Alexandra

body size in opera

78 posts in this topic

A very interesting critic's notebook piece this morning about Covent Garden's decision to pull soprano Deborah Voigt because she's too heavy to suit the designer's idea of the opera:

A Dress or a Voice: What Makes a Diva?

This article hits a lot of issues -- updating a classic, what matters to an audience, contractual matters -- as well as one that struck me: opera has never been realistic. I'd like to say that ballet isn't/shouldn't be realistic either. (even though all of us are suckers for realism in the sense of finding something universally human in a characterization of a gesture) Ballet audiences have loved 50 year old Juliets and Giselles -- but these ballerinas had to MOVE as a young person on stage; then the face was either overlooked or forgiven.

What do you think of this issue? Both the Case of Covent Garden and Ms. Voigt, and the issue of realism on stage in general?

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I read this article early this morning and, even not being and opera goer, it made me sad to think that a true voice was being replaced by a more "attractive" body in a black cocktail dress to suit what the marketing group feels will bring in more of an audience. :(

If this becomes a trend, opera will fall prey to the "Hollywoodization" that has befallen much of the film business and, (gulp) some of what I believe a number of the old guard (and some new guard) of ballet goers feel sometimes turns up on the ballet stage. :blushing:

Having only really attended one full length opera, I'm not sure if my reactions are really germane to the discussion, but there you go.

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I think this is a good example of how opera in the UK is dominated by production values rather than musical ones. Producers think nothing of ridiculing audiences as "canary fanciers" because they admire beautiful voices.

Presumably they wouldn't have employed Caballé, Norman or Pavarotti either.

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:rolleyes: Perhaps then, in order to cast La Boheme properly, one will look for starving singers? Alas poor Jane Eaglen! :angry:

here is a link to an interesting (and to me, telling) essay on this director's staging of an opera by Handel:

http://www.concertonet.com/scripts/review.php?ID_review=1924

Partial quote:

The chorus, an incomprehensible projection of a pre-modern nation, wear white eighteenth-century dress, while the soloists, already known to be people something like us, wear modern concert dress.

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If this becomes a trend, opera will fall prey to the "Hollywoodization" that has befallen much of the film business and, (gulp) some of what I believe a number of the old guard (and some new guard) of ballet goers feel sometimes turns up on the ballet stage. :blushing:

BW, are you really saying that attractive dancers are sometimes cast in the place of less attractive but more accomplished dancers? Good grief.

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I'll take "the Fifth" on that one. :blushing:

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Maybe it shouldn't come as news at this late date that pretty people have an edge over the less pretty. Ask Renee Fleming, who has a lovely voice, true, but whose exceptional looks have clearly played a big role in the hype. It is hard to gauge from the data provided in this article exactly what happened, but it's not unheard of for actors or singers to be given the boot from a production because they don't fit, no pun intended. Things get underway, changes are made, conflicts develop, and somebody gets the axe. If Voigt were a star of Sutherland calibre, the production would be altered to suit her, of course. I suggest also that we not take it for granted that Ms. Schwanewilms is not the possessor of a fine voice, even if she is not well known.

The language used by the honchos responsible for Voigt's firing is absolutely inexcusable, but on the other hand I can also see that some productions might call for singers who can look good and move around some, not that Ms. Voigt is guilty of the latter. That said, I don't know why they'd hire her in the first place, if that were the main concern.

Returning to Alexandra's point, some opera is naturalistic, some less so. Il Trovatore isn't Wozzeck. And you wouldn't cast a singer who is resident in Lard City as Stanley Kowalski in Previn's "A Streetcar Named Desire." It all depends. :blushing:

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When reading about that that story (about Debora Voigt), I was wondering whether her body shape really was the reason why she wasn't cast, of whether it was just a pretext for something else. It remined me of the whole Volochkova story: for "outsiders" it looked like a ballerina was fired for weight reasons, while in fact it was a more complicated story with company politics, diva temper, etc. I know nothing about opera singers, and would be interested to know what people think of Ms Voigt as a singer.

