There is a saying about opera: “It ain’t over til the fat lady sings”.
When I heard this for the first time, I immediately pictured an oversized opera singer in full armour and with a spear and horned helmet. Needless to say, that I found it hilarious.
However, when you learn that many opera singers – especially females – have been and still are bashed because of their body size, the matter loses its funniness and we must ask ourselves: How important are looks in opera?
Take the case of Debora Voigt, for example, the renowned dramatic soprano, who got fired from a Covent Garden production because the stage director considered her too fat for her role. (In fact, she didn’t fit in the dress that was designed for the production – not for her.)
Outraging as it is, this is not a new topic in the operatic world, especially when it comes to female singers.
An article on fat-bashing by middleclassartist, followed by several more that you may find on their website, recently has fired up the discussion about how body size can prevent singers’ careers. There seems to have been an ongoing bullying and bashing for decades and more and more singers show up and talk about what they had experienced.
What’s the source of “the fat opera singer” stereotype?
When opera became popular in the 18th century, it usually consisted of small-scale productions.
In the course of time, opera houses opted for bigger stages and larger orchestras and that required singers who were capable of really transporting the voice over the music to the audience.
I’m not sure about acoustics back then, but I guess it was a neglected topic. The theory went that the larger the singer, the greater the lung capacity to guarantee a show-stopping performance.
There also is the myth (!) that the more fat tissue a singer has around their larynx, the more resonance they get which helps carrying the voice. Unfortunately, fat does not build up around a certain body part but overall.
Are singers fatter than other people?
Definitely not. Singers come in all sizes and shapes, as do lawyers, bus drivers and diction coaches ?.
However, unlike other professions of the performing arts like actors or dancers, the percentage of large-sized people is higher in the singers’ tribe. How does that come?
The life of an opera singer can be very lonely and the more successful and popular you are, the further away from home you will be, ending up every so often alone in a hotel room. Mezzo-soprano Marylin Horne once said: “Ours is a very lonely profession. Eating is company.”
Busy rehearsal and travel schedules may prevent you from exercising and eating well. Also, irregular eating habits mustn’t be underestimated. Many singers won’t eat before a performance as a full stomach could affect breathing and support. They often wait until after the performance is over before they take dinner.
Does being obese make you a better singer?
Again: no. A larger body may have more resonating space but at the end of the day is a hindrance to opera singers. The more in shape you are, the easier it is to breathe and sustain long phrases.
A healthy weight also allows singers to move freely around the stage.
And lastly, it helps to cope with the demanding workstyle opera singers have.
Why is fat-bashing still regarded as “OK”?
While there’s an outrage if somebody is bashed because of their skin color, background, religion, language, gender etc., it seems to be still acceptable to bully people because of their body size. I think the assumption behind that is for many people that being overweight is a question of discipline – or rather the lack of it.
There’s still the common opinion that you only had to put your mind to it and you’d lose weight.
Believe me: I was a chubby girl, turning into a fat teenager and simply putting your mind to it and cancelling dinner won’t help you lose those pounds. It took me a very long time to figure out what helps me best to lose weight. And still today that’s a struggle.
Looks over voice?
Opera has been, is and hopefully will be foremost an aural art form. However, looks have also always been important. During the last decades and with the increased presence of visual media like TV, internet and social media, the focus has even more switched to visuality and a body size that is considered by the collective mass (or those who make the mass’s opinion) as appropriate.
The increasing trend to cast roles with regard to a singer’s looks, however, is troubling me.
Opera is not Hollywood and should not even awaken the idea that it could be.
The purpose is the same (telling stories by transporting feelings) but the means couldn’t be more different.
I don’t want to know how many promising careers have been nipped in the bud due to body size.
On the other hand, I am sure that some “careers” were not based on vocal technique but on looks. For every wrong, you’ll have someone who gains from it.
I want to end this article with a quote by the great Jessye Norman. When she was presented with one of the “less” abominable criticisms on Tara Erraught which said that she didn’t “physically work in the role”, Jessye Norman interrupted the reporter and asked: “What do you mean ‘She didn’t work in the role’? Do you mean she didn’t look good in the dress that should have been designed for her and could have been made for her to look good? […] Who’s decided that the person singing in ‘Rosenkavalier’ should wear a size zero dress?”
This article was written as part of the challenge #boomboomblog by @sympatexter.
From April 18 to 25, 2021 a group of more than 1000 people wrote a blog article together.
(Well, not ONE together but everyone their own.)
The topic was: “Why I love….” and then something about our work.
I had come up with several ideas and asked the community to vote. Most of them hadn’t heard before about the work of a pronunciation coach and didn’t know who’d need my services.
I guess, this was the main reason the vast majority chose “Why I love working with opera singers” as my topic.
So, here we go!
I love working with opera singers because:
Opera singers are open-minded
Every singer I have worked with so far was willing to try out things.
Sometimes during coaching, my client may not be able to reproduce a certain sound. At that point, I reach into my big bag of tricks and dig up methods that may help to achieve correct diction:
Sometimes we try out different tongue, lip and jaw sets, goofing around for finding the right position.
Sometimes I give them an image they connect with the right sound (you wouldn’t believe what an image can do!), or I come up with some sort of mnemonic aid.
Whatever it is, singers are always open-minded enough to give unconventional approaches a chance ?.
