The Weighing In Of Opera

Buzzfeed.com had an interesting post on “What Happened To Opera”.  True to Buzzfeed’s style the article, while somewhat tongue-in-cheek, makes a damn good point  and gets extra kudos for the Bugs Bunny reference.

While the opera productions have become bigger, grander, the singers themselves have not, at least not size wise.   Here in America, as well as in other Western social minds,  the fat body is considered unhealthy, abnormal, something to be ashamed of, not the socially accepted form of what is sexy.

Many opera companies, especially the smaller ones, struggle economically. And apparently think the solution is to behave like popular music labels and play up the sexuality of their leading stars.  Singer Deborah Voigt, a leading dramatic soprano, was famously fired years ago for being too fat to portray a role as the stage director at that time had envisioned it.  Voigt was eventually reinstated after she lost the weight through gastric band surgery. Yes, she states it was for her own health reasons, but no one can be blamed for the unspoken wink, wink, nudge, nudge  that goes with it.  Erstwhile mega operatic superstars such as Norman and Sills and Pavarotti would likely be hard pressed to keep their standing in this new aesthetic. This goes beyond mere fat-phobia into an analysis of appearance in music and theater that is depressing.

If the saying “It ain’t over ’till the fat lady sings” were to held to its truth, it would likely mean the death knell for opera.  As with everything else there are exceptions to the rule, those whose amazing voices transcend the benchmark.  Still,  even those exceptions are growing smaller and smaller and not just in size.

It’s sad, but unfortunately true. Opera used to be solely about the singing.  Now not only must the singers have the most amazing voices for the parts, they now must have the looks to go with them and therein lies the rub. There was ad campaign which queried  “What is sexy”.   And let’s face it, in this climate, the de rigueur definition of  sexy = skinny.

The beloved image fat, horned-helmet Valkyrie, belting out Wagner, pretty much synonymous with opera, will eventually be as obsolete as the Beta-max.  There are such amazing singers out there whose voices  may never be heard because of this downsizing and we will never know our loss.

3 thoughts on “The Weighing In Of Opera

  1. Yes, I also posted that Buzzfeed article. While Sills’ body conformed more to modern ideals, Norman’s and Pavarotti’s did not. Nor did Caballe’s (infamously referred to as Monsterfat Cowbelly), Marc’s, Eaglen’s, or so many others. What happens now, when new singers of size find it nearly impossible to get a break? Well, in many of the classics, perhaps nothing. It’s not hard to put together a great current cast for Donizetti or Mozart operas. But there have always been svelte bodies in the lighter voices. It’s in the dramatic voices that this trend really takes a toll. Whether the theory that fatty tissue around the vocal mechanism lends resonance and depth to a voice or not, true dramatic voices have always been scarce, and limiting the pool of singers purely based on modern aesthetics makes it hard to cast for Wagner and Verdi without the beauty of the singing taking a direct hit. There may be a few sylphs out their with dramatic voices, a la Karita Mattila, but they can’t sing in every production. And those cast might sound passable, even good, so that it is not remarked upon. But what might have been? Raising the one standard necessarily and conversely affects the other. Opera can never get past the necessity for “suspesion of disbelief” because of all the big parts where the character is quite young. Older people must play these parts. So, I do not give any huzzahs on this front. And I’m delighted to see it when a company holds out for the best possible voice, despite looks. It”s opera. The voices should rule.

  2. I’m not sure about this, but it may be that these modern skinny operatic singers will not have the vocal power of the original Brunnhildes. In any case, Wagner certainly knew what he wanted, and I agree. BTW, I never heard “It ain’t over ’till the fat lady sings” until the Reagan era. Did he invent that?

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