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I wasn't going to comment on this, but since Estelle asked... Deborah Voight is one of the great singers of our time. But unlike Volochkova, she is obese -- more so than even the stereotypical "fat lady" of opera. Nevertheless, she is the supreme interpreter of Ariadne, the role from which she was dropped by the Royal Opera. It would have been much better to rethink the costume.

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Jane Eaglen, who is a very heavy woman, recently saved Seattle Opera's production of Ariadne auf Naxos by cancelling her vacation and replacing Mary Jane Wray at the very last minute. (This was after headliner Angelika Kirchschlager, the original Composer, cancelled, citing exhaustion.) She learned the German text, which she had never sung before, over a long weekend.

During the broadcast of the opera last Saturday night, General Director Speight Jenkins raved about the maroon/red dress she wore as Ariadne, which sounded like they made for her from scratch. I can't imagine Jenkins ever hiring a production team that would sacrifice a voice like Eaglen's for a little black dress; the big red one was just fine, and she sounded like a dream.

I was lucky to hear the broadcast, because she swapped this Saturday's performance with "Silver" cast Ariadne, Monique McDonald for last Sunday's matinee, so that she could get to her "Ring" rehearsals at the Met. That made two Ariadne's in less than 24 hours. I'd cast her in any role she wanted to sing, after what she did for Seattle Opera these past two weeks.

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Voigt is a wonderful singer, and she's lost a lot of weight in recent years. I'm inclined to agree with Estelle that there's more to this than just a costume. Which still doesn't justify the comments made by the stagers.

As for Eaglen, she is indeed spectacularly heavy. Which is fine by me, although I can't help wondering about the health issues involved - I understand that obesity on that scale can create severe back problems and put great pressure on the internal organs, among other things.

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Actually, Voigt started to lose weight a few years ago but stopped when it seemed to be affecting her voice. She has gained it all back. I see her "offstage" pretty often when she is in NYC. She is a very attractive woman, but large. I believe the decision not to use her in the ROH ARIADNE was made 2-3 years ago; it wasn't like she was suddenly dumped.

My feeling is, the pressure on singers (esp. females) to lose large amounts of weight quickly is depriving us of some great voices. It started with Callas, then Vaness, Christine Goerke, Gruber & Fout. All went on crash diets, looked sensational afterwards, and had their instruments diminished in scope by half. And while it may be "unhealthy" carrying around all those pounds, big women like Stignani, Caballe, Norman, Rita Hunter among others always had plenty of work and left us with great aural memories. Where are such voices today? At the "fat farm" being demolished...

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I'm pretty sure there's no empirical basis for linking poundage with a big voice, as opposed to correlation. Crash diets are certainly not good for a singer -- any such radical messing with one's instrument needs to be approached cautiously.

(Callas' vocal difficulties may have been exacerbated by too much weight loss, but her problems lay deeper than that. I have tapes of her early in her career, and even then there were these sudden mysterious lapses.)

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A classic "big singer" story: Enrico Caruso was leaving Delmonico's Restaurant when he spied his friend Ernestine von Schumann-Heink being served an enormous planked steak. "Stina," said he, "are you going to eat that all alone?" "Of course not," said Madame, "mit POTATOES!" :D

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Whoa. This story actually received the cover page of Houston Chronicle's entertainment section. I don't think I've ever seen a fine art as the main feature. The general director of HGO, David Gockley, made a few comments in the article:

HGO traditionally has steered toward svelte, stylish singers and away from the big girls, said Gockley.

and

"If there is a truly extraordinary voice, you'll make a place for it," Gockley said, regardless of how the singer looks or moves.

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Anyone know the answer???

Out of curiousity, why is it that male opera singers can be as huge as they want, and still be hired in the "Prince" roles...yet women are fired for the same thing.

Clara :wink:

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Why Carbro,

you saw right through me!!!!!! :wink:

Clara :grinning:

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Wednesday night my parents went to Metropolitan opera to watch one of last performances of Luciano Pavarotti. They told me that it was painful to watch because of his limited abilities to move across the stage, there were extra chairs for him to sit , or to lean on. They found that very disturbing.

