The Straight Dope

Go Back   Straight Dope Message Board > Main > Cafe Society

Reply
 
Thread Tools Display Modes
  #1  
Old 03-28-2005, 03:16 PM
smartdog smartdog is offline
Guest
 
Join Date: Mar 2005
Why are opera singers fat?

OK, not all of them are fat. Some of them are merely robust. Is there any particular reason, other than prolonged soujourns in Italy? Deborah Voight has reduced her weight considerably without harm to her voice, so it shouldn't have too much to do with vocal prowess, or does it?
Reply With Quote
Advertisements  
  #2  
Old 03-28-2005, 03:25 PM
Washoe Washoe is offline
Guest
 
Join Date: Aug 2004
You piqued my curiosity, so I Googled it. Here’s something which partially addresses the question:

http://slate.msn.com/id/2096930/
Reply With Quote
  #3  
Old 03-28-2005, 03:31 PM
GorillaMan GorillaMan is offline
Guest
 
Join Date: Oct 2003
Callas wasn't fat, Kathleen Ferrier wasn't fat, Ian Bostridge isn't fat....other than every other example I could list, your point is, ummm...?
Reply With Quote
  #4  
Old 03-28-2005, 03:41 PM
smartdog smartdog is offline
Guest
 
Join Date: Mar 2005
Oh please. Don't be a smart aleck. Let's just amend: "almost all the opera singers I have seen are quite overweight." I still want to know why.
Reply With Quote
  #5  
Old 03-28-2005, 03:51 PM
GorillaMan GorillaMan is offline
Guest
 
Join Date: Oct 2003
Because you've seen fat singers in the operas you've been to?

There's no answer. At least, none for GQ.

"Why do opera singers have a reputation for being fat?"
"Why is it a fat lady that must sing?"

That's the kind of thing GQ could cope with. Go to different operas (different composers, different companies, etc), and you'll see something different (admittedly, this depends on your location, as opera ain't something that's too easy to find).


I've never seen a fat person singing a major role in an opera. I could give several explanations...but the main one is I don't go to anything where a 'fat lady' is expected.
Reply With Quote
  #6  
Old 03-28-2005, 04:20 PM
Zsofia Zsofia is offline
Guest
 
Join Date: Feb 2001
I minored in piano in college; I knew a lot of young opera singers who weren't fat. There did, however, seem to be a belief among them (unsupported, AFAIK) that being big, or at least big-boned, made for better lung capacity. I used to know some tiny little girls with great big voices, though. Of course, they'd been doing it for a long time and weren't a random sample of people who just thought one day "Hey, I'll go sing!"; they're self-selected.
Reply With Quote
  #7  
Old 03-28-2005, 04:28 PM
The Hamster King The Hamster King is offline
Charter Member
 
Join Date: Jun 2000
Location: Los Angeles
Posts: 9,449
My wife is a professor of music history at UCLA. We were actually talking about this yesterday after seeing the article about Deborah Voigt's weight loss. What follows is a rough summary of what she said.

Singing opera is very strenuous. You need a lot of strength to be able to push that much air over your vocal cords for hours on end. Being fat doesn't necessarily help that much, but being big does. The ideal body type for an opera singer is tall and big-boned, someone who can carry enough muscle in their mid-section to really belt out the notes. Waifish little women and tall skinny men don't tend to be able to deliver that sort of power.

So it's not so that all opera singers are fat, but rather that because of the physical demands of the medium the average opera singer tends to be stockier than other theatrical performers.
Reply With Quote
  #8  
Old 03-28-2005, 05:57 PM
amarinth amarinth is offline
Charter Member
 
Join Date: Sep 2000
Location: Emerald City, WA, USA
Posts: 8,424
Quote:
Originally Posted by smartdog
OK, not all of them are fat. Some of them are merely robust. Is there any particular reason, other than prolonged soujourns in Italy? Deborah Voight has reduced her weight considerably without harm to her voice, so it shouldn't have too much to do with vocal prowess, or does it?
Actually, she was worried about the harm to her voice and she says that there are some things that are more difficult now that she's lost the weight (cite
Reply With Quote
  #9  
Old 03-28-2005, 06:05 PM
Kizarvexius Kizarvexius is offline
Guest
 
Join Date: May 2003
Covent Garden's announcement that Deborah Voigt was being cut from a production due to her size sent chills throughout the opera world. For generations, opera was the last bastion of color/size/gender blindness in the performing arts. When Pavarotti sang the role of Rodolfo in La Boheme, for example, nobody cared that he could never in a million years be mistaken for a starving artist in a Paris ghetto. Nor did anybody much care whether the lead soprano in Madama Butterfly was thirty years older than the role calls for. Or whether the singer starring in Otelo was actually black. None of this mattered, because in opera casting the voice was everything.

