Alexandra

body size in opera

78 posts in this topic

I have the perfect role for her. She Who Sings in Robert Joffrey's "Remembrances".

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This afternoon, on WNYC's program Sound Check will be discussing this:Ring Bearers.

There is little that strikes more fear in the hearts of opera novices (and some connoisseurs, for that matter) than Wagner's "Ring of the Nibelungs"—eighteen hours of German mythology requiring a four-night commitment. As the Metropolitan Opera revives Wagner's vast epic starting this Saturday, it's a perfect opportunity to explore why its philosophical themes remain relevant to this day. Host John Schaefer speaks with Philip Kitcher, Columbia University philosophy professor and co-author of Finding an Ending—Reflections on Wagner's Ring. Kitcher will shed some light on how different forms of love, freedom, heroism, authority, and judgment are explored and tested as the cycle unfolds. Also on the show, Brian Kellow, features editor of Opera News magazine, looks at the recent controversy that erupted when soprano Deborah Voigt was fired by London’s Royal Opera House because she was deemed too heavy to sing in the forthcoming production of "Ariadne auf Naxos." How does the opera business approach image-making? Do opera singers have to be large to make a large sound? Tune in and find out.

I believe it's on at 2PM here.

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More on The Ring, this Friday at 3:00 p.m. (WNYC-FM, 93.9), and 7:00 p.m. (WNYC-AM, 820):

The Ring and I: The Passion, The Myth, The Mania

WNYC Special Explores the Impact and Influence of Wagner's Ring Cycle on the Eve of the Metropolitan Opera's Presentation

It might seem hyperbole to claim, as many Wagnerites do, that The Ring Cycle is "The Greatest Work of Art Ever." But the grandeur and power of this monumental work have permeated our culture from Star Wars to Bugs Bunny to J.R.R. Tolkien.

A 17-minute preview of Friday's radio show is archived on WNYC's website. You can scroll down for the audio link.

All of WNYC's shows are available for live streaming, for those interested BalletAlertniks who are beyond the reach of the radio signal.

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I feel sure Voigt is aware of both the benefits and hazards of staying like she is. If she loses weight, she will undoubtedly feel and look "better" but she will also most likely compromise her instrument. She is damned if she does and damned if she doesn't.

Andrea Gruber apparently went to the extreme of having her stomach stapled; she looks quite sensational now but her middle register is sagging and the top has lost its brilliance. When your body is your instrument, how do you decide?

Yes, it is dangerous to be obese. However, maintaining a healthy regimen in no guarantee of a long life. Two men that I worked with, both fitness buffs and healthy eaters, died of heart attacks at ages 38 and 40 respectively. And a lovely Japanese friend of mine, a rising mezzo-soprano, worked out constantly and maintained a beautiful figure with a healthy diet, and died at age 33.

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Genetics also plays a role, and of course being healthy is no guarantee of a long life. But I don't think it's mere coincidence that there are so many ancient ballet teachers around :devil:.

I see your point, though, about one's body being one's instrument (it's a similar idea for dancers). I would think that she should focus less on the numbers on the scale and simply try to get regular exercise and eat healthfully without bothering about losing a certain number of pounds. That way, she would be taking care of her health without really compromising her voice.

(I also don't think Fen-phen and other dieting "quick-fixes" are a good idea at all--they tend not to work in the long-term and can cause severe problems. Moderation in all things, the speed of weight loss included.)

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This issue flares up among opera aficionados and in opera internet groups pretty regularly. It is really nice be part of a discussion that is both well mannered and well meaning.

A few notes:

Drew wrote:

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).

And don’t forget Michelle DeYoung who, as Brangane might have stolen the show in lesser company. I saw that production in Chicago. It had a terrific look, sound and dramatic impact. Eaglen is huge which was not news to anyone who were clamoring for tickets throughout the entire run at the Lyric. An important part of successfully singing Wagner is stamina, as true of Isolde as anything Wagner wrote. When Eaglen floated the first few notes of “Mild und liese”, at the very end of “Tristan and Isolde” and then rode over the orchestra in the Irish princess’ love/death, it was an astounding moment.

