Rose Knox-Peebles was on a high after the opening night of Das Rheingold at the Royal Opera House earlier this week.
It was the first time the 82-year-old model, who plays Erda, the weary, gnarled earth mother who has seen it all, who knows what has been, what is and will be, had performed in an opera. In quite the baptism of all sorts of fire, the director, Barrie Kosky, decided to keep her character on stage, naked, for the entire two-and-a-half-hour performance – with no interval.
The reviews were glowing: Knox-Peebles’ performance was “remarkable and gracefully brave” said one reviewer. Another said she performed a difficult part with “great skill”. Yet another said that she was “visually arresting” and her constant presence on the stage was the producer’s “finest interpretative moment”.
But when Knox-Peebles turned to her favourite newspaper – the Financial Times – she got a shock. “Not only was the review terribly short and superficial but it accused me of having been ‘made up to look quite a fright’,” she said.
Knox-Peebles wasn’t upset about being told she looked “a fright” by the critic Richard Fairman – she couldn’t give two hoots what anyone thinks about her appearance – but she was upset by what she thought of as the lazy inaccuracy of the statement.
“I was furious,” she said. “I hadn’t been ‘made up’ to look like a fright. That’s what I looked like. It was me.
“I don’t actually think I do look like a fright”, she added. “I’m perfectly happy with the way I look.”
Knox-Peebles fired off a letter to the newspaper. To her great amusement, it was published. ‘The “fright” look is all naturally mine’, she wrote, signing her letter “Erda”.
The media loved it: “‘Frightful’ make-up is just my face, octogenarian tells opera critic,” announced the Times. “Opera critic calls 81-year-old actress’s make-up ‘frightful’ … but she wasn’t wearing any,” crowed the Telegraph.
Knox-Peebles said she had better things to do than worry about a critic who confuses an opera stage with a catwalk. “My appearance was obviously totally irrelevant. I’m supposed to be 4.9bn years old, so I would hardly look like some beautiful young thing,” she said on Wednesday.
She added: “I’m having a wonderful time. I got married at 18 and had four children. I never worked until 20 years, when I started modelling, more or less by chance. Since then, I’ve been in Vogue, in music videos – bopping around like anybody else – and having the time of my life.
“To my eyes, getting old is a plus. Until this thing – whatever it was – I’ve not been treated differently at all over my age,” she added. “If anything, ageing is a bonus: I get offered seats on the Underground. What’s not to like?!”
The Financial Times has been contacted for comment.