The conscious choice to ignore physical appearance in opera casting probably has much to do with the "bigger is better" belief that predominated for so long. But this practice had effects far beyond simply allowing casting directors to pick their favorites. It also opened up roles to singers who would never have been considered had their appearance been an issue. And if Covent Garden's new policy becomes more widespread, it will effectively end a great tradition of tolerance that helped opera to flourish as an art form in the first place.
Reply With Quote
  #10  
Old 03-28-2005, 06:48 PM
GorillaMan GorillaMan is offline
Guest
 
Join Date: Oct 2003
Quote:
Originally Posted by Kizarvexius
When Pavarotti sang the role of Rodolfo in La Boheme, for example, nobody cared that he could never in a million years be mistaken for a starving artist in a Paris ghetto.
They didn't? You asked all of them?
Quote:
Nor did anybody much care whether the lead soprano in Madama Butterfly was thirty years older than the role calls for. Or whether the singer starring in Otelo was actually black.
Oops on the last one. Colour of skin is one feature which copyrighted operas can have control over (i.e. Porgy & Bess)

Quote:
in opera casting the voice was everything.
Please clear a very large space for me to explode in laughter.
Reply With Quote
  #11  
Old 03-28-2005, 09:25 PM
Kizarvexius Kizarvexius is offline
Guest
 
Join Date: May 2003
Quote:
Originally Posted by GorillaMan
Please clear a very large space for me to explode in laughter.
Okay, so I paint with very broad brushes.

C'mon. Operas often have completely ridiculous plots, absurdly one-dimensional characters, and endless repetitions of the same overly dramatic love story. Yet they continue to be performed again and again to crowds who pay through the nose for the privilege. The very same drama that would be laughed out of the "serious" theater can, in the hands of a good composer, become a classic. Just look at Rigoletto. As Anna Russell once said, "that's the beauty of grand opera. You can do anthing you like so long as you sing it."

Obviously I overstated when I said that nobody would complain the Pavarotti was miscast as a starving artist. But I for one have attended numerous operas featuring singers who were physically wrong for their roles, yet I don't recall hearing or reading about any complaints -- so long as the voice was right.

I have seen, for example:
- A Mexican Khan Konchak in Prince Igor.
- A Vietnamese Escamillo in Carmen.
- One or two black Valkyries in Die Walkure.
- A Gilda some years older than her "father" in Rigoletto.

I think that this supports my contention that voice is more important than appearance in opera casting. If this is such an absurd idea, GorillaMan, I invite you to enlighten me.
Reply With Quote
  #12  
Old 03-28-2005, 10:11 PM
Tuckerfan Tuckerfan is offline
Guest
 
Join Date: Jan 2001
NPR did a piece some years back about an Aussie opera company where all the performers were quite svelte and physically attractive. The director of the company in the NPR interview said that they specifically looked for talented performers who were not overweight, and made the comment that if being heavy was a requirement for being a great singer, then only whales would be able to perform opera.
__________________
***Don't ask me, I don't post here any more, and I'm probably not even reading this now.***
Reply With Quote
  #13  
Old 03-29-2005, 12:49 AM
GorillaMan GorillaMan is offline
Guest
 
Join Date: Oct 2003
Quote:
Originally Posted by Kizarvexius
I think that this supports my contention that voice is more important than appearance in opera casting.
That's a very different statement to saying the voice is 'everything'.
Reply With Quote
  #14  
Old 06-07-2012, 12:10 PM
VicNyke92 VicNyke92 is offline
Guest
 
Join Date: Jun 2012
According to my singing teacher, people who are fat learn to breathe using the diaphragm (otherwise they wouldn't be able to inhale enough air) and therefore have that part of the body trained. So when they start singing, they learn to use it a lot faster than thin people who didn't need to breathe with the diaphragm in the first place.
Reply With Quote
  #15  
Old 06-07-2012, 12:43 PM
Kimstu Kimstu is offline
Guest
 
Join Date: Dec 1999
It's not clear to me that opera singers, on average, are fatter than the general public, on average.

What is certainly true is that they tend to be fatter than other types of show-business stars. AFAICT, that's mostly due to two things:

- Excess weight doesn't interfere with their performance abilities as much as it would for, say, dancers or even actors in general. This is less true now than it used to be due to directors' and audiences' preferences for more "athletic" or physically "dramatic" performances rather than some of the earlier "stand there and sing" styles, but it's still a factor.

- Good opera singing is really hard and takes a LOT of talent and training, so there are comparatively fewer people with the capability to do it. A Broadway chorus member, say, has to look perfect for the role in addition to dancing and singing adequately, because relatively speaking, there are many people in show business who can dance and sing well enough to be in a Broadway chorus. There are WAY fewer people who can sing a major operatic role well enough to impress audiences, so for those who can, there's less competitive pressure from slimmer/younger/prettier rivals.

Quote:
Originally Posted by GorillaMan
Callas wasn't fat, Kathleen Ferrier wasn't fat, Ian Bostridge isn't fat...
Even those few examples don't all support your point as much as you might think. Callas was quite heavy at the start of her career and deliberately dieted down to a more slender figure.

American soprano Deborah Voight comments about her previous 350-lb. size:
Quote:
Voigt herself says, "I don't think my voice has changed, but I am only hearing it from inside, so I can only speak about the sensation of singing. Every 20lbs I lost, I felt less rounded and less able to support the sound; well, that was because my support system" - she gestures at empty space around her now slim hips - "was vanishing. At 150lbs heavier, you take a breath and those muscles are already engaged, you don't have to think about it. Now, I have to think about it, about how things line up." [...]

