Opera's Weighty Debate: Does Size Really Matter?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010 - 11:20 AM

Since I am an opera lover myself, I've enjoyed reading the related comments that have been posted here during Operatic October on WQXR. Along the way, there have been allusions to the ongoing "size discussion" in the opera world, but I would like to hear what more of you have to say about this.

When I began studying voice in the 70's, there were successful opera singers of all sizes. There were sopranos who were statuesque as well as sopranos who were petite. There were also sopranos who were just plain overweight.  And, as far as I could tell, none of these ladies was young enough to play Juliet.

Where tenors were concerned, there were many who were short and a few who were tall (in big demand, of course). Some were big and some were small. As I think about it, the visual mosaic that happened on stage as a result could be as dramatically incorrect as it gets. But, the show went on. And did it ever!

The last time I attended the final round of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions (it was four or five years ago, I think) I remember sitting there listening to singer after singer thinking "That's fine, but..." The women were attractive. The men were good looking. But, something was definitely missing.

Then came the proverbial "fat lady." With complete confidence, this young woman took the stage and knocked our socks off. Her voice shot through the house and bounced off the back wall. It was a wake up call in every way. And, the audience exploded with enthusiasm. For me, this is when opera is at its most exciting.

I also remember reading Renee Fleming's book The Inner Voice and being amazed by how much work it took just to get her career up and running: learning the music, learning the languages, learning how to sing, by golly! And once she was established, living up to the expectations took (and continues to take) a lot of hard work. Renee, by the way, was heavier when she started out and has worked hard to trim down over the years. She has set an amazing example on many, many levels in her field.

So, my question is this: Does size really matter these days? And if so, should it matter more than vocal ability? Many people who go to the opera today don't know the difference between a good voice and a great voice. But those of us who have spent time studying this art know without a doubt that the voices that last are well trained, finely tuned instruments that are nourished and protected with great care. And talent is fundamental to the singer's overall success.

On the flip side of the coin, ticket sales are fundamental to the success of opera houses today. And, if looks sell more than ability, maybe we should let go of our "old fashioned" notions about what it takes to sing well and make sure the venues thrive?

I have only one other name to throw out in the midst of this discussion.  The name doesn't have anything to do with opera, but looks and size were definitely factors when she was trying to make a name for herself: Ella Fitzgerald.

I'm dying to know what you think. So, post a comment when you have time, okay?

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Comments [42]

Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boontyon, NJ

MELCHIOR, CARUSO, GIGLI AND SLEZAK STARTED THEIR CAREERS AS LEAN HEALTHY LOOKING MEN. The stress of performance and innumerable rehearsals and nervousness generally prompted them to overeat to cover their nerves with fat so that the nervousness disappeared. That strategem made the breath control less easy and eventually affected the quality of their timbres. All managed to develop techniques to offset the negativities, but their lifestyles fostered girth enlargement. When I visited MELCHIOR backstage at the MET OPERA, there on the wall next to the mirror was his gigantic corset to assist him in his breath management and to enhance his appearance. I am a Wagnerian heldentenor, opera composer: "Shakespeare" & "The Political Shakespeare" & the director of the Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, where professional actors are trained for the Shakespeare roles and big-voiced singers are coached in the Wagner roles and voice production and dramaturgy techniques. My next concert in New York will be on Saturday, June 9th at the YOGA EXPO at the New Yorker Hotel. The title of the concert is BRING HIM HOME, with that song from the musical LES MISERABLES, encouraging the return of our armed forces and inspiring hope and love of country with This Land is Your Land, The House I Live In, You'll Never Walk Alone, Climb Ev'ry Mountain, Billy Bigelow's Soliloquy from Carousel, Granada, The House I Live In, Wien, Wien, nur du Allein, The Impossible Dream [The Quest], Earth Anthem and nine other selections.

May. 19 2012 07:16 PM
Phyllis Sharpe from Teaneck, NJ

Madame Butterfly was the first opera I saw. It was performed by the Met Opera Touring Company with Victoria DeLosAngeles, presented in the indoor sports stadium at the Univ. of Kansas. Student seats were in the bleachers opposite the stage.
My first reaction to Ms. DeLosAngeles was that she was a little large for the role of ChoChoSan. And then she sang. From that point on I was totally focused on the stage and the sounds. I cried at the end, yes at the sadness of the story but also because it was over.

