When audiences attended the opening night of Das Rheingold at the Royal Opera House, they were struck by the appearance of Erda, the earth goddess.
The character, played by an octogenarian, spends much of the production naked. But it was her face which made the biggest impression on Richard Fairman, critic for the Financial Times.
“Erda, the earth goddess, is also on stage the whole evening, played by Rose Knox-Peebles and made up to look quite a fright, though that probably goes with the territory if you have been around since the dawn of time,” he wrote.
In a letter of response to the newspaper, Ms Knox-Peebles wrote: “Your reviewer tells readers that Erda, the earth goddess, was made up to look ‘quite a fright’.
“This is not so. I wore no make-up – the ‘fright’ look is all naturally mine.”
Ms Knox-Peebles, 81, is a writer, actress, model and art collector, although not a singer. While she acts the role of Erda in the Royal Opera House production, it is sung by Wiebke Lehmkuhl.
It is not the first time that opera critics have commented on a woman’s appearance and been called out for it.
In 2014, Tara Erraught, the mezzo-soprano, was described as “dumpy”, “stocky”, “unsightly and unappealing”, and “a chubby bundle of puppy fat” by critics who saw her in Der Rosenkavalier at Glyndebourne.
Fellow opera performers rushed to her defence. Jennifer Johnstone responded: “How have we arrived at a point where opera is no longer about singing but about the physiques and looks of the singers, specifically the female singers?”
‘Disturbing, wizened, naked figure’
The Royal Opera House’s Das Rheingold, directed by Barrie Kosky, is described as a “bold new imagining” of the first segment of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen.
The Telegraph praised Ms Knox-Peebles’ “touching” performance in its four star review, describing the character of Erda as a “disturbing, wizened, naked figure”.
Ms Knox-Peebles has appeared in music videos and modelled for Vogue, and in 2021 revealed – as part of an Age UK charity project inviting people to share snippets of interesting stories from their lives – that she had once kissed Elvis.
In 1970, while on holiday in the US with her husband, she attended an Elvis concert. As he stepped off the stage, Ms Knox-Peebles jumped up and planted a kiss on his lips. “I remember thinking as I walked back to the table, ‘Am I ever going to wash my face again?’”
She said: “I’m very lucky. I have four children, six grandchildren, and I kissed the most famous rock star on the planet, in front of my husband.”