Clara76 wrote:

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.

Lauritz Melchior is considered by many to the greatest Wagnerian tenor of the last century if not of all time. A critic once said that in his costume for Siegrfried he resembled and was as mobile as an overstuffed sofa.

There often wasn’t much to do onstage in Wagner operas besides signing and standing around—the term “Park and Bark” summed it up well. Which worked quite well in that Golden Age. Of course in 50 years the beginning of this century will be looked upon with nostalgia as its own age of gold, which the then current performers can’t begin to approach.

dirac wrote:

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

Among opera fanatics this is generally where the gloves are dropped and the fighting commences. Actually any mention of Callas, pro or con, will have that affect. Like dirac I have a shelf full of Callas tapes and CD transfers—“Lucia” from Mexico City in 1952, Act II of “Parsifal” (in Italian) from Rome in 1950, the RAI broadcasts, etc. (Doesn't everyone? :wink: ) Whatever the reason Callas had a white-hot career of 11 or 12 years, from 1948 to 1959 or 1960. Her too rapid weight loss came in the middle of that period. She still had some great evenings on stage in the 1960s but they become more the exception.

Oberon wrote:

Where are such voices today? At the "fat farm" being demolished...

Or in graduate schools of music. There are a lot vocal artists in their late 20s and early 30s who can sight read any score that exists and probably transcribe it for percussion and massed zithers but who also have almost no performing experience.

Many of the roads to an opera career no longer exist. Formerly it was typical for young American singers to work in the small opera houses in Germany, for example. Once travel between Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union to what was West Germany was no longer an issue, these roles were taken by singers from the East. Now they stay in school instead of learning several new roles, understudying some and performing other (smaller) ones. Not the same thing at all.

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I think all true opera fans would agree that musical values are primary. However, that doesn't come close to ending the discussion. :)

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Deborah Voigt may have had the last laugh. In the Associated Press review of her 7 Apr 04 recital at Carnegie Hall is the following:

She received an unusually robust ovation when she walked on stage for Wednesday night's concert, a sign that the audience was aware of her recent travails.

The highlight came during her second encore, Ben Moore's comic sendup "Wagner Roles." With Moore in the audience, Voigt's version had four new lines inserted just before the end:  "And this business I'm in ... well it's really a mess ... not to mention the deal ... with that little black dress."

The audience loved it. And to hammer home her point, she inserted an extra composer into the final line, "I'll keep singing those Wagner — and Strauss — roles!!"

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In today's Guardian there is a wonderful interview with Deborah Voight who discusses her former weight problem candidly. These links don't usually contain pictures, but this one does and Ms V's transformation is simply jaw-dropping.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/g2/story/0,,1880920,00.html

I'm one of those opera goers that rates the voice above all else and I'm not overly worried about a singers girth, though of course there are serious health risks connected with obesity. Ms Voight is clearly delighted with her new figure and explains how her sacking from Covent Garden gave her the gap in her schedule to fit in the surgery she had been considering.

"Anyway, I was looking for a time when it would be possible to have the surgery and, lo and behold, I had all this time off [in summer 2004] because Covent Garden had fired me. And they had had to honour their financial commitment. So, if you want to get technical and ironic about it, Covent Garden paid for the operation." If you want to get even more ironic about it, the British taxpayer helped out: about a third of the Royal Opera House's income is from the public purse.

BTW, as a UK tax payer I'm more than happy to have paid a small contribution to her medical bill.