Nov. 26 2010 02:12 PM
Michael Meltzer

Two last thoughts:
What acoustical engineer has ever seriously recommended animal fat as a resonating surface?
What voice teacher or vocal coach has ever recommended diabetes as a means of advancing your singing career?

Nov. 25 2010 04:10 PM
Personna L. from New York City

On a recent TV appearance a Black singer who became a star despite being very overweight and who had a smooth, full bodied sound seemed after having lost a great amount of weight to be uncomfortable in her skin. Her voice was harsher and less emotional. Her body motions were stiff and self-conscious and this new person did not smile very much. Aiming to lose weight in order to fit into the image of an iconic, sexy black singer means aiming to change the external image presented to an audience. Once this occurs and we begin to believe it, jt cannot help but effect one's self image as well. This woman was not able to accept her new resemblance to a magazine model and/or Superstar. Not feeling free to be herself, her singing suffered visibly.

Nov. 18 2010 12:18 PM
marilyn rey from Cambria Heights, NY

I, previously posted a comment on this blog, but I would like to post another. Many comments were positively nasty and disrespectful of a singer's person. Singers come in all sorts of physical configurations: tall or short, fat or skinny. They can do something better than most other people in the entire world. We should admire them for their voice and artistry and accept all their other characteristics except for moral offences such as embezzelment, child abuse, etc.

Nov. 17 2010 10:47 AM
Rev. Robert P. Mitchell from Bushkill, PA

I sang some 40 leading tenor roles for over 35 years (60s to early 90s). My last teacher, Met baritone Richard Fredericks, told me to lose some weight and get a "tupe" so I'd look younger. He said that was the only thing holding me back. "You're a world-class singer," he declared. Yet no one has ever heard of me!!!

Well. I had lost 40 or so pound many years before and it definitely affected my voice. I was not THAT overweight and I ran a lot so that I was in fairly good shape - or even small companies would not have cast me as Faust, Rodolfo, Manrico, Don Jose, Radames, etc. (Canio was the role in which my appearance was not an issue!)
Years ago it did not matter because the audience couldn't see the stage that well and we had only audio recordings. Today we have large screens that project images that show your pores. It truly is a different ball game.

Even so, I agree with the writers who say that the singing is the most important thing. Without it opera becomes a joke. I'd rather see a portly Rodolfo than one who could not sing the role. Bjorling is a great example: he, like Pavarotti, was overweight and he stood there pretty much like a stick, but when he sang, who cared?

In 2005 I saw a TV cast of a young troop of singers singing Boheme. Yes, they looked the parts, but the close cameras revealed those cheek mics, which spoiled the picture for me. I couldn't help wondering what they would sound like without the mics. Their inexperience as opera singers also made me feel uncomfortable for them.

In the end, balance is the key. I love Domingo, but on recording his voice sounds too old for Rodolfo. I longed for Pavarotti, Bjorling, Gedda or Kraus.

Michael Spierman (Bronx Opera) once invited me to hear singers for Cinderella, an opera I didn't sing. (I had just sung Sam in Susannah.) It was truly a revelation sitting on that side of the audition desk. Height, weight, matching lovers' appearances - all that mattered very much. That experience gave me a whole new perspective!

Nov. 10 2010 04:37 PM
marilyn rey from Cambria Heights, NY

It's the Voice!!!! The voice executing the composer's music--that is what opera is all about. That is what attracts people to opera. I used to sit there with my eyes shut listening to Mr Tucker sing. When the audience broke out into laughter, I would turn to the person next to me and ask what happened. Once it was because he got his sword caught on a chair and was dragging the chair along. It was Ms Caballe who discreetly disconnected the sword from the chair. I saw none of this myself as I had been listening to this great tenor with my eyes shut! And . . . yes, I enjoy watching good singers who are good actors.
Someone had commented negatively about the appearance of Caballe, Sutherland, Nilsson, and Price. I have seen them all in the opera house and always admired them greatly. Of course, I don't judge a lady's appearance the way a man does.

