Opera: It’s not over until…

If opera singers can thrill with their sound, does it really matter how much they weigh?

It seems that half of Opera Australia’s singers are off to Weight Watchers after the Artistic Director Lyndon Terracini said fat singers need not apply. “If you’re seeing a couple making out and one of them is obese, who wants to watch that?’” he says with a theatrical grimace. "It’s obscene. You just think, ‘Jeez, for Chrissakes, don’t let the children see that'," he told the Sydney Morning Herald in July. 

There is no physical reason why opera singers have to be fat – look at Maria Callas, a rotund singer who lost all the weight, looked magnificent and could still fill the Royal Opera House with that distinctive voice, a mix of chainsaw and exotic bird. Mr Terracini is also within his right to tell his employees to shape up or ship out (I personally know of two OA singers who have been warned that the scales are not tipping in their favour). “You go to a movie and you see people who look exactly right for that role. They’re consummate actors and they’re completely involved in what they are doing, so their performance is totally believable,” says Terracini. 

Well that’s true, but the camera is right up close. Film is about drawing people in; opera is about projecting to the back of the auditorium. A big voice is wonderful: it moves the air and resonates in your own body. I remember standing next to Bruce Martin in the Green Room of the Sydney Opera House as he ordered a sandwich. It was just as thrilling as Act Two of Die Meistersinger. Opera is all about this vibration. I don’t care how beautiful the set is, or how wonderful the lighting is, or how thin and sexy the singers are, if they can’t thrill with a top note that fills the house, then forget it. I’d rather look at a fat singer than hear a thin voice.  

This battle of singing versus looks is not new. When I worked with Opera Australia for a year as a repetiteur in 1994 there was a conga line of visiting conductors weaving its way down to the then Artistic Director’s office, complaining of woefully inexperienced young artists being thrust out on the stage in major roles because they looked good and were cheap. Sadly, many of those singers no longer have voices because they were sung out by the time they were 30, dashed on the rocks of difficult roles requiring bigger and steelier vocal cords.  

In this brave new thin world of opera, Pavarotti would never have made it on stage. Joan Sutherland was not fat, but she was a large woman with a large frame, and yet the sounds that came out of her were wonderful and thrilling. If you can suspend disbelief long enough to accept that a consumptive Violetta in Paris has enough breath to sing for four minutes as she dies, then maybe you could suspend disbelief that a slim soprano can find a fat tenor attractive. What next – an anorexic Falstaff?

Apparently this new idea of slimming down singers is in response to complaints from the opera audience who have no further wish to see overweight singers on the stage. I wonder at the size of the complainants. We are such a bizarre society: as we all get fatter we require that the people who entertain us get thinner, until we look like an auditorium of Jabba the Hutts, ogling at lithe Princess Leias. 

Maybe it’s time for a new TV series – Opera’s Biggest Loser. Two teams of plus-size Butterflies and portly Pinkertons battling it out to win the cash as they disappear in front of our eyes. I’d watch. 

For more of Guy Noble’s wit and wisdom, check out his Soapbox every month in Limelight magazine.

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Opera: It’s not over until…
Guy Noble
Guy Noble is a conductor, radio broadcaster and the writer of a regular column entitled Soapbox in Limelight magazine.
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