An interview with the fabulous mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton has been going around. In it, she and the interviewer discuss issues of weight in opera, and their experiences as overweight opera singers. This post will not dissect the interview, but instead I share it as a means to participate in the discussion. Please feel free to watch it before or after reading the rest of this post.
Now, it’s no secret that a singer’s weight in the opera world has become a hot button issue. On one hand, opera singers and directors are trying to adapt to the visual ideals of mainstream entertainment in order to draw new audiences and keep them. On the other hand, whenever anyone within or outside of the field makes a comment about a singer’s weight, many more are quick to defend said singer (as they should).
This strikes me as a double standard though. How do you expect to draw in new audiences using the visual appeal, and then get angry when that audience focuses on a person’s appearance rather than their voice?
First of all, for the delusional few out there who believe that thinner singers are not valued more than heavier ones, I’ll point to the weight loss of Maria Callas and Debbie Voigt for career purposes. I’ll point to the lists of “Opera’s Hottest Singers”, and then to operatic greats like Kiri te Kanawa feeling the need to tell other singers to “stop focusing on their weight.” Then I’ll let you take it from there.
“Alright then,” you may be thinking. “What are we supposed to do then? How are we supposed to draw in new audiences if we can’t appeal to their tastes?”
Don’t appeal to their tastes.
Don’t fall into the trap of creating an over-sexualized art form just for the sake of becoming “mainstream”.
The problem with keeping opera “relevant” is that many in the field can’t seem to accept that it will never return to the “glory days.” You know what I mean, the days before the internet where the only way to experience entertainment was to see it live. Instead, many people in opera seem to choose to play into a hand that they’re almost guaranteed to lose.
“But opera will die!” you cry out.
No it won’t.
And if it does, it won’t be because we didn’t appeal to an audience. It will be because we diluted it so much, or ignored its essence to the point that we killed it.
But really, it won’t. I was semi-kidding about that hipster thing before. My guess is that most, if not every person in the field, did not end up here because opera was “cool” or “popular.” They probably ended up in opera because it spoke to them in a way other mediums couldn’t, or gave them a space to feel deeply, or at least authentically.
By worrying about the appearance of our singers, we are killing the authenticity of opera.
Think about it – we see great singers all the time that vary greatly in shape and size, just like how voices come in many shapes and sizes. What makes a great opera singer is their ability to express, not their ability to fit into a dress. When we are moved by a performance, it has nothing to do with what the performer looks like. Because ultimately, opera is about telling a story through the majesty of the unaltered voice.By worrying about the appearance of our singers, we are killing the authenticity of #opera. Click To Tweet
“But what about the story? How am I supposed to believe that a larger, 40-year-old woman is an 18-year-old princess?”
You can’t accept that, but you can accept the onslaught of white performers who are casted in racially diverse roles such as Otello, Aida, and Cio-Cio San, amongst others? You can accept that women play boys and men play witches, but you can’t accept a little more weight or age? (Also, why are you under the presumption that princesses have to be petite in the first place?)
See, the reason that we need to stop fat shaming singers is intersectional – if we can’t accept that some singers are a little bigger, then we also can’t accept the diversity of performers in other ways, such as race, class, gender, sex, and so on.
Heads up you guys – we needto accept these things. We need to accept these things because this is how we find our modern audience.
We do need to make opera accessible, but not in the way society tells us to. We need to make opera accessible to marginalized groups, such as other races, classes, and so on. We need to do this not only because these demographics are very large, but also because the authenticity of opera can speak uniquely to them. Opera has the opportunity to give a voice to the voiceless. Furthermore, when we target untapped audiences rather than targeting the few that everyone already clammers for, we’re a lot more likely to be successful. Furthermore, we are a lot more likely to increase the quality of our art form.
So,pleasestop trying to police the bodies and voices of singers of any size. Instead, use these voices to speak to and for others. Opera will be much better off for it.
Comments are welcomed to this post. However, I ask that they be constructive and respectful. Otherwise they will be removed.