"And I grew up sitting on a piano stool and singing and not running around playing soccer. My fingers were in great shape."
There may be something about being obese that makes powerful singing easier, in that some of the muscles for supporting the sound are already well developed. But again, I think our perception of opera stars as fat is distorted by our assumptions about performers in general, which are skewed by the fact that comparatively very few performers in other lines of show business are fat.
Reply With Quote
  #16  
Old 06-07-2012, 01:57 PM
WarmNPrickly WarmNPrickly is offline
Member
 
Join Date: Oct 1999
Posts: 5,441
I have a freind who swears his voice is only good when his blood pressure is high. He had a stroke recently, and is heavily medicated now. I have yet to hear him sing.

I have noticed that my voice goes in and out based on mood and stimulants really improve it.

It's all anecdote, of course, but I had always assumed a connection to blood pressure.
Reply With Quote
  #17  
Old 06-07-2012, 06:05 PM
Xema Xema is offline
Guest
 
Join Date: Mar 2002
For whatever reason, zombies are rarely fat.


(Though it may be slightly OT, I actually came here to post a link to an excellent non-fat opera singer: Diana Damrau).
Reply With Quote
  #18  
Old 06-07-2012, 06:42 PM
Chronos Chronos is offline
Charter Member
 
Join Date: Jan 2000
Location: The Land of Cleves
Posts: 53,983
Is a thread properly considered a zombie when the post that revived it added new, relevant information? I don't see anyone before VicNyke92 mentioning breathing with the diaphragm.

Anyway, another factor is that most folks' exposure to opera is only indirect. Once the perception arises that opera singers are bigger than average, when Loony Toons features an opera singer, she's going to be a huge blubbery behemoth, as an exaggeration of the stereotype. But nowadays, probably more people have seen "What's Opera, Doc" than have seen actual operas, and so mistake the comedic exaggeration for the real thing.
Reply With Quote
  #19  
Old 06-07-2012, 06:45 PM
Washoe Washoe is offline
Guest
 
Join Date: Aug 2004
Quote:
Originally Posted by Xema View Post
For whatever reason, zombies are rarely fat.
Bullshit.
Reply With Quote
  #20  
Old 06-07-2012, 06:49 PM
Darth Panda Darth Panda is offline
Guest
 
Join Date: Mar 2010
OP meakes me think of one my favorite movie scenes...
Reply With Quote
  #21  
Old 06-07-2012, 06:57 PM
Colibri Colibri is offline
SD Curator of Critters
Moderator
 
Join Date: Oct 2000
Location: Panama
Posts: 25,165
Moving to Cafe Society.

Note that this thread was started in 2005.

Colibri
General Questions Moderator
Reply With Quote
  #22  
Old 06-07-2012, 07:59 PM
Le Ministre de l'au-delà Le Ministre de l'au-delà is offline
21st Century Troubadour
 
Join Date: Jan 2008
Location: Seaton Village
Posts: 6,679
Ambur Braid.
Wallis Giunta.
Philippe Sly.
Jane Archibald.
Alain Coulombe.
Etienne Dupuis.

Confirmation bias.
Reply With Quote
  #23  
Old 06-07-2012, 08:10 PM
fachverwirrt fachverwirrt is offline
Guest
 
Join Date: Jul 2006
I'll add Corinne Winters (whom I'm currently singing with in Carmen) to Ministre's excellent list.

In said production there are 9 principals and 29 singers. Of them, only one could be said to be seriously obese and perhaps three or four others who are overweight enough to notice. Everyone else is more or less completely normal.
Reply With Quote
  #24  
Old 06-07-2012, 08:24 PM
Darth Panda Darth Panda is offline
Guest
 
Join Date: Mar 2010
Quote:
Originally Posted by Colibri View Post
Moving to Cafe Society.

Note that this thread was started in 2005.
Colibri has the power to banish zombies... so noted.

Last edited by Darth Panda; 06-07-2012 at 08:24 PM..
Reply With Quote
Reply

Bookmarks

Thread Tools
Display Modes

Posting Rules
You may not post new threads
You may not post replies
You may not post attachments
You may not edit your posts

BB code is On
Smilies are On
[IMG] code is Off
HTML code is Off

Forum Jump


All times are GMT -5. The time now is 01:49 AM.


Powered by vBulletin® Version 3.8.7
Copyright ©2000 - 2014, vBulletin Solutions, Inc.

Send questions for Cecil Adams to: cecil@chicagoreader.com

Send comments about this website to: webmaster@straightdope.com

Terms of Use / Privacy Policy

Advertise on the Straight Dope!
(Your direct line to thousands of the smartest, hippest people on the planet, plus a few total dipsticks.)

Publishers - interested in subscribing to the Straight Dope?
Write to: sdsubscriptions@chicagoreader.com.

Copyright © 2013 Sun-Times Media, LLC.