In my opinion health is that matters the most.

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I can't speak about the Voigt situation. I can say that one of the greatest opera performances I ever attended was Jane Eaglen and Ben Heppner in Tristan und Isolde at the Metropolitan Opera (with the much slimmer but also remarkable Rene Papp as well). The production was staged for them and worked with them. It had an abstract, iconic quality that allowed the beauty AND drama of the music to come through -- and lesser singers could not remotely have achieved the same impact in this opera. In general, I don't think it's too much to ask opera directors to work with great singers with unusual or extreme body types -- let alone garden variety 'big girls' (I'm quoting a quote on an earlier post) or, indeed, big boys. I accept that an opera house may want to do some productions where they give the director a free hand for her or his vision -- I even support it -- but I'd be sorry to see a major opera house give up on on great voices in the (supposed) interests of musical 'theater.'

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Well, Eaglen and Heppner are virtually the only singers to field for a decent Tristan these days, so of course productions will be built around them, as it were, and would be even if they had to be hauled to the stage on a dolly. The cold fact is that Voigt is still replaceable while Eaglen and Heppner, for certain roles, are not. I think the language used by Covent Garden's people in their public statements on this matter is unconscionable, no matter what the circumstances, but I didn't get the impression that they were planning to hang a sign saying that the seriously overweight need not apply under any circumstances.

Clara76, you're absolutely right, and Voigt herself has wondered aloud about the same thing. Weight simply isn't the fraught issue for men that it is for women, and you can see this in fields other than opera.

There was a short but interesting item in People magazine on l'affaire Voigt, and the article outlined the many and varied efforts that Voigt has made over the years to reduce her weight. She's one of those people who has tried and tried – fen-phen, everything. It sounds to me as if she should forget about that and focus on her singing. Many others will be ready to hire her, I'm sure.

Prejudice against the fat is one of the last kinds of discrimination that it's still "okay" to indulge in, and that's terribly wrong. (Voigt apparently has been receiving hate mail denouncing her as a self-indulgent fatty.) As far as opera singers are concerned, there's no scientific evidence linking great big bodies to great big voices, but that's unrelated to the discrimination issue.

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Has anyone seen Karita Mattila's "Salome" at the Met this week???Talk about 'having it all'---Wow! :D She apparently went 'all-the-way' with those seven veils.

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I did not draw a correlation between voice size and body size, though that is how some people read my message. If that were true, Lina Pagliughi and Luisa Tetrazzini would have been great Wagneriennes whereas in fact they were high, light, brilliant coloraturas. What I am saying is, if you are a big woman and you build your technique and support system on a certain frame and then, after you have made a success, you decide to shed 100 pounds you are going to alter your instrument. Carol Vaness was not fat by anyone's standards...she carried a nice bit of weight and was somewhat "hippy", but she looked great. Her very dramatic weight loss left her stunning to behold while the voice was diminished in scope and "ring"...I was there, immediately before and immediately after. The change was amazing. Same is true of Goerke and Gruber.

Voigt has a great career going: new EMI contract, her TRISTAN to be released on DG, and big plans at the Met in the next few seasons. She should not sacrifice the career she has built just so she can wear a black cocktail dress. I'm sure she realizes this.

Someone mentioned Schumann-Heink. She was reportedly still singing very well in her 70th year, giving lie to the idea that being fat is deadly. My favorite story about her: in a rehearsal she was to enter thru a doorway. She could not fit thru and there was no way to alter the set so the director said: "Mme. Heink, just enter sideways" to which she allegedly replied: "I have no sideways..."

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Certainly such radical adjustments can affect the voice, as mentioned earlier. As for the effects of obesity upon the health in general, I refer you to the Centers for Disease Control, which has had much to say on the subject recently. :D The article in People mentioned that Voigt had been trying to lose weight for health reasons, not cosmetic ones.

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Maybe Voigt could try ballet....

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