Fifty years ago, Maria Callas set the opera world ablaze with a carefully planted tapeworm…or so the legend goes. Callas shed eighty pounds and suddenly metamorphosed from a rotund Greek soprano with overly-thick eyebrows to an elegant sylph fit to rule the opera stage. At a svelte 135 pounds, Callas tipped the scale toward a new singing aesthetic and single-handedly created the beginning of what is now a universal obsession with weight in the opera world.
These days, thin is in. And, no matter how much we may cling to the beloved stereotypes of past generations, opera houses are simply no longer tolerating the “big-boned” look. As Deborah Voigt will be the first to tell you, a beautiful voice doesn’t mean anything if you are not hovering between dress sizes 4 and 12. Of course, it doesn’t hurt if you are also stunningly beautiful and oozing with sex appeal; just make sure that the circumference of your waist continues to adhere to Scarlett O’Hara’s standards or risk losing your five-year contract.
For those of you who are now frantically swigging ipecac and dashing to the toilet to rid yourself of the day’s caloric intake, let me first point out that this whole dichotomy between fat and thin is fundamentally flawed. The issue is not really about weight…it is about health. The kicker is just that healthy sopranos usually don’t weigh more than 250 pounds.
Take Ms. Brünnhilde Soprano as an example. One of your standard hefty singers with three hundred pounds, a horned helmut, and an armored bustier at her disposal, Brünnhilde is an extremely talented singer and performer. Yet, after several years on the opera stage, her career begins to deteriorate because of complications caused by her weight. The fact is, Siegfried can’t get his arms around Brünnhilde's mid-section for the love scene in “Siegfried.” Worst still, the placement of a horse next to Brünnhilde in “Die Götterdämmerung” might result in a riot of distraction in which the entire audience begins to draw Venn diagrams on their programs.
Dramatic issues aside, Brünnhilde's weight interferes with her cardiovascular functions, her physical capacity for moving on the stage, and her ability to support vocal production. Her weight is clearly a contributing factor to an unhealthy physical state. Now, if any of you wants to inform me that Brünnhilde is actually the operatic version of G.I. Jane, one-armed push-ups included, I would be glad to hear it. But I’ll also want to see one of those push-ups before I post a retraction.
Rest assured, I am not insinuating that the plumper sopranos in this world should start sticking their fingers down their throats or buy lifetime supplies of laxatives. Nor am I suggesting that the slender singers in the pack should set up IVs of melted ice cream and whey protein. The fact is, there are different benefits associated with having both body type as an opera singer.
If you are on the portly side of things, you might be glad to know that the extra fatty tissue around your larynx may actually increase the resonance of your voice. Larger singers also tend to have more expansive rib cages and chest cavities, both of which result in bigger breaths and better breath support. There is also the added benefit of being able to belly bounce any arrogant conductor who questions the pitch of your high B. And, lest we forget, there is always a bonus to having more “cushion for the pushing,” so to speak.
Those of you with slender frames have your own set of bonuses, particularly a stronger core and tighter abdomen that help to support the diaphragmic pressure involved in singing. Moreover, you don’t have to worry about being stereotyped as a fat opera singer every time you introduce yourself at a cocktail party. Nor will you ever have to struggle to squeeze into a particularly little black dress in a Covent Garden production.
The time has come to cease the cellulite-feud between skinny and fat soprano and take definitive action. Buy some exercise shorts, set a standing date with a rival soprano (a little healthy competition never hurt anyone), and force yourself to engage in twenty minutes of cardiovascular exercise three times a week.
Not only will you finally fit into those seersucker capris you bought two summers ago, you will feel stronger and sing better. And if the opera producers at the Met decide that you still aren’t thin enough for their production of “L’Elisir d’Anorexia,” I highly recommend giving them the middle finger.
Or, if worse comes to worse, I can always lend you my personal tapeworm.