One thing that a lot of people don’t know about me is that I have a master’s degree in Opera Performance. Yup, at one time, I was a budding opera singer. But after I failed to land one of the 5 paid positions in America for opera performers but did land venture capital for a software company, I decided to put aside my operatic aspirations. Nevertheless, I feel compelled to jump in on the current kerfluffle regarding reviewers commenting on women who dare to sing while fat.
This all came to a head recently as a pile of reviews from a gang of privileged old white guys surfaced in London. The reviewers skewered Irish mezzo Tara Erraught’s performance as Octavian in the Strauss opera Der Rosenkavalier at the Glyndebourne Festival not because of her performing or even her singing, but rather how she looked in a dress–and pants (Octavian is a pants role after all). Any of us who have had any kind of presence online ever might recognize some of this “troll tripe”:
“It’s hard to imagine this Octavian as this willowy woman’s plausible lover.” The Guardian, Andrew Clements
“Unbelievable, and unappealing.” The Times of London, Richard Morrison
“a chubby bundle of puppy fat…” Financial Times, Andrew Clark
These are not troll fodder screen captured in the comments section. These are quotes taken from “professional music reviewers” in arguably respectable publications. While one of the reviews mentions in passing that the role is “gloriously sung” most of them focus exclusively on this performer’s looks. There is a lot of outrage over these reviews, which I share. There is also a fair amount of surprise that this sort of language is being used to describe singers in one of the most glorious art forms on the planet. Unfortunately surprise is something I cannot feel about that.
As a chubby, budding coloratura soprano, I was told at both the undergraduate and graduate level that I would never have an opera career unless I lost weight. Professors shared their tips for which Weight Watchers meetings I should attend along with my vocal and theater training. Because even twenty years ago, when I was in college, we in the biz knew that fat female opera singers were enduring caricatures but not successful performers. Some of us back then called it Kathleen Battle syndrome. She wasn’t much of a singer. She wasn’t bad, but she certainly was far from the best. Working with her was an absolute nightmare. But she made huge bank back then for two reasons–she knew how to build her fame by building scandal and keeping her name in the press and she looked great in a dress.
No matter how great your singing voice, fail to look great in a dress and you might get the axe. I certainly remember singing sensation Deborah Voight’s triumphant review in the New York Times for her role in Ariadne auf Naxos by Richard Strauss. I also remember her getting fired by London’s Covent Garden because she “was not appropriate because of the costume that Ariadne was meant to wear in this production.” In other words, Deborah did not look good in the dress that was selected for the role, therefore Covent Garden would need to select another singer. Voight has since had weight loss surgery and is often heard “singing the praises” of this procedure. Naturally since her weight loss, many believe she looks better in a dress. And actually the whole issue of her weight loss has helped to stay in the press–helping her meet both requirements of “Kathleen Battle syndrome”. Naturally, her bookings have skyrocketed.
And the desire for our divas to be thin is hardly new. Histrionic diva Maria Callas is well known for being stick thin. And rumor has it that she resorted to many drastic measures–including swallowing tapeworms to maintain her tiny waist. Gone are the days when a truly great soprano might hope to have a great dessert (Dame Nellie Melba) or a pasta dish (Luisa Tetrazzini) named after her.
I think one of the things I find most appalling about the whole thing is the argument by some of these critics that fat, female opera singers just aren’t believable. They imply that somehow we can get audiences to suspend their disbelief to the point that they accept:
A husband won’t recognize his wife at a party if she’s wearing a tiny mask over her eyes. He can hold her hand, flirt with her for hours but not recognize her at all.
Men return from war, disguise themselves with hats and very fake mustaches, call themselves “Albanians” and their girlfriends have no clue it’s them. In fact the girls fall for each other’s boyfriends and nobody is the wiser until the finale.
An angry dwarf steals a ring and the world ends. Ends!
A man turns into a swan.
A man falls in love (for reals) with a mechanical doll.
We can accept all of this? And we can accept that while these folks are doing these things they burst into song SOMETIMES FOR HOURS. But somehow we can’t accept that a plus-sized gal can love or be loved or be sexy? Or…
Are we dealing with an increasingly elitist art form that enforces male privilege and classism? Are we creating spectacle purely to allow rich people to wear designer gowns and reenforce their position as arbiters of culture? Are we proving yet again that even a woman who can sing for four hours in French and belt out high F’s night after night while wearing a corset and dancing in stiletto heels has no value unless she is also considered appropriately F#%$-able by aging frat boys?
I am deeply grateful that I had an opportunity to study and perform opera. I still love singing very much. And I still do, publicly, every week. But thankfully, I no longer have to diet, wear a corset or worry about not being able to pay my heating bill because of how I look in a dress. I am The Fat Chick. And I have sung. Therefore this blog post has come to an end. See you at the curtain call.
AKA The Fat Chick