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Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Soprano avoirdupois

A more serious, less anecdotal, follow-up to previous post Does Weight Count?

Do women need to be fat to sing opera? No
Given opera is visual as well as musical should they be thin(ish)? Probably.

Are fat singers better than thin singers? “Better” is subjective; singing voices differ as much as speaking voices. Executive skills (pitch, high-note ability, low-note control, etc) tend to be a given in these competitive days.

Why then are there still fat singers? Why are there fat women?

Why was Debra Voigt (Brunnhilde in the Met’s recent Ring series) required to undergo surgery to reduce her weight while Stephanie Blythe (Fricka in the Ring), of a similar weight, not required to? I think because Voigt takes leading (ie, more dramatic) roles.

Are there disadvantages to being fat? Visible sweat.

Where did the earlier tradition for fat singers begin? The $64,000 question. That singers tended anyway to be fat is speculative. Pre-war opera drew a minority audience who appear to have been satisfied solely with vocal – as opposed to acting – ability. Fat may have been associated with vocal ability because there were fewer thin singers. Amelita Galli-Curci was thin(ish) and a star.

When did this tradition change? Post-war; Callas started out fat (and drab); dieted; became a world star. However, Joan Sutherland (known affectionately as La Stupenda) was almost her equal. Because Callas became shrill in the upper register while Sutherland’s typically bel canto technique was impeccable the fat-is-best credo still had some support.

Why did the tradition change? LPs made opera more popular and (arguably) led to more live opera. TV also contributed, certainly in my case. More people were seeing opera.

Will fat singers die out? Perhaps. Or drop down financially to sing oratorios, cantatas, masses, etc.


  1. Should singers like boxers weigh in before a production? More sense in this than there might seem. A monstrous soprano singing opposite a whispy tenor, for example, could invoke laughter where it is not wanted.

  2. Plutarch: The first opera I paid to see was Magic Flute, done by ENO at the old Palladium. My willingness to suspend belief was tested to destruction. The temple acolytes carried small pyramids, lit from within with an electric bulb. Except that one of pyramids (out of at least a dozen) was unlit. It was obviously the result of a popped bulb but it was difficult not to ascribe (theatrical) significance to it.

    Far worse was the physical structure of Tamina: twenty-two stones at a guess, wearing a vestigial nightgown, the few hairs on his balding head drawn backwards into the most miserable of ponytails. At one point he lay on the floor while someone hymned his nobility and courage. Honestly, he looked like a pile of garden waste. Our party included a woman in her twenties who was seeing opera for the time; she discoursed afterwards, amusingly, on this paradox and I knew that her male acquaintance would have difficulty dragging her off to see another opera. Definitely not such stuff as dreams are made on.