Ariadne auf Fatsos

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The controversy over Deborah Voigt has been rolling around in the news for a few weeks now. Voigt, a soprano who weighs in at a scenery-busting 220 pounds (photo), was fired from a production of Richard Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos at London's Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, when the director determined she could not with honor fit into the slinky black dress costumers had come up with for her role.

Voigt's firing has incited predictable outrage from opera critics, who condemn image-obsession, the dumbing down of high art, Hollywoodization, etc. Giving a moderate version of this argument is the SF Chron's Joshua Kosman, who defends Voigt as an agile actress despite her size, and says:

Have we really reached the point where only the slim or the beautiful (the two terms are far from synonymous) need apply? Does artistic prowess now count for less than comeliness? Must every other consideration be subsumed to the visual?

Well, no—although some of the rhetoric that has been thrown around recently has tended toward such apocalyptic extremes.

But it is true that the tyranny of image, of glamour, glitz and good looks, seems to be muscling in on just about every aspect of our culture. From music to politics, from literature to sports, the expectations created by Hollywood are increasingly pervasive.

A counterargument is brewing, typified by Stephen Pollard in The Wall Street Journal, who provides some funny anecdotes about gigantic opera stars embarrassing themselves and their audiences, and points out:

The whole point of opera is that it is a theatrical experience. Yes, it is possible that Mimi, the consumptive heroine of "La Boheme," could be sung sensationally by a soprano who looks as if she once competed as an East German shot putter. If you close your eyes, it can work. But opera is about sight as well as sound, and it's time that those critics who think that producers and directors are parasites on the otherwise pure operatic body learn that both hearing and seeing matter.

I think there's a technological angle here that both sides miss. The reason fat singers are under fire is that fat isn't as necessary as it used to be. While I'm willing to accept the debatable wisdom that supersize makes it easier for a singer to belt it out to the nosebleeds, this skill is in less demand as so many opera houses have quietly mic'd up since the late eighties. And we certainly know enough about fitness and nutrition these days that singers can stay in something close to fighting trim without losing singing strength. A couple years ago I saw a telecast of La Boheme where all the singers looked like A&F models. Better science means better-looking opera stars. Ron Bailey, where's your column on this issue?

Finally, if the tyranny of images is really muscling in on politics, how is it John Kerry, who looks more like Rocky Dennis than JFK, is the Democratic candidate for president?

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  1. Finally, if the tyranny of images is really muscling in on politics, how is it John Kerry, who looks more like Rocky Dennis than JFK, is the Democratic candidate for president?
    – Because he kept standing next to Dennis Kucinich and Al Sharpton.

    Baz Luhrmann’s Boheme on Broadway was a fine example of excellent singers who also looked their part.

    I think there are two schools of thought regarding Opera. One could be called the “concert opera” approach that it’s really about the music/star and that theatricality is simply decoration.

    However, more and more these days, opera is learning from theatre including the use of dramatic action, conflict and intention that involves more than just turning to the audience and singing.

    In fact, it will probably be necessary for opera to evolve in this way (as it already is in most cases) if it hopes to have an extended life (Just as classical dance has evolved from the tutus-and-pretty-pictures approach to dancers taking acting classes).

    Casting in theatre always includes visual. Good directors are open to non-traditional casting choices and can really make a production more exciting in many cases that way (and good companies encourage this), but you still can’t avoid appearance having an impact.

  2. “. . .we certainly know enough about fitness and nutrition these days that singers can stay in something close to fighting trim without losing singing strength. . .”

    So, since we know enough about fitness and nutrition, the proper Libertarian attitude is to DEMAND everyone take advantage of this.

    Britney Spears would have looked fabulous in that slinky black dress. The opera director should’ve hired her instead.

  3. The opera owner better be careful. If that woman should happen to have the patronage of a vengeful ghost, bad things might happen…

  4. So a cast member is canned because the costume designer came up with something she won’t look good in?

    Is it standard practice to cast people to the outfits, rather than making outfits for the cast? Maybe this was just an excuse to get rid of her, and something else is at play here…

  5. The “debatable fact” that supersized opera singers are more proficient is most certainly debatable. I’d tend to think that if you get winded climbing a flight of stairs because of extra weight, it would be equally or even more challenging to belt it out for 2 hours while moving around a stage in full costume under bright lights. The extra weight could certainly hinder lung capacity, so the more pounds you tote, the harder it gets to draw a breath and project to the back row.

