How important are looks in opera?

How important are looks in opera?

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.)

Or the very nasty reviews on young Irish mezzo Tara Erraught at the Glyndbourne Festival.  Not one of the disgusting remarks which I won’t repeat here, was about her wonderful voice and incredible acting, but all about her looks. By the way: all critics were men.

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?

Opera rehearsal in 1709
Marco RicciOpernprobe, 1709

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?

Cuban-American soprano Lisette Oropesa
Cuban-American soprano Lisette Oropesa
(Source: Wikipedia)

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?

Magdalena Kozená and Jonas Kaufmann in "Carmen"
Magdalena Kozena and Jonas Kaufmann in “Carmen”
(Source: Wikipedia)

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?”

Who am I to judge?

 

Why I Love Working with Opera Singers!

Why I Love Working with Opera Singers!

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.

I love working with opera singers at my "coaching station"
At my “coaching station” with laptop, camera, mic, earphones, piano and: the score

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.

Working with opera singers requires a good ear
An excellent set of earphones and my equally excellent pair of ears help me to detect any flaws in pronunciation

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.

Body

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!

Mind

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!

Soul

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 love showing how to pronounce
I often use gestures and mimic to explain… ?

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.

Why I love working with opera singers?

Because they are the best clients in the world!

Love working with opera singers Heart with hands
I love working with opera singers!
My Bucket List – 42 Things I Really Want to Experience, Do and Learn

My Bucket List – 42 Things I Really Want to Experience, Do and Learn

Bucket lists seem to pop up left, right and center at the moment and I must admit that when I stumbled over the term a while ago, I did not know what it meant. (To be honest, I actually thought it WAS a list of buckets. I didn’t even have one, why should I make a list?!)

Eventually I found out that it describes a list with things you want to experience, do and learn in life.

It is that kind of list we know from people who know that they are going to die shortly.

As I am quite healthy and expect to live to 103 (my gran and her sisters all lieved to +/- 100 and I have her genes), I find the concept of writing down at least 100 things and trying to realize them within quite a short amount of time (usually a year) quite appealing and I decided to to a list for myself.

I mean: 100 things. How complicated can that be?

Well, turned out to be complicated for me. After one week, I still have “only” 42 things on my list. But hey: this list is bound to be organic. What appeals to me today might not be tempting any more in five or ten years. New topics, interests and even passions may pop up during the next years (I am sure they do; always has been like that…) and generate new ideas and wishes.

Although it is not complete yet I present you with my bucket list which I intend to update from time to time, tick the things I did, add new ones or even cross out things I am no longer interested in (although I cannot imagine what that would be).

Let’s see what this list will look like one year from now (which is on March 21, 2022).

 

 “We have two lifes.
The second begins when you realize we have only ONE.”

 

My bucket list (in no certain order):

#1 Ice bathing in a frozen lake (missed the opportunity this year but that’s definitely number one for next winter!)

#2 Visit Kew Gardens in England

#3 Learn to ride a horse

#4 Write at least 40 blog articles in 2021

#5 Build an insect hotel for the garden

#6 Finish the first level of my Hungarian language course

#7 Visit Hungary (and see Budapest)

#8 Stroke an elephant (this sounds strange but I want to know how it feels)

#9 Make a series of pronunciation videos and publish them on YouTube

#10 Learn to cook a really yummy Tom Kha Gai

#11 Make S’mores over a fire pit (I have never ever eaten S’mores and I’m terribly curious what they taste like!)

#12 Sleep under the stars

#13 Travel to Sweden and visit Astrid Lindgren’s Småland

#14 Plant an apple tree (or any tree for that matter)

#15 Relaunch my website

#16 See the northern lights

#17 Be a guest on a podcast

#18 Have a photo shooting just for me

#19 Get a cat (or several cats)

#20 Become fluent in French

#21 Eat Sachertorte in Vienna

#22 Organize a summer diction camp for singers

#23 Become a digital nomad for three months

#24 Let go off a floating lantern

#25 Spend a whole summer on a “Bergalm” (a hill farm in the alps)

#26 Go into a desert

#27 Learn how to do cross-country skiing (second thing-to-be-done for next winter [see no.1])

#28 Go on a photo tour with a certain topic and afterwards organize an exhibition in my living room

#29 Spend the night in a castle

#30 Live in a foreign country

#31 Create a vegetable garden I made a 80 square meter vegetable garden and hope to enlarge it even more!

