Tag Archives: soprano

When the Fat Chick Sings…

Sad, but oh so true.

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.

Irish mezzo soprano, Tara Erraught

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.

Luisa Tetrazzini was the only soprano that Caruso felt could match him in tone and volume. Too bad she’d be fired today for failing to look desirable in a dress.

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.

Love,

Jeanette DePatie

AKA The Fat Chick

Advertisements

Frank Sinatra as Exercise Inspiration

In case you’re noodling over my semi-bizarre title, let me just say this.  Frank “did it his way”.  And when it comes to exercise, I’d like to invite you to do it your way.

I was inspired to write this after reading a great post by a young exercise guru named Ryan DeBell.  In his post, he talks about some of the anatomical differences in the hip region that can have a dramatic difference in the way we squat.  If you aren’t too squeamish when it comes to looking at human bones, I’d like to encourage you to hop on over to the article.  Because those pictures of bones tell a story that is very interesting.

The pictures feature the bones of the hip, showing us the socket part of the joint on the pelvis (called the acetabulum) and the ball part of the joint on the head of the long bone of the leg (called the femur).  When the pictures are compared, side by side, it is clear that there is a LOT of anatomical variety.  The angle of the ball part of the joint differs widely from one person to another.  The length of the ball part of the joint is different.  The position of the socket part of the pelvis is very different from one picture to another.

From this picture, Ryan extrapolates that these bodies would perform the “squat” in ways that are very different from one another.  He posits that one person would be more comfortable in a wide stance and another would be more comfortable in a narrow stance.  And he suggests that this difference is likely to continue expressing itself, even after a fair amount of exercise in both strengthening and increasing range of motion in the hip joint.

It’s also fascinating to me that Ryan followed up his blog post with a brief video. Here it is:


Basically what the video says is (and I’m paraphrasing): “Yeah helpful commenters, I didn’t say that because hips are different people should stop working on their hips.  And no I don’t have reams of incontrovertible evidence detailing the exact range of human hip diversity.  But what I am saying is that even if you exercise a lot, people are still going to be different. ”

And the end of the video is so awesome, I’ll quote it here:

“Keep doing it so you can be the best version of you in your movement.”

Okay, I want to give this guy cyberhugs.  Seriously.  Because what he says makes so much sense not only in the context of exercise, but also in terms of body diversity in general.  It should be obvious, right?  We don’t all look the same.  Some of us are tall and some of us are short.  Some of us are designed to be weight lifters and some of us are designed to sprint and some of us are going to run long distances like marathons and ultramarathons like a freakin’ gazelle.  Some of us are designed with a great deal of musical talent.  Others of us can’t carry a tune in a barrel.  Does suggest that the sprinters can’t do marathons or that the non-singers should just mouth “Happy Birthday to You” at the next family gathering?  No it does not.  However it does suggest that the sprinter’s body is likely to respond to 26.2 miles in a way that is very different from the gazelle.  It means that the non-singer is going to have a much different experience learning to sing opera than the kid who rolled out of bed at age 18 with a high “C” and perfect pitch.

And speaking of singing, there is so much diversity in music, and in many ways it seems more accepted.  I am a soprano.  I can sing the same notes as many altos and even some tenors.  But no matter how much I train my voice to extend my range, I will not  be an alto or a tenor.  The quality of my voice will not match those voice types.  And the more I try to train my voice to artificially create a sound that is not right for me, the more fatigued and frustrated I will become.  And if I train against the natural tendencies of my voice long enough and hard enough, I am likely to experience pain, injury and possibly even permanent damage.  Does that mean I stop working to extend my range?  Of course not!  But it does mean that I need to progress in a way that is in harmony with my anatomy and my abilities.

You know, as I watched the Golden Globes last night, I found a number of things really striking.  One thing I noticed was how tall most of the women were.  And another thing I noticed was how similar all the women looked to one another.  There were a few striking and glorious examples of body diversity, but the vast majority of the women at that show could have easily swapped couture gowns with one another.  And I think this is one of the main dangers of consuming media in our culture.  It makes us lose touch with how much natural diversity there is in bodies.  It gives many of us the sense that our bodies are all wrong because everybody we see on TV and in the magazines either look the same naturally, or are photoshopped into uniformity.  But if we look outside of media, if we look in the real world, I think there is a beautiful and astonishing level of difference.

So how do we bring this back around to our title?  How do we relate this to Frank Sinatra?  My dear friend, I think it means you need to do exercise YOUR way.  By all means enlist the help of a personal trainer or exercise teacher.  By all means build your strength and extend your range of motion.  But while you are doing this, please listen to YOUR body.  Don’t assume that there is only one way to strengthen or increase flexibility in any part of your body.   Don’t even assume that there is only one right way to do a particular sort of exercise.  And when your body says, “OW it hurts when I do that in that way,” follow your Mom’s sage advice and don’t do that.  Just focus, as Ryan says, on being the best version of YOU.

Love, Jeanette DePatie (AKA The Fat Chick)

P.S. One of the things that is so exciting about the Fit Fatties Virtual Events project I co-created with Ragen Chastain (besides how cool it is to do anything with Ragen Chastain) is watching how different bodies respond to the very different challenges offered in the program.  Rather than asking everybody to do a 5K or a triathlon, we are encouraging people to explore a wide range of activities and pick a few  that feel great to them.  We are still offering early bird special pricing so I urge you to go check it out!