Sunday, April 4, 2010

Weighing in

There was a post today in the New York Times Arts Beat culture blog about this kerfuffle going down in Italy where the soprano Daniella Dessi withdrew from a Traviata directed by Franco Zefirelli because he basically said " a woman of a certain age and plumpness is not credible in the character." Yikes.

I saw Daniella Dessi sing Norma in Bologna (in the same production from the youtube video of Kate from a few days back) and I have to say I thought she was totally a sexy lady! So I think the whole thing is bizarre, but it made me want to write a post about size and singing.

For me, my natural thinness is something I think I've actually had to overcome and find ways around. If you look around there are literally NO waify opera singers - I mean, the "thin like model" ones - although most singers are in shape and look healthy these days. But the really skinny girls who you want to yell "EAT" at when you see them wearing size 25 jeans are not prevalent on the operatic stage. Except for maybe a few really high, tiny coloraturas, I really can't think of any. And the ones that are on the thin side, still often have good-sized round rib cages. I can say from a personal point of view that my voice has definitely gotten richer, darker, and larger since I've gained 15 or so pounds in the last 10 years. And I feel really strongly that if I made a concerted effort to gain maybe 30 more pounds, I might be able to sound more like a Carmen. Not that to sound like a Carmen you have to be zaftig, but I think on my frame and with the voice I was born with, I would need a little more fat for it to beef up enough to sing that role. This may be a controversial thing to say, but I really believe that body size affects voice size.

And I've had some conversations with colleagues recently that lead me to believe I'm not the only one who thinks that. I have two different colleagues who made a concerted effort to gain weight when they felt that they had gotten too thin and were having trouble supporting their voices, and therefore weren't putting out enough sound. It's especially a problem if you're working in the States because we really value big voices here since so many of the theaters are so huge. In Europe it's much easier to get away with having a smaller voice and so maybe there are some waify singers over there that I haven't yet encountered.

I will say however, that I get SO annoyed that I want to go postal on people's asses when they meet me and say, "but how can you be an opera singer? You're not fat!!" I seriously want to hit them over the head with a sharp stick. But actually, that stereotype probably didn't come from nowhere, so I shouldn't be so impatient with those poor people. I don't really see myself Renee Zelweggering into Bridget Jones any time soon, so I'll have to be content with Cherubinos and Rosinas for now. But I certainly hope the opera world doesn't become as obsessed with weight as hollywood because I've seen some of those actresses in real life, and they seriously look STARVING. And opera singers need to at least be able to eat a big plate of spaghetti after singing. I mean, really.


Seth Christenfeld said...

Counterpoint: Violetta is supposed to be dying of consumption in Act III. Not that Ms. Dessi is the size of, say Montserrat Caballe (I have no idea what she looks like), but it kind of bugs me if the singer looks like the tuberculosis should be scared of her rather than the other way around.

(That said: I come from a theatre background, and so that informs my opinions. Obviously someone model-skinny isn't going to have the vocal capabilities that someone of a larger frame would, but I like to think that there might be a happy medium between the best possible voice and the best possible physicality.)

Anonymous said...

Interesting post on a controversial topic. Not to contradict you, but just consider the alternative possibility that your voice has gotten bigger and darker over the last 10 years because you have gotten older and have spent those years working hard to train and develop your voice, not just because you gained 15 pounds. Physiologically it makes no sense that body fat would increase sound, but without proof one way or the other it's impossible to say. There is also a theory that larger singers are pushed into the dramatic/Wagnerian Fach not because their voices are actually right for it, but because nowadays those are the only roles people will cast them in. Food for thought (so to speak). Voice is #1 of course, but keep in mind that if you gained 30 pounds you might well sound like a Carmen, but you might not end up looking like one!

sestissimo said...

just to clarify - I'm not saying that weight is what makes you sing well - my point is mostly that losing weight, and getting below what is probably your healthiest, natural weight, to the weight of someone who looks like they have TB (or is the size of a model - which let's face it, is not a strong, healthy sized person) doesn't allow you to have the support and strength you need to sing - especially a really meaty role like Violetta. Any of those consumptive soprano diseases just have to be imagined, because most of them require some body strength that just cannot be achieved when you look like the spaghetti noodle.

Anonymous said...

Dessi is a top rank singer and her treatment by Zeffirelli was abominable. But you have to admit it has a good precedent. The world premiere of Traviata was widely believed, including by Verdi, to be at least partially due to the soprano's large size, making her an uncredible Violetta. So this is nothing new.

Anonymous said...

