By Madison Schindele
“You are too thin to be an opera singer,” older ladies from my church squawked at me when I was young. Looking at my petite, 5’2” stature, it was no surprise that I wasn’t automatically compared to the stereotypical Rubenesque soprano, complete with breastplate, spear, and horns. However this image, although well known, is now false advertising. The opera world’s body images now conform to that of the dance, musical theater, and film industries.
The curtain is opening on a new era where a singer must not only sing the part, but look it as well. Mimi can no longer be plump when she is starving on the streets and dying from TB. Now opera companies either hire thinner singers or tell their current divas to lose weight or muscle up. But these expectations can have detrimental effects not only on the mental health of singers, but also on their voices. A case in point is Maria Callas: when she lost weight, some of her voice went with it.
This shift is taking place for many reasons. Some blame 21st-century audience members, who expect exciting visuals or realism in opera rather than just the beauty of the music and voices. Audiences want to see new productions of their favorite operas complete with flashing lights and kick lines. Because of this, singers must not only look good, but be able to climb three flights of stairs, and hang upside down off a chandelier while singing — all of which occurred during Robert Lepage’s 2012 production of Thomas Adès’ The Tempest at the Met.
Speaking of the Met, some blame that company’s HD broadcasts for the slimming of singers. Yes, the broadcasts are important for making classical music more accessible: for a mere twelve dollars per ticket, a student can go to a local theater and see a full opera up close and personal. While there is no doubt that this innovation changes things, is it a change for the better?
In “I’m Ready for My Close-Up, Mr. Puccini,” New York Times writer Zachary Woolfe wrote, “The Met is leading a revolution, albeit one that has less to do with what it’s putting onstage than with how it’s sending it into the world.” The ability to broadcast operas broadens the accessibility of the art form, but it’s obvious that the Met is now casting for screen as well as the stage, and now the audience gets to see close ups of the singers and their sweaty faces! Catapulting singers onto the big screen is certainly changing the art, but it is also forcing the singer to change along with it.
This push towards the “conventionally attractive” singer has many established performers baffled. Dame Kiri te Kanawa was quoted in an interview with The Telegraph saying, “You’ve got to have beef on you if you’re going to sing.” She also commented on how the current opera world is turning towards “popera,” which causes casting directors to make choices based on appearance. In 2004, the story about Deborah Voigt being fired for being “too fat” shocked the opera community. “Now tipping the scales at 330 pounds, I did not fit the director’s idea,” Voigt explained to the New York Post after being released from the title role in Ariadne auf Naxos at the Royal Opera House.
Regardless of who is to blame, the era of “big” singers appears to be coming to an end. Casting directors and opera companies are looking through a different lens — a slimmer one. Would a robust Joan Sutherland get hired today? I guess all of the chicken nuggets I ate in my childhood were in vain, for no one wants to see the fat lady sing anymore.
Madison “Maddie” Schindele is in her last semester at Oberlin Conservatory studying Vocal Performance and Musicology. Hailing from a big Greek family in New York, Madison enjoys visiting museums and eating lamb when she’s not singing or writing. Next year she will continue on to her Masters in Historical Musicology at the Goldsmiths University of London.