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body size in opera


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#1 Alexandra

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Posted 10 March 2004 - 08:38 AM

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?

#2 BW

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Posted 10 March 2004 - 08:57 AM

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.

#3 Mashinka

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Posted 10 March 2004 - 09:06 AM

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.

#4 Mme. Hermine

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Posted 10 March 2004 - 09:08 AM

: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.concerton...?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.

#5 kfw

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Posted 10 March 2004 - 10:15 AM

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.

#6 BW

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Posted 10 March 2004 - 10:20 AM

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

#7 dirac

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Posted 10 March 2004 - 11:47 AM

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:

#8 Estelle

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Posted 10 March 2004 - 11:48 AM

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.

#9 Farrell Fan

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Posted 10 March 2004 - 02:04 PM

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.

#10 Helene

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Posted 10 March 2004 - 02:21 PM

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.

#11 dirac

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Posted 10 March 2004 - 02:37 PM

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.

#12 oberon

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Posted 10 March 2004 - 07:29 PM

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...

#13 dirac

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Posted 10 March 2004 - 07:49 PM

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.)

#14 Mel Johnson

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Posted 10 March 2004 - 08:48 PM

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

#15 Old Fashioned

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Posted 10 March 2004 - 09:59 PM

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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