Nov. 09 2010 10:55 PM
Michel Meltzer

Mr. Miller's report of Pavarotti's comment to his doctor is not surprising, it is exactly the kind of response to be expected in the context of Denial. It is just like, "If I don't smoke, I can't concentrate and do my job," and "People like me better when I'm drinking."
Addiction always twists the thinking, The more intelligent the victim, the more twisted.

Nov. 05 2010 08:40 PM
Ralph Miller from Chelsea

Last month I happened to meet a doctor who had seen Pavarotti during his last months (although he was not the singer's primary physician.)

He claimed that, while the singer had always known he had a weight problem, he was afraid his voice would suffer if he got slimmer. "I will lose what I have," is how Pavarotti put it.

Who knows if he was right?

Nevertheless, this is apparently what he thought about the matter.

Concerning the issue of opera being "drama" or not, I would like to say that -- to those who are enthralled by great singing -- the singer is always acting with his or her voice. The intensity of emotion achieved by a great singer is often more than that of a great actor, even if the singer is unable to throw herself off a roof, or enact some other literal detail of the script.

Nov. 05 2010 02:39 PM
Concetta nardone from Elmont, NY

Some more pros and cons about weight. I do remember that Monserrat Caballe was not healthy and this may have contributed to her not singing her best at times. It is too bad she was so heavy but when she was in good voice, it was like cream with gran marnier whipped into it. gorgeous to listen to.

Oct. 31 2010 03:09 PM
Jim from Long Island, NY

It seems that with the move toward HD Broadcasts (and associated DVD sales), along with the attempts to market opera to a younger audience, the trend toward requiring opera singers to look like movie or soap stars isn't going to end anytime soon. I think this is an unfortunate thing, because I have never seen opera driven by as much hype as it is right now. And this hype machine keeps churning out one mediocre "star" after another, all along telling us how great they are, even though we can clearly hear that they are not. But it doesn't seem to matter; as long as a good looking singer can be marketed as a great singer he (or she) will be, even if he (or she) is not a great singer.

I don't think that we should ever forget that the voice is still THE central issue - or at least it should be. To use Pavarotti as an example, I admit that he was not a great actor on the stage, at least in the physical sense. Especially as he got older and heavier he looked less and less the part of a romantic lead, and at times his weight made him nearly immobile on the stage. But he had a wonderfully expressive voice that conveyed all the emotion and feeling necessary to be convincing in any role. And since so much opera is heard today on radio and recording, the appearance of the singer is overrated.

I listen often to the Met Opera channel on satellite radio. I am amazed at the greatness of the singing and the talent of the casts that were routinely assembled, night after night, at the Met 40 and 50 years ago. It truly was a golden age, and yet I wonder how many of those great stars would have the opportunity to become stars in today's opera world. Sadly, today - with rare exception - is the age of good looking mediocrity. And the current Met management seems intent on keeping it that way.

Oct. 25 2010 09:55 PM
Shyloh

If you want to go see pretty people in a drama, or elvish figures bouncing around a fantastical set, go to a Hollywood movie. If you want to hear extraordinary singing, the operatic stage can, and should, welcome all who have the Voice - to hell with the rest. Broadway is theater... Broadway has welcomed folks of all sizes. Are we of opera less inclined toward size acceptance than Broadway? What prejudiced snobs!

Oct. 24 2010 02:12 PM
Justin from NYC

If the "fat lady" of the opera is a stereotype, then folks, so is the theory that all it takes to loose weight is eating right and exercising... or having the still controversial weight loss surgeries. There ARE hormonal diseases which flat out do not allow weight loss... prime example is polycystic ovarian sydrome. Match that with systemic mastocytosis and you just ain't gonna shed pounds without eating so little as to never have the energy to be a professonal singer. The best one can do is try to be as healthy as possible -as an overweight person. People who follow the arts can be so wonderfully open-minded... it pains me to see some of the nasty, tweenish commentary regarding people of size. Even if you don't want them on your stage, it's not necessary to spew as if you don't even want them on the planet. I wonder how many fat-haters have ever had a deep friendship with someone of size? If you did, and understood the struggles from that perspective, perhaps you would be more tolerant and less judgemental.

