classical music: where sex sells

Once the preserve of the unfortunate-looking, classical music is suddenly full of stunners.

Emmet Livingstone

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Classical music is commonly regarded as something for the educated elite, or, depending on who you talk to, purist snobs. Either way, it is perceived as one of the last areas of music in which artistic sensitivity and technical skill are truly celebrated. But if that’s the case, where are all the old-timers? Where are the grizzled professionals whose artistry has taken decades to perfect?

The few veterans on the circuit today, seem like ever-scant exceptions to the emerging rule that sex is what sells classical music. Sure, you might have heard of rusty old crones like violinist Itzakh Perlman (widely known to the public for his performances of the Schindler’s List theme), and undoubtedly his virtuosity remains undiminished. Going to hear him play, though, is a bit like cheering on a roly-poly Diego Maradona re-enacting his ‘Hand of God’: he’s respected and loved, but he’s old news, and certainly not edgy.

Edgy in the world of virtuosi violinists today comes in the form of the stunning Akiko Suwanai, or girl-next-door Hilary Hahn, who travels between what she calls her ‘gigs’ in a minivan with her boyfriend. It’s a shame to pin-point the success of these immensely talented musicians to their looks, but the question raises itself naturally as the stage-strutting classical musicians grow ever younger and ever more attractive.

This marketing of musicians for mass-appeal even seems to have reached opera, more traditionally the preserve the less fortunate-looking. Diana Damrau, a soprano thought to be among the ‘best ever’, was very attractive, and so in keeping with the new rule. However, since turning 40 and having two children in the space of two years, she seems to have mysteriously disappeared from the listings.

The issue was commented upon recently by Jenni Murray, a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, who claimed women face undue pressures in the chauvinistic and macho world of classical music. For her examples, she cherry-picked a few rising female stars who, by dint of their profession, have to be prepossessing to succeed at the highest levels. Her mistake was to claim this was institutional sexism: one need only Google image search Charlie Siem to see that similar standards of beauty apply to modern male musicians.

Given the exclusive aura surrounding the classical music scene and the suffocating clutch of so-called cognoscenti, it seems the executives charged with pushing this faltering product have taken to stirring our loins as well as our emotions.

Emmet Livingstone is a writer and a former intern at spiked.

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