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Thanks for posting this, Mashinka. Very interesting article. It sounds as if Voigt made the right move for herself and she feels good about it, which is the main thing. Also, she does look fabulous. :)

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A very interesting article. We don't often get to read things about the bodily/physical support system for singers. This paragraph was especially throught-provoking:

The question everyone seems to want answered is: can she still sing? A voice does not exist in isolation but depends on the workings of the musculature of the stomach and abdomen. Change the fleshy support system of the instrument, and you could change the nature of the sound. After Maria Callas lost a great deal of weight, some thought that her voice lost a portion of its beauty (though the idea that fat people always make better opera singers is surely myth, since there have always been slender divas). Voigt herself says, "I don't think my voice has changed, but I am only hearing it from inside, so I can only speak about the sensation of singing. Every 20lbs I lost, I felt less rounded and less able to support the sound; well, that was because my support system" - she gestures at empty space around her now slim hips - "was vanishing. At 150lbs heavier, you take a breath and those muscles are already engaged, you don't have to think about it. Now, I have to think about it, about how things line up." She pauses. "In terms of the timbre, the size? I don't think the size of my voice has changed. Maybe it's a little brighter, more silvery rather than gold."
Having to "think" about this more may actually be a blessing as Voight extends her career into the future. Singers who are thoughtful and intelligent about the way they produce their sound(s) seem to have longer and more artistically successful later careers.

I wonder if the same holds true of ballet dancers?

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The Telegraph's Michael White believes that, in Voigt's case at least, weight loss equals a loss in vocal quality.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/o...e-fat-lady.html

When Deborah Voigt told me that story she was complaining, but not unduly. She was professional enough to understand the importance of getting into that little dress; and in the end she did, more or less, courtesy of surgical intervention to put a band round her stomach and restrict her food intake. It was a radical solution, but it got her reinstated to the role when the production revived.

The terrible thing was that when she came back in her new, slimmed-down size, the voice wasn't the same: it had lost some of its dimension and a lot of its bloom, raising inevitable questions about whether shedding all those pounds had been counterproductive. Did the lady need to be fat to sing? Was this a re-enactment of that much-discussed moment in opera history when the peerless but podgy Maria Callas swallowed a tapeworm and reinvented herself 30 kilos lighter as a fashion icon, only to wreck her voice, as some would argue, in the process?

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The Telegraph's Michael White believes that, in Voigt's case at least, weight loss equals a loss in vocal quality.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/o...e-fat-lady.html

When Deborah Voigt told me that story she was complaining, but not unduly. She was professional enough to understand the importance of getting into that little dress; and in the end she did, more or less, courtesy of surgical intervention to put a band round her stomach and restrict her food intake. It was a radical solution, but it got her reinstated to the role when the production revived.

The terrible thing was that when she came back in her new, slimmed-down size, the voice wasn't the same: it had lost some of its dimension and a lot of its bloom, raising inevitable questions about whether shedding all those pounds had been counterproductive. Did the lady need to be fat to sing? Was this a re-enactment of that much-discussed moment in opera history when the peerless but podgy Maria Callas swallowed a tapeworm and reinvented herself 30 kilos lighter as a fashion icon, only to wreck her voice, as some would argue, in the process?

I think White misses an important point. He suggests that "the weight loss was counterproductive"; which is probably true. But then he goes off track by proposing that you might have to be fat to sing. And to counter this, cites examples of noted singers who didn't carry around extra weight.

But I think Voigt's problem was related to the rapid weight loss itself. Singers uses many areas of their entire torso to produce and support the sounds they make and if the whole muscle system changes, the entire mechanism is thrown off. The singer's technique needs to be retooled to adapt to the changes in the body's structure. And their are no guarantees that this adaptation will be successful. To be fair, their may have also been some other bits of decline setting in in Voigt's case at the same time.

White seems to hover around the key point in mentioning Callas, who also lost weight very rapidly, but then gets himself sidetracked by the "do you HAVE to be fat to sing" question again. No, you don't need to be fat to sing, Mr White, but the whole process of singing is based on the entire body you have when you develop your technique and any significant changes can throw the whole mechanism off. Lots of singers have lost weight in the 30-40 lb area and have seemed ok afterward but the whole 100 lb plus type of loss seems to be much more complicated.

To get away from the "fat" or " slim" issue, certain kinds of surgery can mess up a singer. Imgard Seefried gave birth to a child via caesarian section and found that her voice had changed drastically (and not for the good). Ljuba Welitsch had a gall bladder operation around the time her voice went into an unexpected decline. In these cases the sugeons had cut through abdominal muscles which made a significant change in an important part of the body the singers use to support their voice.