Oct. 24 2010 01:40 PM
RReed from Chicago

Example : Deborah Voigt had elective surgery and experienced a dramatic weight loss. She is healthier, has more stamina, and in an interview I heard, said she was thrilled with what it had done for her personally and professionally.
Individual paths are exactly that.

Oct. 23 2010 11:14 PM
concetta nardone from Elmont, NY

Another comment about Caballe and I do not want to be nasty as she was a superb singer. She also was beautiful and whenever I would see her, I would always think how truly beautiful she would be had she lost some weight. Very fine features and beautiful black hair. As for singers looking good, a little while back, both my sons came over to visit and I had a concert on TV with Renee Fleming singing. Both sons remarked "Who is the babe?" She is an opera singer?" The stereotype of the fat opera singer still persists. I wish it did not.

Oct. 23 2010 03:29 PM
Bob from New York City

This is in response to Bob from South Orange, NJ.

Regarding Monserrat Caballe, I am one of her most ardent fans and worship at the altar of her vocal abilities. Her sound is always ravishing, in the strongest sense of the word. She is never more than thrilling, both in the opera house and on her many recordings.

That said, I had the good fortune to be present at the old Met Opera House when Ms. Caballe made her Met debut in Gounod's, "Faust," just prior to its closing down. Monserrat was most desirous about wanting to be able to say that she had sung in the "old house" and she was granted her wish. It was for one single performance only and she was indeed in glorious voice and was given many deserved ovations thoughout the course of the opera. However, through no fault of her own, her costuming and thus her overall appearance were ludicrous. She was adorned with a ridiculous blond wig with a long pigtail hanging down her back to her generous waist and she was dressed in a dirndl dress which only emphasized her ample figure. Sadly this literally brought out many subdued titters of laughter from the audience. Otherwise, her singing was sublime and the audience was delirious at the conclusion of the performance. She received a cloudburst of torn up programs from up in the rafters, a compliment not easily earned from the habitues of the house.

Oct. 22 2010 09:24 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane from Lake Hiawatha, NJ

Of course, the timbre of the voice is THE essential first prerequisite, but everything else can be developed through comprehensive correct training in singing, acting, and healthy living stratagems. And, considerable practice of the protocols, with intervallic practice time to allow the muscles to recharge. OVERWEIGHT is NEVER AN ADVANTAGE for it hampers correct management of the breath and shortens one's life.

Oct. 22 2010 08:54 PM

Well Midge, I think a truly GREAT singer should have the body of a Playboy Bunny & belt out an aria like Ethel Merman! (And to all those opera snobs out there...I DO know the difference between good ...or terrific talent)SIZE MATTERS

Oct. 22 2010 08:38 PM
Michael Meltzer

Of all the singers who should have known better, it was Pavarotti, who in his early years was a professional-caliber soccer player. There are some very striking and unbelievable early photos of him in uniform.
No doubt that early conditioning gave him the strength and endurance to get away with his excesses for as long as he did. Food addiction is an addiction like any other, Denial rears its ugly head. If he was like all the others, he would have been thinking, "One day I'll get rid of all this and get back into my old shape."

Oct. 22 2010 06:49 PM
concetta nardone from Elmont, NY

Opera is theatre, ultimate theatre. Singer's can be a little overweight but grossly obese is a no-no. In a recent telecast of Aida, the Amneris could not climb the stairs into the temple during the third act. And the staging for Tosca had to be changed because Pavarotti was too fat. Because staging is very different nowadays, it would help if opera singers worked out and took some dancing lessons. I love listening to Pavarotti, Caballe, etc. but could never watch them live during a telecast. Their size made me cringe. OPERA IS THEATRE.

Oct. 22 2010 01:33 PM
John J. Christiano from Franklin NJ

Size can only matter in certain productions. You can't have a skinny Falstaff. As to improving the quality of the voice; nonsense. That's nothing more that an old opera wive's tale. You won't be better singer just because your thighs look like tree trunks and your rear looks like the back end of a bus.