    I think it’ll be a long time before the fat lady sings on this one (pun most certainly intended). It will be interesting to see if other portly opera singers will now make an effort to slim down in order to keep their parts, or if such large stars will continue to get cast as virgins, waifs, and ladies dying of consumption.

  6. The catalog of Western European Art Music is filled with works that combine instrumental and vocal parts, but that are not dramtized. Thats where opera comes in. Opera has always been, from its inception as an “Official Art Form”, been about the melding of drama with music (both instrumental and vocal). So I don’t think its too much of a stretch for producers and art directors to look for singers that can both pull off an operatic role musically but who can also “look the part” they are supposed to portray.

  7. So…it’s not over till…

  8. Why did they hire her in the first place? Did they not realize she was overweight?

  9. Disgusted,

    I didn’t see anywhere where Tim C was claiming to represent any sort of “proper Libertarian attitude,” and in fact it’s a common fallacy committed by a certain minority of commenters here to assume that anything the Reason staff says on H&R is somehow supposed to represent Libertarian thinking. No, sometimes they’re just musing about stuff that has nothing to do with Libertarianism.

    Furthermore, I sure don’t think Tim C is demanding anything of anyone, only pointing out that the market has changed such that heftier singers may not be in as much demand as they once were. And if there’s any “proper Libertarian attitude,” it’s that you shouldn’t complain when changing realities favor some and disfavor others.

  10. On a slight tangent, it’s interesting that Jessye Norman has appeared as Pamina, whose whiteness is a plot point, and as Sieglinde, who’s the mother of the ur-Aryan hero Siegfried. Suspension of disbelief goes pretty far in opera.

  11. I agree with the gist of these arguments, but still, image is way more imprtant that it used to be in pop and rock music, usually at the expense of talent. Does anyone think that horsefaces like Joplin or Joni Mitchell would make it in today’s environment? But I blame the audience.

  12. Is it standard practice to cast people to the outfits, rather than making outfits for the cast? Maybe this was just an excuse to get rid of her, and something else is at play here…

    Quite possible. That the issue of the costume is so trivial is really the glaring irony in this story. Since when is a costume designer more important than the on-stage talent?

    Disgusted, who said anything about demanding everybody do anything? The director is entitled to put on whatever show s/he wants to put on.

    And why is Britney Spears now the synecdoche for everything people think is wrong with modern culture? People say “Britney Spears” the way they used to say “Golden Arches.”

  13. Just to toss in my $0.02 here–I’m headed up to Manhattan tomorrow to see Salome at the Met and note that the NY Times review spends a good deal of time marvelling that they’ve actually got a soprano who can do the “dance of the seven veils” striptease–a key part of the plot, since it’s got to be hot enough to compel her stepfather to behead John the Baptist–without making the audience laugh. If we believe, with Wagner, that opera at its best is a full, multimedia dramatic form, not just a singing concert with funny costumes, it absolutely makes sense to apply the same casting criteria you would for a play. You don’t (unless you’re trying to make a point) cast a teenaged white guy as Harriet Tubman. And while Salome (or Ariadne) probably can’t really be a teenager, given the vocal demands of the role, I scarcely see the benefit of ignoring altogether the demands of dramatic credibility.

  14. Britney Spears is not meant, in my usage, to symbolize all that is bad about modern culture, but she IS an excellent example of someone who got where she is purely because of good looks as opposed to talent. Her singing voice is terrible, but she would indeed look nice in a slinky gown, which apparently is the opera’s main concern here.

    Perhaps ‘demand’ was too strong a word. Nonetheless, I’m disappointed that Reason seems to be siding against a fat lady’s individual rights. (I myself am underweight, so this is not a case of me projecting my own perceived bodily failures onto something else.)

    I’m still wondering why the opera hired this woman in the first place. Was she a skinny stick who balloned out to her present size as soon as she got the job? Somehow I doubt it.