Voigt had to suddenly cancel appearances at Covent Garden this summer, which may have prompted this article in the British Press. And the reason was a digestive ailment. At least Voigt can take consolation that overall she has put her body in a much more positive shape healthwise. And she needs to work with a vocal coach to try to retool her voice.

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Re the weight issue, Christine Brewer, who is a very heavy woman, had to cancel her appearances in the Met Ring this spring because she could not handle the physical demands imposed by the production (a lot of walking around a steeply raked stage). She would have been great vocally, I think. I was very disappointed.

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Re the weight issue, Christine Brewer, who is a very heavy woman, had to cancel her appearances in the Met Ring this spring because she could not handle the physical demands imposed by the production (a lot of walking around a steeply raked stage). She would have been great vocally, I think. I was very disappointed.

The official reason given by the Met for Brewer's cancellation was slightly more complicated than her not being able to manuever around the stage because of her weight. No doubt this would have been an issue but the precise reason for the cancellation (officially, anyway) was a knee injury. Brewer had to resort to using a cane to walk for this same period last Spring.

Of course it is very likely that the knee problem was aggravated by the amount of weight she is carrying around

but the production requirements of the Schenk Ring production at the Met aren't all that rigorous. Back several seasons, the very heavy, none too mobile, Jane Eaglen managed to perform in the same production.

I realize I am splitting hairs a bit here but I believe there may have been other issues involved.

Also, I agree with abatt's disappointment; I would have loved to hear Brewer sing Brunnhilde with her stupendous voice. A terrific opportunity lost.....

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The terrible thing was that when she came back in her new, slimmed-down size, the voice wasn't the same: it had lost some of its dimension and a lot of its bloom

Another terrible thing is that critics feel free to use such inexact terms as "dimension" and (not quite as bad) "bloom" and then modify them with weak adjectives: "some" and "lots".

To me, Michael White is saying: "I liked her better when she was fat".

__

There can be real problems, of course. A number of years ago we caught Alessandra Marc in "Turandot". While one could accept her as ravishingly beautiful--eye of the beholder and all that--her first entrane was a disaster. Not because of anything she did but what the audience was waiting for her to do. She appeared at the top of a very long and steep staircase. I was thinking, as were many I talked with later, "She is never going to make it all the way down without a mishap." The way she and the director dealt with the problem was to have her turn sideways and come down the stairs very carefully, bringing one foot down, then the other on the same stair, pausing for a moment, then moving the the next stair. It was one of the most unqueenly entrances I have ever seen.

But that is a certain singer in a specific role in a specific production. If all the overweight singers were disqualified from singing the title role in "Turandot" there would be significantly fewer productions of it.

Which is another story...

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I think White misses an important point. He suggests that "the weight loss was counterproductive"; which is probably true. But then he goes off track by proposing that you might have to be fat to sing. And to counter this, cites examples of noted singers who didn't carry around extra weight.

I don't think that you have to be fat to sing, but Miss Voigt may have to have something approaching the mass that she previously carried to create the same quality of sound that she did when she tipped the scales. The unique combination of nose, vocal chords, diaphragm, mass, etc. that Miss Voigt used previously has changed in a major way. She has probably lost half her body mass, and effectively gone from creating her sound in viola to to a violin, and I am not surprised that the sounds that she is creating now are not the same as they were before her surgery.

Now, whether what she is able to produce now is good, bad or indifferent, is another story, but I'm not surprised at all that it is different.

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Thank you for bringing back this old thread, carbro. I tend to agree with sidwich and richard53dog that it would be surprising if Voigt’s vocal production hadn’t been affected by such drastic weight loss, and it’s also no big shock if she has lost vocal heft along with that weight.

One of the points White made in his rather wishy-washy article was that more producers and directors want their singers slim and pretty, and although he seems to be unhappy about this he also seems to be throwing up his hands, what-can-you-do style.

Good to hear from you, Ed.

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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.)

