Ariadne auf Fatsos


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?