Look at Thomas Hampson; an excellent baritone and yet not an overweight whale.
J.D. Flores; thin as a stick, yet hits high Cs as easily as breathing. Renee Flemming; a runway model, etc. etc. Opera needs to dump the stereotype....fast.

I often wonder if Pavarotti was 75 pounds slimmer, would he still be here with us now?

Oct. 22 2010 07:52 AM

This is purely arbitrary on my part but... if you want someone to play bassoon or oboe in an orchestra it makes little difference but on the stage...it matters quite a bit.

Oct. 22 2010 02:14 AM
Robert Elden from New York City

I strongly feel that in today's opera world the performing artists MUST be of a stature that is conducive to the believability of the situation that is being portrayed on stage. And, in my opinion, size has a lot to do with the success of the production.

Fifty years ago, lets say as late as the '50s and '60s, it was still possible, and accepted by the audience for the most part, for the less than svelte artist to adopt the "standard" stand and deliver stance of face the audience and sing. Much less importance was placed on the singer to be involved in the moment and deliver some sense of dramatic/comedic flair or awareness of the plot.

Fortunately that is no longer acceptable, given the technical advances and production values a singer is faced with in the latest and most up-to-date presentations a modern-day opera company offers to the opera-going public.

As far as I'm aware, the current crop of singers that are before the audience today are thoroughly grounded, taught and coached that a believable characterization of their role is nearly as important as their vocal prowess and that with rare exceptions outright obeseity is no longer acceptable in the opera house. For example, are you not almost immediately interested and involved when experiencing a performance of, "La Traviata," with the likes of Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon. If, as opera companies are stating, that they are concerned about attracting younger audiences of both today and tomorrow, then surely the performers must be both believable alluring and enticing in the portrayal of their roles. I applaud the efforts of most of the opera houses and the directors, production designers and technical staff they employ in trying to acheive these goals.

Oct. 21 2010 06:47 PM
Janet from Brooklyn

Then came the proverbial "fat lady." With complete confidence, this young woman took the stage and knocked our socks off. Her voice shot through the house and bounced off the back wall. It was a wake up call in every way. And, the audience exploded with enthusiasm. For me, this is when opera is at its most exciting.

I have to wonder if this woman sang so very well because of her weight....or did she sing very well, and just happened to be weighty. Thin-as-a-rail singers will often lack the diaphraghm and large lung size needed for resonance, breath control, etc....but AFAIK - fat doesn't resonate. It bounces. Open space resonates, as found in a large chest.

Oct. 21 2010 04:55 PM
Janet from Brooklyn

THen there was the soprano who made Placido look dinky....I won't say who. But try to imagine someone of that size dying of consumption!

Fat doesn't produce good singing - muscular control does and certain physical attributes do. A big chest and powerful diaphragm are prerequisites for great singing, but these have nothing to do with being overweight and can look very good. There was a time when obesity was a substitute for outstanding physical equipment, but thankfully this no longer is the case. It's unhealthy to be obese. We don't need svelte singers, but they should be of an approopriate weight

Oct. 21 2010 04:06 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane from Lake Hiawatha, NJ

Of course, the timbre of the voice is THE essential first prerequisite, but everything else can be developed through comprehensive correct training in singing, acting, and healthy living stratagems. And, considerable practice of the protocols, with intervallic practice time to allow the muscles to recharge.

Oct. 21 2010 01:31 PM
Pam

As a former college student and vocal performance major, I had a direct experience with this. I believe that the voice is all that should matter, but, even in college that is not the case. I wasn't given very many major roles as they were given to pretty girls with lesser voices. I was passed up as Fiordiliga and Dorabella (I'm a dramatic soprano) and given the understudy for Despina in Cosi fan Tutte. ALL the students questioned why I never got a role but "this person" did. I wasn't even cast as one of the three ladies in Magic Flute. I got it by default because one of the girls didn't want to do 2nd lady and asked the director "why don't you give it to Pam". His answer was I was too fat. I was only given the role if I could lose weight over the summer.

I very much think the voice should outweigh size.