The more media oriented we become, the more visual we become. Since opera has become a multi media art form and more and more is being viewed in HD, and on the internet, the public is demanding more beauty from women as well as men. We do not consider fat beautiful, let's face it. World class opera singers now have to be movie stars too, that is the direction we are going. Is it right? No. Probably really stupid, but that is what the public is demanding to buy the art form. It has become big business, selling opera. We want the part to fit the singer/actor, for that is what the new singer is becoming and that is where the future of opera lies.
It is all about selling the product, because opera is a product.

Ashton said...

I'm thin too (170cm/56 kg), and I fear people will typecast me in the lyrical fact. My voice hates it. It's somewhere in the Leonoras/Tosca/Sieglinde area (and I'm only 25), but definitely into the Mimi/Liu/Zerlina.

And not all Wagnerians are fat ladies, although better a large Brünnhilde with a great voice than a slim one not comfortable with the fach. The unique exception is Nina Stemme - really slim and huge voice.

Anonymous said...

I agree that having a bit of strength for support sometimes means keeping oneself from being underweight. It is also probably true that waif-thin singers might very well have difficulty underpinning their voices with the required physical stamina, which is why having a bit of weight on one's bones is often helpful in this regard (within reason, of course). The correlation between body weight/type and voice fach is extremely hard to prove in any consistent way, though. Why is it that the minute they see a heavier young woman with good low notes these days they assume she is a mezzo like the great Dolora Zajick? It's ridiculous. Many times these girls are really sopranos, even lyric sopranos. We have GOT to stop developing and casting based on a singers' physical appearance. It needs to be based on what we HEAR, first and foremost. The frightening thing is there seem to be so few people left in this field who actually have trained ears. The supposed inevitability of a visually-based aesthetic has shown itself to be misguided in many cases, and futile as well. It's superficial, and it's not even a satisfying approach many times, so everyone loses out. I do not believe that most opera fans are mostly interested in how people look, I am sorry. That's a myth perpetuated by those who want to justify their own decisions about singers - whether in training, casting, developing, or promoting. The idea that performers must provide a "turn-on", for lack of a better expression, is unfortunate. This is a mindset that has slowly crept in and absolutely does affect casting decisions. (And it's not always for the benefit of the public, but for the benefit of those who work around these sexy singers.) Btw, I would bet good money that there was a whole backstory to that Zeffirelli/Dessi thing, there always is. Probably old history, bad blood, whatever. Yes, the business is that petty! As for singers not "looking the part", let's just say that the suspension of disbelief is a long tradition in this art form, and it's a small price to pay for great singing and great art. And anyway, who says only thin, beautiful people fall in love and have feelings?!?

Anonymous said...

Interesting discussion. I believe that pop culture is having a huge influence on opera even if we do not want to admit it. The dumbing down of art is hugely frustrating to those who have invested years of practice and study to become excellent artists and then, what is required of the artist, is changed suddenly. Who is promoting this tendency? All of us who look at, listen to, and indulge in a fascination with pop culture. But what is art really? Is it the pop culture, does that reflect who we are and therefore our art? Or is art what we know and what is historical? Is one of the reasons that opera is considered snobbish is that it requires some training for a true appreciation of the art? How do we popularize it without diluting it? Does it need to appeal to the masses to keep it alive? Answer all of these questions and you will answer the question of the heavy weight opera singer verses the skinny model type. Is there room for everyone in opera and why do we care so much if someone is fat? What is this obsession and does it come from pop culture?

Sibyl said...

Arggh. THIS argument. I have been to performances where a singer's voice has drawn me in so completely it totally obliterated any visual disconnect between that character and the singer's body shape. I have been to performances where the lack of voice has left me distractable by any number of things that my willing suspension of disbelief should cover. Should we ever forget that theater is not reality, and that therefore the audience needs to bring some imagination in with them? In the presence of a talented actor/singer, imagination will fill in gaps in the visuals. It's a bit insulting for a director to imply that an audience is not capable of that. A well-produced voice that suits the role and is capable of conveying emotion, I would argue, can make what happens onstage be truer than reality, even if you have someone Jane Eaglen's size playing a consumptive. Any of us who have had the necessity to tend to the dying don't need to see it accurately portrayed onstage.

AlisonDee said...

I had lost my voice for a year after getting sick. During that time I was also recovering from a car accident that made me immobile for 9 months plus i lost about 50 pounds.

Once I recovered and started rehabilitating my voice again I also gained weight and suddenly I recovered my voice. So I am not sure if it was the weight loss or the frequent lessons.

I agree that weight loss and gain probably does effect the voice. I am trying to lose weight again so I guess time will tell if it the weight loss will effect. I suspect it might !!

In bocca with your performances :-)