  15. “Balloned= ballooned.”

    It seems to me, and correct me if I am wrong, but the basic idea on this Website as a whole is that if the government takes away individual rights, that is bad, but if businesses take away individual rights, that is okay, since the free market will soon solve all ills.

  16. I’ll correct you. A business can’t take away your rights.

  17. Disgusted: Business cannot deprive a person of rights. It can only harm, defraud, kill, support, benefit, and most other verbs. Rights are legally granted by the state, dictating how the state may interact with individuals. Transactions between individuals (or businesses, which are collections of individuals) are not a matter of rights. Although often spoken of as rights, things like non-discrimination laws, granting a minority person some privilege effectively abrogates another person his right to freely associate/discriminate. The state may prohibit its own action, but has no grounds to interfere in private transactions.

    To argue natural rights v. legal rights is to enter a minefield of religion and prejudice. I’ll follow you.

  18. the proper Libertarian attitude is to DEMAND everyone take advantage of this.

    I think actually the proper Libertarian attitude is to realize that consumers want performers who are easy on the eyes, and that if you can’t stay easy on the eyes, then it’s your own fault for not taking better care of yourself. It is no more the opera houses’ responsibility to harp on your fat ass than it is the government’s.

    Is it standard practice to cast people to the outfits, rather than making outfits for the cast?

    The design is made for the character, but even if the size accomodates the performer, nobody wants to see Oprah in a half-shirt, even if it is a size 20…it’s still Oprah in a half-shirt.

  19. This goes the same with age as with weight. Many opera singers hired for roles are decades too old to look their parts, but it is thought that young voices don’t sound as good as more mature ones. Tchaikovsky once hired quite young singers for his opera Eugene Onegin in spite of the conventional wisdom, and there have been a few other examples as well.

    I often listen to opera with my eyes closed because the quality of the acting is about on a level with professional wrestling. If directors start casting singers who can look and act their parts, I might be willing to sacrifice some sound quality.

  20. Disgusted: Are you claiming that the Royal Opera House violated a contract with Voigt? If so, please amplify.

  21. I think some threads are posted because the poster thinks “Hey, this is an interesting story” not “Hey, here’s yet another situation that must be resolved by strict application of libertarian tenets.” My hunch is that Mr. Cavanaugh probably just likes opera, and wasn’t looking for yet another arena to do the ever-popular “I’m more libertarian than you!” battle.

  22. She’s a Soprano.
    She looks like Tony.
    So what?
    Fuggitaboutit

  23. Well said, thoreau.

    BTW, I’m more libertarian than you. 🙂

  24. No! I’m more libertarian than you! nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah!

    Ouch! Teacher, he hit me!

    (Sometimes this forum reminds me of a schoolyard.)

  25. Having sung with Deborah Voigt (from the chorus, of course!), I can certainly vouch for her talent, as can anyone who’s heard her sing.

    The notion that the costume designer’s designs take precedence over the high-priced talent’s voice seems very suspicious; there’s something else afoot here.

  26. Obviously the singer should really be suing McDonald’s, for making her fat.

  27. I think actually the proper Libertarian attitude is to realize that consumers want performers who are easy on the eyes, and that if you can’t stay easy on the eyes, then it’s your own fault for not taking better care of yourself.

    A couple years ago I saw a telecast of La Boheme where all the singers looked like A&F models. Better science means better-looking opera stars.

    Wouldn’t have just been easier for you two to say, “Fat people are, tautologically, ugly,” and leave it at that? Why dance around it?

  28. “Fat people are, tautologically, ugly,”

    Fat people are not tautologically ugly. Consumers want their entertainment the way they want it. Directors want their scene they way they want it. Nothing about those statements indicates some a priori characteristic about fat people. Entertainment is an industry. Opera houses sell tickets to consumers. Not a tough concept.

  29. I believe the necessary corollary to ” . . . consumers want performers who are easy on the eyes . . . “ is that fat people are not, by definition, easy on the eyes. No?