Oct. 21 2010 11:46 AM
Lynn from NJ

Oh nooooo...are we really having this discussion?
Maybe a "good" voice needs to be packaged in a certain way...
but a "great" voice stands on its own and will be sought out and cheered forever and ever, Amen.

Oct. 21 2010 10:12 AM
Deborah from NYC

I agree with Jennifer. The voice is ultimately what really matters, but face it; opera is on a stage, in front of an audience, who see the singers. One may suspend one's disbelief just so far. I personally have been shocked and dismayed at singers I've worked with, when faced with their girth, inability to move properly, and just not matching up to the character physically. If Cavaradossi can barely get his arms around his Tosca, well...BUT, I would much rather hear a wonderful voice, than a passable one from a svelte performer. Not a black-and-white issue, definitely

Oct. 21 2010 10:03 AM
Cathy from New York City

If you have never heard a truly big, passionate, warm voice that envelopes you with ricocheting meaning, then it is possible to even ask does size matter. In a moment of true opera sublime, nothing matters but the stars, the universe, and our breath.

Oct. 21 2010 01:32 AM
Alberto Fernandez

No. If size matters in opera, then vocal talent matters at the New York City Ballet. We are going through terrible, terrible times in the opera world. Sutherland, Caballe, Nilsson, Leontyne Price, Pavarotti would have never had success on fashion runways. But opera is a vocal art. In dry times, opera tries to stretch to become a dramatic art. But honestly, how many tickets would a revival of Sardou's "Tosca" sell on Broadway. In most cases, the excitement of opera is not in the drama, or the stunning Nibelungen-sets, or the svelte-ness of the sopranos. It's in the singing. And by god, what dull times we are going through. Pavarottini is a marketing concept, while Pavarotti was a gift from god.

Oct. 20 2010 10:35 PM
Ken from new york

Size doesn't matter, but if you have no diaphramic muscles to help in maintaining breath support it would be very hard to sing a long operatic aria such as Nessandorma (None Shall Sleep) by Puccini. Size only plays a role when you have to hold a note because if you are bigger and you have alot more fat on you it is harder to hold a long note.

Oct. 20 2010 08:48 PM
Ilene from New York, NY

I think Midge Woolsey is correct when she says that many newcomers to opera can't tell the difference between a good voice and a great voice. (That's an observation, not a judgment.) In many cases these newbies may be less tolerant of singers who do not physically fit the roles they are singing. I understand that it's important that the opera world find new audiences and one of the ways to do that is to present slender, good-looking singers. But to us oldtimers who do know the difference between a good voice and a great voice, it is the VOICE that matters most. A great voice can overcome bad costumes, bad productions and bad conductors. Although a performance can be enhanced by singers who can act and move and 'look the part,' it is the voice, first and foremost, that matters.

Oct. 20 2010 08:06 PM
Michael Meltzer

In terms of ability, if petite Elaine Malbin could sing toe-to-toe against the overpowering Mario Lanza, size is obviously only one factor.
In terms of audience support for the medium, the answer is buried in the question, "How much of opera is music and how much of opera is theater?" If there are opera lovers who only listen to broadcasts and recordings and never attend, what's the difference? For ticket buyers, the amount of money spent on sets and visual splendor would indicate that they expect the eye to be as pleased as the ear.
You can insist that audience members harbor no prejudices about physical appearance, but if winning that argument cuts into box office receipts and puts production in jeopardy, where are you?

Oct. 20 2010 08:04 PM
Bob from Basking Ridge, NJ

So much care and attention is given to the minute details of the costumes and sets, yet little attention to the look and size of the singer. Isn't that odd? In a concert performance the size of the singer is insignificant and the voice is the only thing that matters however in a staged opera the appearance of the singer is a contributing factor to the storyline, the fantasy, the complete performance. I'm not complaining about a few extra pounds, or a little too short or a little too tall, but the visual should compliment the performance and not detract from it. Opera needs to attract the largest audience it possibly can and if a Renee Fleming can pull in a large audience because she is a beautiful woman, than as a director, I'd cast her.

