In the Age of #MeToo, I’m Thinking About Yuja Wang

For women classical artists, the glass ceiling is their attire.

Yuja Wang. Photo: Norbert Kniat.

The international renown of superstar pianist Yuja Wang stems from her artistry, of course. Back in 2012, the San Francisco Chronicle called her the “most dazzlingly, uncannily gifted pianist in the concert world today.”

But there’s a second factor behind Wang’s celebrity: a wardrobe as edgy and sensational as her performance style. To the shock and amazement of the classical music world, the young virtuoso routinely strides onstage in revealing technicolor gowns, merciless stilettos — all manner of looks generally reserved for the red carpet.

Story continues below.

You’re likely unsurprised that neither the press nor the public knows what to do with this. The first time I heard Wang perform, last summer, there was pop-star-level electricity in the house, but some audience members radiated discomfort. The critical backlash for Wang’s brand of glamour goes back to 2011, when she marched out to perform with the LA Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl in this wee orange number.

Here was the LA Times:

Her dress… was so short and tight that had there been any less of it, the Bowl might have been forced to restrict admission to any music lover under 18 not accompanied by an adult. Had her heels been any higher, walking, to say nothing of her sensitive pedaling, would have been unfeasible. The infernal helicopters that brazenly buzz the Bowl seemed, on this night, like long-necked paparazzi wanting a good look.

Later, the reviewer softened his take — though not before there was a counter-reaction led by Washington Post critic Anne Midgette:

Should critics review the dress? Should we comment on how classical stars look?

Some writers deal squarely and thoughtfully with the question of concert dress. Some still reduce Wang to a fashion plate. And on and on it goes.

Story continues below.

In a departure from provocateurs in other realms of culture who dress with the intent to provoke, Wang’s rationale for her apparel choices seem mostly self-involved. Her stage presence feels transactional: note her impish, quick-dunk manner of bowing. “I don’t understand why I have to explain this, I just do what is natural for me,” she once said in exasperation. As she told The Guardian:

If the music is beautiful and sensual, why not dress to fit? It’s about power and persuasion. Perhaps it’s a little sadomasochistic of me. But if I’m going to get naked with my music, I may as well be comfortable while I’m at it.

To my ear, this statement is nettled with contradictions, even allowing for the fact that Wang defines comfort differently than most. But her idea — as a profile of her in The New Yorker in 2016 made clear — is simply to exhibit an artistic intention.

Nor are Wang’s inclinations such an anomaly. In contrast to orchestral musicians, whose standard attire (“concert black”) prioritizes homogeneity so much that it’s written into labor contracts, classical soloists often enjoy full license to express themselves with what they wear. Wang works with designers like Armani and Rolex to create elevated styles in much the way that opera divas and instrumental soloists have long done, going back to the days of Maria Callas and before.

Story continues below.

Our present collective inability to handle such edgy self-expression in concert performers is also very telling. Violinist Lara St. John’s 1996 debut album cover brought accusations of sexploitation and child pornography; it also sold an impressive 30,000 copies. Years later, when St. John chose to wear a conservative gown, the critic of the Toronto Star observed:

The visuals may have faded, but the music burns more brilliantly than ever. An almost matronly St. John shambled out onto the Jane Mallett Theatre stage in a wrinkled pigeon-colored number that had to be one of the ugliest frocks to see stage lights this season.

He then went on to laud her performance.

It’s impossible to deny the power of image in any performance; in an industry struggling to articulate its relevance to those not in the club, there are fantastic reasons to embrace it. Why not break with convention? Why not present an experience that seems more relatable to new and younger audience members? Why not use style to expand an artistic concept, as in the operatic tradition, or in the music/fashion performances of the all-woman Nouveau Classical Project? What’s the problem with pushing the concert-dress envelope?

The experience of hearing Wang with the National Youth Orchestra of China at Carnegie Hall (watch this excerpt) comes to mind. A master of the great Russian Romantics, her rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto (a behemoth warhorse often tediously performed as such) did not disappoint. In her hands it wielded no less power, but it also delivered heartrending expression; the second movement rose almost as a prayer. With typical flair and technical wizardry, Wang delivered two high-octane encores, tossing it all off with effortless bravura.

Next: cue an uproar of applause, expectedly warm and enthusiastic at first, then escalating to a point of bizarre delirium. Cue a hive of men in a pastel rainbow of polos swarming the stage, with hoots, whistles, and phone cameras a-snapping. Wang’s heels made her treks on and off stage for bows all the more laborious, protracting the entire scenario.

Story continues below.

No aspect of that is typical at an orchestra concert. But it was real, and it reflects an era in which a female genius can make bold choices about her appearance.

Does it, however, come at a price? By all accounts, Wang is a contemplative, well-rounded person with a bent for serious literature. This, however, contrasts with her image in a way that you know it wouldn’t if she were a “hot” male soloist, like Joshua Bell. The  accomplishments of women, no matter how prodigious, are still someone else’s to dismiss for a more sexualized, objectified, vastly less expansive narrative.

This #metoo moment, rife with daily revelations of sexual misconduct across the arts — opera, entertainment, higher education, the field — reminds us to stay awake. Can you think of a female soloist who isn’t beautiful — and overtly marketed that way? Can you explain the story of Susan Boyle so it’s a genuine, inspiring story about her, absent the sick culture of us? As in other parts of public life, our response to women performers always has a running dialogue going on in the comments section. We ignore it at our peril.