I've got the old tapes of the late 40s and 50s, the Mexico city and some Scala, Aida, I Puritani, Vespres Sicilianes, Nabucco, one old Tosca I don't have but that goes back too; and I never heard any lapses, although I'm not doubting you--just never heard anything that stuck out. I'd be interested to know what you mean specifically. And there is simply no comparison to what she did after 54 or 55, those of use who love those early recordings don't even hear it as a the same singer; for me anyway, other than Flagstad, there hasn't been any other opera soprano as Callas was in those early years (and to think she had a career in Greece even before those). Most of the rest of the time, as is well-known, the high notes were often of a strident ugliness that literally hurts the ear. She, of course, had 'problems' in all areas of life, I wouldn't be surprised if her life wasn't a constant fugue state. But I won't even listen to most of the later recordings anymore, the difference is too incredible.

(Apologies if I repeated things from other contributors to the thread. This one started well before I arrived, and I've only had time to get through about half the thread just now.)

dirac--sorry, I had meant 'not doubting you' originally, and didn't proofread. You may know these recordings better than I do, I just usually find them a lush vocal paradise.

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No worries, Patrick. Seems to me there was an unsteadiness in the high notes as early as my Mexico City Trovatore in 1950, I think it was. Some of the B's and C's on her recordings from '54 and '55 aren't delightful to the ear, either. Later on it wasn't only the high notes but a ghastly wobble that marched through her vocal range like Sherman's troopers. I'm no musician or vocal expert but I don't think that rapid weight loss and/or personal problems account(s) for what happened to her.

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No worries, Patrick. Seems to me there was an unsteadiness in the high notes as early as my Mexico City Trovatore in 1950, I think it was. Some of the B's and C's on her recordings from '54 and '55 aren't delightful to the ear, either. Later on it wasn't only the high notes but a ghastly wobble that marched through her vocal range like Sherman's troopers. I'm no musician or vocal expert but I don't think that rapid weight loss and/or personal problems account(s) for what happened to her.

From some written sources, it seems like the wobble was there VERY early, back in her student days in Athens. According to some of her contemporaries quoted in The Unknown Callas:the Greek Years, Callas was troubled by a wobble in the early 40s. She worked with her teacher, Elvira di Hidalgo who gave her exercises to steady her voice and they seemed to have done the trick, at least temporarily. The Greek colleague offered that di Hidalgo felt the wobble was due

to damage done to Callas diaphragm by her heavy singing as a small child. (Callas had a super example of a driven stage mother).

A few years later, in the late 40s, Louise Casselotti (a friend and coach) is quoted in George Jellinek's bio of Callas as commenting that Casselotti heard some early performances of Callas in Italy as Turandot ca 1948 and that her top wavered badly in those performances.

So it's fair to conclude that the unsteadiness was there from the beginning but was sometimes more noticeable than other times

.

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I think her dramatic weight loss could certainly have affected her vocal stability as it would have altered her diaphragmatic support. So if the wobble was there early on, it makes sense that the weight loss would exacerbate it. Callas herself said that her vocal cords were perfectly healthy--it was the support that was missing. There is some interesting information, including a quote from Voigt, in the 'Vocal Decline' section of the Maria Callas Wikipedia page.

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From some written sources, it seems like the wobble was there VERY early, back in her student days in Athens. According to some of her contemporaries quoted in The Unknown Callas:the Greek Years, Callas was troubled by a wobble in the early 40s. She worked with her teacher, Elvira di Hidalgo who gave her exercises to steady her voice and they seemed to have done the trick, at least temporarily. The Greek colleague offered that di Hidalgo felt the wobble was due

to damage done to Callas diaphragm by her heavy singing as a small child. (Callas had a super example of a driven stage mother).

A few years later, in the late 40s, Louise Casselotti (a friend and coach) is quoted in George Jellinek's bio of Callas as commenting that Casselotti heard some early performances of Callas in Italy as Turandot ca 1948 and that her top wavered badly in those performances.

So it's fair to conclude that the unsteadiness was there from the beginning but was sometimes more noticeable than other times.

Thanks, richard53dog. I have to get 'The Unknown Callas.'

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