And what I enjoy most is exchanging different ideas on interpretation and listening to their points of views on their characters or the aspects of an art song. different ideas of interpretation.
I love that opera singers have a goal
Opera singers have a clear vision of what they want to achieve; this makes it easy for me to work with them. Whenever a singer books my services, they know what aria(s), song(s) or role they want to work on. Often, they have a time limit by which they want to sing their part as perfect as possible, for example for an audition, a performance or a recording.
I am still impressed to see the high level of dedication they throw themselves into their work with.
I admire how opera singers combine body, mind and soul
Once, I heard a little girl say to her mother that “singing is just exhaling in pretty”.
There was the matter in a nutshell!
Yet, it’s so much more than that.
In fact, singers do no less than combine the physical, mental and emotional aspects of being to create something new.
As a singer you know that singing is sort of a high-performance sport. It requires a lot of constant work to not only master one’s vocal technique but also be fit enough to get through rehearsals and performances that last hours.
The saying about singers that “their body is their instrument” is absolutely right!
Singers must not only have a vast knowledge about textual and musical context and correlations of their role/piece; they also often do extensive research on the historical, societal and musical background. Above all, they must know the languages they are singing in and show excellent pronunciation. ?
Singing means life-long learning!
Body techniques and knowledge alone won’t make you a good singer. To make a performance outstanding, singers add their soul!
They feel their characters’ joys, pains and fear; they love, cry and rejoyce with them.
I doing so breathe life into their roles and let their audience slip into an other world.
I love to contribute to an excellent performance
To set things straight: all the credits for a good performance go to the performers!
Yet, the knowledge that my services and coaching sessions contribute to a good or even excellent performance is deeply satisfying!
Often, the difference between our first lesson and a performance or recording is immense! Only the singer and I usually know about all the blood, sweat and tears that paved the path to the final result. In hindsight we often can hardly believe how far we have come.
To be part of this progress is incredibly rewarding!
I learn from every singer I work with
As I mentioned before, singers have a vast knowledge of music history and music theory; they usually play at least one instrument, and they know how to act.
Many of them speak several languages and can sing in even more languages.
I, on the other hand, know a good deal about poetic analysis, the use of language in music and repertoire and the overall background of musical pieces. I have learned to play three instruments and studied languages.
So, when a singer and I work together it’s more often than not an exchange of knowledge.
When we reach that point where we can go beyond diction and start talking about interpretation, we both bring our knowledge and personal experience to the table.
I profit so much from these exchanges and often use these new perceptions in upcoming lessons.
Opera singers are human
Classical music, especially classical singing to me always had and has a touch of mystery and magic to it.
Often, when I listen to a good performance or recording, I reach that point where I become totally absorbed.
It’s reassuring to know, though, that opera singers are no magicians or demi-gods but human beings. Talented and gifted – and hard-working! – but nevertheless: human.
They also have their bad days, they also make mistakes, and sometimes they also get frustrated when progress takes too long.
Just as often, however, we laugh during lessons, celebrate wins and rejoice whenever a difficult piece has been mastered.
I could almost hear you gasp in shock at this confession!
Let me explain:
“Everything’s normal” or childhood
I grew up in a village near Augsburg in the heart of Bavarian Swabia.
The river Lech, which is close to my home village, is the natural border between Swabian and Bavarian.
When I was a child, I did not pay much attention to the language I grew up with. After all, everybody in my surroundings spoke in dialect and it was as normal as breathing.
“Blending in” or adolescence
During adolescence however, I started to deny my dialect and speak “proper” German, the so-called Hoch-Deutsch (standard German) which in the eyes of a teenage girl was much more sophisticated and very useful if you wanted to blend in with the cool guys.
When I went to university the tendency to speak Hochdeutsch increased. Standard German was part of my studies and the language of choice on and off the campus. Or rather, it was the only option to become understood because students came from all over Germany and the foreign students wanted to learn (proper) German.
During my language studies, I realized that every society has its very own view of the world which shows in its language. Take the word “tree” for example: say it aloud and you can almost hear its leaves rustling and the birds twittering happily in its branches.
The French “arbre” on the contrary has a creakier sound and you get the picture of a majestic, gnarled tree with a rough bark.
The deeper I dived into languages, the more I appreciated the richness of my own dialect. Not so much in terms of pronunciation (which is – I must admit – horrid sometimes!) but as far as vocabulary is concerned.
An infinite source of almost forgotten words in Swabian is my dad who has never left his home village for long and who still uses words some would call obsolete, but which are so beautiful and pictorial that it would be a shame to forget them.
“I choose” or maturity
Today, I am proud that I have mastered the pronunciation of Hochdeutsch which was far more difficult to learn for me than that of any foreign language. ?
It has become one of the pillars of my profession.
Furthermore, is a valuable means to divert people from your origin and become a linguistic chameleon. Unfortunately, it is still a common prejudice in Germany that people speaking dialect are more stupid than those speaking standard German.
Should I be ashamed of “my” dialect?
Pick the answer you like, mine is definitely: no! I have learned so much by growing up “bilingually” ? and gained so much knowledge as far as linguistic details and characteristics are concerned which I would never have acquired in any other way.
In addition, the abundance of vocabulary and expressions enriches my personal and professional life.
And the best thing of all is, that no matter where I hear someone speaking in “my” dialect or whenever I am talking to somebody in Swabian, it always feels like home.