  30. Maybe the should see if this one’s available.

    http://www.operafestival.fi/en/operas/synopsis/cast/mattilae.html

    Or this one

    http://windhorst.org/netrebko/

    The Myth of the large diva is just that. Oh I know that Sutherland was huge in more than one way, but what about Callas. Zinka Milanov was a big girl but hardly obese. Eileen Farrell put on weight as she aged but her size was never considered related to her talent.

    And frankly Frederica von Stade (ok she’s a mezzo) and Kiri Te Kanawa are about as hot as they come.

    I think Ms Voigt would be doing herself a favor both career and health-wise if she finds herself a trainer and nutritionist.

  31. I attended a Seattle Opera performance of The Twilight of the Gods a few years ago. I was disappointed in Wagner?s melodic invention, mostly. But the rotund Female Love Interest may have sung her heart out, but she looked comic next to her lithe lover, who nearly danced around the stage in many of the scenes. One can complain about this, but that is just the way it is. And that is how a movie like Shallow Hal gains its theme and its humor, from that basic contrast. (Of course, Jack Black is not lithe, so amend that statement.)

    Anyway, primadonnas should slim down, for the sake of their careers as well as their lifespans. Research repeatedly indicates that lower caloric intake leads to longer lives. Perhaps longer careers, too?

    And by the way, does the logic of the traditional theory that Fat Help Belt Out The Notes rest, in any way, on why Fat People Snore More?

  32. I’ll concede Phil’s point that I shouldn’t have equated thinner with “better-looking.” That’s a matter of personal preference-though it’s a preference so widely distributed that there is clearly a market in serving it.

  33. Rights are legally granted by the state, dictating how the state may interact with individuals.

    What the hell? Me, I thought I possess rights because they’re, say, “inalienable”. And that the state possesses powers granted by good ol’ “we, the people”.

  34. On the Kerry question: It’s like the difference between Roman architecture and the sort of stuff they put up in the dark ages. Kerry is JFK, with a lot of historical degeneration.

  35. I agree with the assessment that something else is afoot here. The acting in most operas is so bad, you can’t watch it. Well, except in the belle canto comedies, in which case bad acting and slapstick is a major theme.

    As for wimmin opera sopranos… come on. They only come in one of two sizes: mmmmm, very nice; or “oh, jeezus, my eyes are burning. too large to see… pupils ripping… argh…” All opera fans know this.

    I don’t think Ms. Voigt’s size is at issue – it must be something else, and her weight is just an excuse to fire her.

    A couple years ago, I saw Allesandra Marc as Turandot – the icy and beautiful Chinese princess with whom all men fall madly in love at first sight. It is her signature role, and she’s performed it everywhere.

    So the burning question – how fat is she?

    Granted, when I saw her, she was wearing Asian-themed gowns for most of the show, but still, she looked like she was keeping a sumo wrestler inside the dress. It was so bad, that as her suitor/prince Calaf sang how beautiful she was, and how no man could ever resist her charm, people in the audience actually guffawed. Placido Domingo’s set contained a number of large stairways; poor Ms. Marc would walk up a step or two, pant, sing a bit, then trudge a bit further up. It was difficult to watch at times, and by the end of the show I couldn’t tell if the weeping was due to the amazing love story and music, or a sense of pity for the sweating, limping Ms. Marc.

    But nobody really cared in the end. Opera is fun because it’s a multimedia experience, and if the young beauty creates severe, disorienting cognitive dissonance, so much the better. So you laugh while you cry.

    Here’s some work-safe pictures of Ms. Marc…

    http://www.alessandramarc.com/Updated/photos.htm

  36. Tim, I once saw the fabulous (though hefty) Jessye Norman break a step and fall down on her derriere while singing an aria as Cassandra in Les Troyens at the Met. Horrified, we in the audience held our collective breaths, but Ms. Norman simply stood up and did not miss a single note. Once she had finished, we all leapt to our feet and offered a thunderous ovation. That’s professionalism!

  37. Well, as someone who has recently seen the rather Zaftig Jean Egland star in the same opera (Seattle), count me as perplexed.

    The star of Ariadne is supposed to be a hefty operatic deva. The role demands it; she needs to play a Wagnerian singer in counterpoint to the beautiful and funny ingenue, Zerbinetta.

    So firing Ariadne for being “too fat” seems rather to miss the point.

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