Ever since Deborah Voigt was fired from a production for being too fat to fit into a little black dress, opera critics have been charting a trend toward skinnier singers. But none have done so as annoyingly as Michael White.
The Telegraph actually has two pieces about opera singers and weight today, apropos of a supposedly thinner crop of singers at this summer's Salzburg Festival. One article, by Andrew Hough, is a relatively sober analysis of today's "sleeker, sylph singers." While it has some infuriating bits — like "slimmer" singer Danielle de Niese blithely claiming that, "In opera we needed this breath of fresh air [...] We could not go on being elephants on stage" — it can't match White's for sheer obnoxion. White writes,
Yes opera is about the magic of the voice: an aural power that can create its own reality and make quite normal people, not in thrall to curious fetishes, find sexual allure in 20-stone Isoldes and Brunnhildes. But at the same time, opera is theatre. And for at least the past 30 years it's been ruled not so much by conductors as by stage directors who think that seeing as well as hearing is believing.
Yes, even "normal people," who would ordinarily hate fatties, can be turned into "curious fetishists" by the power of music. But maybe not enough. White also writes about a production of Turandot starring Jane Eaglen and Dennis O'Neill:
it's not unfair to describe Jane Eaglen as one of the big ladies of her profession. And when she made her entrance in this Turandot, wheeled on in what the Covent Garden stagehands call the Sweet Trolley (in honour of a former occupant of similar dimension, Sharon Sweet), enveloped in a white silk smock that got progressively voluminous as it cascaded down, she looked distinctly like a three-tier wedding cake.
Meanwhile, waiting for a bite of her in the consuming Sturm und Drang of reckless love was the diminutive Mr O'Neill, staggering around in moonboots obviously designed to add three inches to his modest stature but bestowing the appearance (and the gait) of an arthritic gnome. They sang, eventually, of grand desire. Of mutual passion. When the White Queen in the Alice stories boasts of her ability to believe six impossible things before breakfast, she speaks without experience of such a scene.
A little man in love with a fat lady? Ridiculous! But White goes beyond mere fat-phobia into an analysis of appearance in music and theater that's as reductive as it is depressing. He briefly examines the possible musical benefits of high body weight (benefits disputed elsewhere), but then concludes that "for every significant singer of beached-whale size, there have always been others of more modest proportions singing just as well." He also pays lip service to the notion that opera is supposed to be about singing, and not necessarily about what the characters look like, but he does it in a strange way:
We've [...] learned, for perfectly good reasons, not to be put out when operatic Russian generals come with Afro-Caribbean faces or if Mary Stuart looks a touch Chinese. We listen for dramatic truths beyond the colour of the singer's skin. And in the modern world that must be right.
I truly could be misreading a certain British use of the helping verb here (UK readers, enlighten me?), but that "must" seems like a strange choice to me. It almost sounds like doubt, like "gee, I guess it must be okay for a Chinese woman to play Mary Stuart, since so many of them are doing it." Regardless of such small rhetorical concerns, though, White is basically saying that it's a shame we care so much about musicians being hot, but that's just how it is. He bemoans the fact that "bimbette instrumentalists, short on talent, technique and skirt, bounce their way to instant stardom," then says, "It's depressing. It's unjust. But presentation counts."
White says television would never ask viewers to believe that "some wobbly-waisted pensioner is actually a young, romantic new boy on the block." Of course, TV and film routinely present that "wobbly-waisted pensioner" as a fitting mate for a young, romantic new girl, but White does point out a real difference — opera is one of the few performing arts in which casting has little relationship with looks. At least, that used to be the case. Now, as they struggle economically, opera companies apparently think the solution is to act like pop music labels and play up the sexuality of their stars. And of course, sexuality = skinniness. As White points out, Deborah Voigt (pictured) was reinstated as the lead in Ariadne auf Naxos when she lost weight through gastric band surgery.
White writes that opera and opera promotion "have their own laws. Probably they shouldn't, but they do." White would probably say that evolution, or the human heart, or some other popular stand-in for personal taste, makes these laws. But really, people do. People like music critics. It's a shame when one of their number, who should be promoting opera for its own sake, embraces looksism instead.