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When is it time for the proverbial 'fat lady' to hang up her hat? A continuing debate on how and why and whether weight and age affect the bottom line.
Two months ago Andrew Green, writing in Opera Now magazine, asked the question: "Is it over for the fat lady?" The article looked at a number of web-based columns on the subject of negative stereotypical images of opera singers, male and female. The criticisms were leveled mostly at performers who were overweight and presented somewhat of a caricature of the sensual characters they portrayed on stage. Green didn't venture a decisive viewpoint, himself, but rather pointed to the views of various columnists at the online sites he visited. Most writers suggested that weight mattered more to the audience today than in the past.
In January, OperaOnline.us, raised the issue a little differently in "Did opera bypass the X generation. . ." [See: Feedback] Our focus, then, was on various ways opera could attract a younger audience. The solution, we suggested, was to search out and promote fit, younger singers who could sell the "sizzle" of opera to a generation whose hormones think principally in terms of sizzle. As this group matures and their interest in opera as an art form grows, as the statistics tend to suggest it will, you want every advantage you can get to expand the opera base beyond the 8.2% of the adult public population between the ages of 45 and 64-years of age.
The Metropolitan Opera Company, perhaps seeing the need to grow the base, recently held its first, annual, singles night. At $95 each, a respectable crowd of singles gathered for hors d'oeuvres and a performance of Tosca. Who knows, the Met may be on to something here - as far as audience goes. It is this audience that is acutely attuned to looks as well as sound and wants both.
Then, last month, Robin Pogrebin, writing in the New York Times, penned an empathetic article describing the plight of soprano Deborah Voigt who was dropped from the production of "Ariadne auf Naxos" at the Royal Opera House at Covent Gardens in London because, "she was deemed too big for a little black dress." Peter Katona, the opera company's casting director took some heat when he ventured the opinion that some opera singers eat too much and attribute their weight wrongly to the requirements of being a good opera singer. That article started a controversy that continues to this day. Was The Royal Opera Company right or wrong in acting as it did in firing Deborah Voigt?
Even the Wall Street Journal weighed in, defending the Royal Opera, writing, "when so many of its [opera's] most passionate supporters live in an alternate universe, refusing to recognize how weird is their sense of aesthetics, then it's little wonder that opera is, if not dead, then at the very least a dying art form." In a press release on March 12, 2004, the Royal Opera felt the need to explain its decision further, but stood by its decision nonetheless in tersely written prose. "[I]t was decided by the artistic management of The Royal Opera, in consultation with the production's director, that Ms. Voigt would be inappropriate casting in this particular production and her contract was regretfully withdrawn."
And it isn't just women who feel the sting of criticism about their girth. Anthony Tommasini's critique of Luciano Pavarotti's farewell performances of Tosca at the Met in March was almost too painful to read. Was Pavarotti really so overweight that he had to be propped up by his leading lady? Yet the next day, Tommasini wrote that he was "flabbergasted by the decision of the Royal Opera at Covent Garden in London to drop soprano Deborah Voigt "because she was deemed too heavy for a slinky black dress that is central to the director's concept of the role." Well, is it or isn't it a legitimate factor? As for Pavarotti's weight, Stephen Pollard, writing in the Wall Street Journal in March, commented: "To describe his London performance as embarrassing is not even to come close to reporting the cringing which seized the audience. . . I do not exaggerate when I say that the sound of laughter from the audience almost drowned out the music."
It is impolite to discuss such things publicly. And it is difficult to comment without sounding personal to those who carry the extra pounds. Mentioning it here is not intended to offend - but the issue has been raised.
Pundits of the "voice" argue that it is the voice that counts, not the size of one's waist. Not all agree on the former aspect. Singer Natalie Dessay, for example, in a 1998 interview with Culturekiosque.com said that while voice is important, it accounted for only 30% of the performance. She attributed 70% importance to theater - putting on a good show. Met GM, Joseph Volpe, for example, weighed in with a different view in a NYT interview with Allan Kozinn, stating, "my position is very clear. If we were hiring Debbie Voight or any other singer who did not fit the director's concept physically, we would get another director." Richard Dyer, Boston Globe critic agrees with him: "The artistic administration should have chucked the costume and found a way to make the diva look great." Dyer goes one step further and, almost as if in obeisance to political correctness, writes "[t]he last bastion of open discrimination seems to be prejudice against heavy women." But, clearly, the "preference" or "choice" for one body type over another in a given role is as much as anything else an artistic statement that deserves respect.
Weight doesn't matter if you're listening to a recording. But so much of the business is visual it's hard not to think in terms of what one sees as equally important. "Die Walkure's" Brunnhilde can carry a few extra pounds, she's a warrior goddess. Who knows what they're supposed to look like? But Sieglinde? It might also be a little jarring to see Santuzza in "Cavalleria Rusticana", as anything other than a beautiful, scorned wife, or Cio-Cio-San as a portly, aged "Butterfly", or "Salome", well, you get the point - no matter how great one's voice is.
Opera is to be enjoyed, and one of the things you have to enjoy about opera is what you see. In that sense, I agree with Ms. Dessay, it's 70% performance for me. One's performance on stage comes bundled in a package - and opera is no less than any other medium in that regard, a very visual platform. The package counts. Appearances count. At some point common sense has to be considered and a graceful exit is preferable to the alternative. Indeed, the reward for a lifetime's commitment and hard work should not be ridicule, but accolades and status befitting an accomplished performer. In the case of Pavarotti, it is painful to see a review that is both unflattering and honest. In the case of Deborah Voigt, and she doesn't stand alone in this regard, her disappointment at being rejected because of her weight is understandable, but wrongheaded.
The audience today sits and looks and takes in a performance a little differently than in the past. I don't know this as a fact, but I sense it from my conversations, especially with younger opera goers. Our cultural sense of what is and is not acceptable has evolved in every meaningful way, and you can't just write off these changes in cultural expectations. Think of all those old movies where both leading man and leading lady smoked or shared a cigarette while professing their love for one another. You hardly ever see that today. Things change. And so it is with opera. Audiences have become accustomed to seeing things as they are most likely to actually be, and that's what they expect when they attend a performance. Is it believable? is inextricably intertwined with, was it good?
It's up to the artistic and music director and producer to make the difficult call. In the case of lead soprano, or seductive mezzo, or for that matter - leading man, unless the character calls for girth, as Henry VIII might, opera needs to meet its audience at the edge of believability and offer performers that are both fit and capable. Anything less only makes the job of selling opera to a wider audience near impossible. A person's talent as a singer should never be measured by the girth of their waist - only their bankability deserves such harsh judgment. And that, I think, is what is going on here, appropriately so.