#32 Make ketchup from my own tomatoes

#33 Build a table

#34 Learn how to sketch

#35 Build a wooden patio

#36 Do ten push-ups in a row (I only can do two…)

#37 Bake a three-tiered cake (not sure for what occasion)

#38 Become fluent in Italian and then:

#39 Go on a road trip through Italy

#40 Buy pretty lights for the living room (after 1 1/2 years, we still have only two light bulbs hanging there) Done by June 3, 2021! I’m so happy!

#41 Make six figures in one year

#42 Live one month without sugar

To be continued…

Confession of A Pronunciation Coach

Confession of A Pronunciation Coach

As you may know, I live in Southern Germany, in Bavaria to be exact, an area that is not only known for its beautiful landscape but also for its vast amount of dialects.

These dialects are so different from each other and some of them are so strong that it is difficult – if not impossible – to understand every one of it.

Speaking of dialects, I have got a confession to make:

Although I am a pronunciation coach teaching singers and choirs correct German pronunciation, I grew up speaking in dialect!

Even today, when I am with old friends or my family, I speak Bavarian-Swabian.

There, there it’s alright. Breathe calmly.

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.

My Word for 2020 (and What it Means for Me and My Business)

My Word for 2020 (and What it Means for Me and My Business)

Every year, when Christmas is over and the New Year is approaching, I take my time to look back, review the year and reflect on what happened in the past twelve months. I think about all my highlights and difficulties, my gains and losses, achievements I made, funny things that happened to me, touching moments, breakthroughs and setbacks, journeys I did, insights I got and wonderful encounters I had. At one point of doing this summary, usually a word crosses my mind that describes the past year pretty well and I write it down into my bullet journal to sort of categorize the year.

What do I want 2020 to be like?

However, when I did this exercise last December, a sudden idea crossed my mind: what if already in January I would apply a word to the New Year and devote myself entirely to living up to it? Could I form the next twelve months in exactly this sense and consider this word still appropriate at the end of the year?

Well, there is only one way to find it out, right? So, I defined my wishes and goals for 2020 and I soon came up with a word I want to become truly mine for this year: BOLD! This year, I resolved, I would take bold steps for my development and growth.

First of all, I made a vision board, collecting pictures and quotes connected to the term “BOLD” as well as my vision for the year. I put them together onto a board, printed it out and placed it next to my desk where I can see it every day.

My goals and steps

Goals are great but now I had to think about what steps I could take to make BOLD really my word of the year. I went through the different aspects of my life and found three aims I want to achieve in 2020:

Personal growth

1) Regarding my personal growth I want to work on some mindset issues that are no longer valid to me – or rather: should never have been valid in the first place! You know what I mean, these “principles” we adopt without thinking, for example “Business before Pleasure” (who says they must be separate?) and “Money ruins your Character”. Working on these may be a bit tricky (sneaky things, principles are) but I am absolutely determined to BOLDly shift my beliefs from narrow and constricting to open-minded and confident!

Health

2) The next point is health. I must admit that during the last months of 2019 I neglected doing sports and eating well. I know that in times of stress I fall into bad habits. Therefore, I made a BOLD emergency plan that will help me to exercise and eat well during stressful times to keep up my proverbial energy and drive.

Business

3) Now let’s talk business: in 2020 I want to become more visible to clients and for this reason I decided to start this blog and post regularly. Furthermore, I am thinking of doing a short online challenge later this year which could consist of short videos among other input. The thought of presenting myself live online or in a video frightens me deeply – and that’s exactly why I think this could be the right thing to do. The only way out of fear is to be BOLD and just do it! And you know what? I am looking forward to it!

Have you ever thought of applying a word or motto to a year in advance or did you already do so for 2020? If so, what is your word? What do you want to achieve in the next twelve months and what steps are you planning to take? I would love to hear your answers in the comments. Let’s make this year fabulous!