Oct. 20 2010 07:47 PM
Justin from Northeast USA

Ah, there is no debate when the discussion involves the world's last utterly acceptable, vicious, mindless prejudice. Size should absolutely NOT matter - for males, females and everyone in between. But that's not the reality in our shallow world. A singer's health is their business! 'Fat' doesn't alway equal 'Lazypig'. It is a complicated situation unique to each person. The folks who giggled at the 'fat kid' in class as childern will giggle at the 'fat signer' on the Met stage... it's in the mindset. If the voice is there, the rest is just window dressing, or suspension of belief. Yes, it is easier for the audience to suspend belief in a thoughtfully dressed/staged production where the singer can act. For example, Ms. Bartoli does the most magnificent job of visual gender-bending in her Sacrificium DVD... it's fascinating to watch... but it's the voice... the voice... which captivates and lingers like scented roses. Beyond that, it is none of my business how much she weighs or what she eats or smokes or who she sleeps with.

Oct. 20 2010 04:46 PM
Thomas from Sparta, NJ

I saw Pavarotti in "La Bohème" in 1975 at La Scala in Milan. I had never before—nor have I since—heard such sweetness in a voice, and it carried effortlessly into the eighth ring, where I was sitting. However, he was quite literally as wide as he was tall, and when it came time for him to crouch on the floor to search for Mimì's key, he just stood there. He couldn't act the part.

By contrast, I saw Sam Ramey at the NY City Opera as Escamillo in "Carmen" and as Figaro in "Le Nozze di Figaro": here was a singer who could make a great sound AND act. Ramey, who was an accomplished dancer as well as singer, jumped up on a table to sing the Toreador Song and was able to click his heels together to show Count Almaviva that he had recovered from his nonexistent jump from the window.

Every director has a different idea of the balance between singing and dramatic action in opera, and the requirements are different in different operas as well. But regardless of the emphasis, the stage action should never be entirely ignored, and a good director is one who will be able to strike the right balance for the opera being performed.

Oct. 20 2010 03:20 PM
Robert B from New York

Yes, a singer's appearance is important in any opera production. I don't mind a singer being overweight as long as he or she is properly costumed, neat and tidy, and can handle the demands of the physical aspects of the production. I'd rather see a properly dressed soprano in a production that makes sense than one who is improperly dressed for her size. Of course part of the problem is some of the bizarre productions that are becoming more common these days. Yes, I go to the opera to hear beautiful singing in an engaging performance, but the production designer has the obligation to present the larger performers appropriately.

Oct. 20 2010 03:15 PM
Rita

A truly gorgeous voice can trump looks any time. With Pavarotti, there was just more of him to love and his voice went straight to your heart. When the dramatic action is affected, such as the opening night Tosca with him when Caballe stalked off the stage instead of leaping off Castel Sant'Angelo, the ending was ruined and a fitter Floria was preferred.

Oct. 20 2010 03:15 PM
Jenifer from New York

I know this will be unpopular, but I think it's a valid consideration, at least to a certain extent. While singers should certainly not be required to look like movie stars, being morbidly obese is NOT HEALTHY and it does NOT improve the voice after a certain point -- in fact it could be detrimental if the singer is more easily winded or doesn't have the same kind of muscle control. And, frankly, sometimes it can be ridiculous -- I saw a production of Turandot at the Met several years ago. Act I is all about how beautiful this princess is that so many men have died for want of her. Then came Act II and we got to see her -- an elephant in a dress. There were several giggles throughout the audience. At a certain point it just doesn't make sense.

Oct. 20 2010 03:06 PM
Sandy

As a sometime singer myself, I can't help but think that changes in a person's size correlates to changes in the voice, for better or worse. A couple of wonderful sopranos have slimmed down in recent years and while they're still superb singers, there is a definite difference in the qualities of the voice. No one complained about Flagstad's figure or, as posted above, Caballe's. What might have happened to Pavarotti if he lost a hundred pounds or so? Look at all that resonance material gone! :-)

Oct. 20 2010 12:56 PM
Bob from south orange,nj

Every singer can't look like a model...

Monserrat Caballe's size never mattered the minute she started singing...

Beautiful singing is what it's all about, case closed!

Bob

Oct. 20 2010 12:39 PM

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