Thursday, March 20, 2008

Arts reporter calls foul on sizist audiences

In Washington DC's Metro Weekly today, Opera reviewer Kate Wingfield devotes a large part of her review of Washington Opera's "Flying Dutchman" to chastise audiences who feel it's all right to be rude to fat performers. She makes an interesting comparison between the behaviour of the supposed adults attending the opera to that of unruly pre-teens interrupting a school play to bully the fat kid in the lead.

My favorite bit of the article:
"How could such crass behavior occur in a crowd paying top-dollar to hear a Wagnerian soprano? Did these ladies and gentlemen forget they were at a live performance, so accustomed are they to gossiping about each other over lunch? Did they just not care? Could they be so saturated with Eddie Murphy's Norbit fat-jokes and the over-plucked glistening flesh paraded before The Bachelor as to have become mere snuffling moles, utterly blind to true human beauty? Perhaps the requisite hush would have prevailed if it were Spitzer's call-girl in the role. She claims to be a singer, after all. "

Buono detta, Ms. Wingfield! Bravissima :-)

Can you imagine a reviewer suggesting that Pavarotti would be a much better singer if he just tried Atkins? Opera has always been the one place where talent trumped any social judgement of appearance. That's how it appeared from the cheap seats, anyhow. Could it be that the new digital standard of preference perfection is changing that? Could live performance art be shuffled out to make way for not-so-cheap imitation?

Personally, I think perfect digital sound is impressive in it's own way. But I've never heard a piece of digital music that has impressed or moved me to the degree a skilled live performance is capable of. I'll always choose a movie with good acting over one with digital effects, and I'll always choose music with real voices and instruments over the bland and soulless midi sound. That's just me. Maybe for the rest of the world, one can never be skilled enough to appeal without also being a piece of "over-plucked glistening flesh" made industry standard.


M said...

Well, this is refreshing, but your statement: "Opera has always been the one place where talent trumped any social judgement of appearance."--well, it's no longer valid. In 2004, soprano Deborah Voigt was forced out of production of Strauss's "Ariadne auf Naxos" at the Royal Opera House in London because the director of the company's production thought she was too heavy to look right in a black cocktail dress that he deemed crucial to his concept. I should mention that Ariadne is Voight's signature role. She actually dieted so she could get back on stage at the Met.

So maybe your statement should read: "Opera has always been the one place where male talent trumped any social judgement of appearance." For women, what once was, is now no longer.

The above incident happened in 2003.

WeightlessOne said...

Oops. Clairification... The original incident happened in 2003 and Voigt returned to the stage at the Met in 2004.

JoGeek said...

That's a terrible shame! Do you know if that's happened before, or if it's new to this century and the fat-scare?

I believe men in most fields have more leeway when it comes to socially acceptable weight than women. Of course, there are always exceptions, and that leeway is rapidly shrinking these days! I'm sure that a man of Pavarotti's size with a fraction less talent would have been shut out of a lot of supporting roles and pressured to diet. His talent is what put him above it. What was the Bella Abzug quote?

"Our struggle today is not to have
a female Einstein get appointed as
an assistant professor. It is for a
woman schlemiel to get as quickly
promoted as a male schlemiel."

M. said...

There has been talk at various opera houses, that Jane Eaglen, THE Wagnerian Soprano of our age, was too fat to perform. This disgusts me. She has one of the most amazing voices I've ever heard.

The thing with Voigt is absolutely horrible as well. I mean, the director's "vision"? What about the vision of the composer, who wrote that music to be sung, not looked at.

idiots the lot of them.

As far as I know, the recent concern with opera singers' weight is just that, recent. And I hope it goes away.

Anonymous said...

What totally appalling behavior from the audience. And I heard about the Voigt thing a while back and wondered what the heck things were coming to. (I also recall a director in an FAQ session about opera in one of our UK newspapers - I think the Guardian, but I can't find it now, sorry - saying that having fat singers in lead roles dates from when the singing was deemed more important than the drama...his take was that thinner performers went with less 'wooden' acting. Oh please!)

Having said that, I have a nasty feeling it's not just opera. Can anyone think offhand of a leading classical instrumental soloist who's not thin? I can't, off hand.

Shinobi said...

As a singer myself (I once fancied myself good enough for opera... alas, no)I know this is definetly a major concern for opera singers these days. Opera is struggling with the negative image of "Fat People On Stage" so companies do not want to cast overweight singers, in order to attract a younger audience. As a consequence they often sacrifice in talent.

bigmovesbabe said...

Further clarification:

Voight actually had gastric bypass surgery in response to this incident, in the face of the possibility that her vocal strength might be affected by this major surgery.

Makes me sad.

Karen said...

"As a consequence they often sacrifice in talent."

Sounds like what happened to movies. Opera was the one place where you expected to see fat people on stage. Yes, it was a stereotype, but people still went for the talent. that is why you go to opera. You don't go to look at some chick in her lingerie, you go for the skill and power of voice.

Lindsay said...

I grew up in an opera house. I remember my dad telling me that in many European opera houses, the other opera-goers would (silently, i presume) beat you to a bloody pulp if you even so much as cleared your throat. Hell, i get annoyed when people don't wait until the right time to applaud. But i recognize that i can be an elitist snob at times.

Aaaaaanyway. While some allowances are made for body size/shape*, there does appear to have been a push for thinner opera performers in recent years. Pavarotti got away with it, well, because he was Pavarotti.

For ages, opera has been about moving around during the recitative - but when it comes to the aria/ensemble, you plant your feet and you give it your all. Now, people aren't satisfied with that. It's not enough. They want things to look at... which, IMHO, detracts from the art.

* - i think this is at least partially because of the lung power, the musculature involved in being able to actually sing operatically, etc.

Brian said...

Directors are definitely wielding a lot of influence on who gets cast. And who gets cast is often dependent on a "vision" which demands a socially acceptable vision. Opera singers are pushed to diet and those who can't successfully are shut out in their careers. Indeed, the soprano who was heckled here got her big break at 39 just a few years ago. She struggled to make a career in part because she was fat. There is so much pressure for younger, thinner, and prettier talent than any interest in "talent" gets pushed aside. Good enough is now the goal. Its why I'm glad I don't work for an opera company. When I've been involved with opera productions, its been very disheartening the way the visuals are allowed to trump the music.

Kim said...

Good on the reviewer.

I've never been a serious singer, but I've always wondered if opera singers can produce the necessary power while dieting. It seems like it'd be pretty tough to do that job with a serious calorie deficit. My bus to work takes me past a billboard for a local production of Cleopatra that highlights the lead's slender my eye, knowing nothing about the performer, she doesn't look like a naturally-thin person, so I wonder.

Incidentally, I looked Jane Eaglen up on YouTube. She's adorable.

Meowser said...

It makes me wonder if it will get to the point where opera will be about pretty, thin young women lip-synching while the actual fat lady sings on a microphone backstage. Yeah, who wants to see the actual vocalist if she's not hawwwt? I mean, ewwww! Culture, schmulture!

(Men, of course, can go on being just as fat as they like.)

lynnie said...

Even Pavarotti dieted himself smaller. He never got skinny, but he lost a lot of weight.

My friend who studied voice told me her body size had an effect the sound of their voice. Being larger gave her voice more resonance and a better ability to project. She said the reason there was the stereotype of the fat lady opera singer was because a lot of the greats were fat. And part of the greatness of their voice was due to body size. I have no idea if this is true, but if it is, pushing them to lose weight will mean changing their voices. Why would they want to do that?

WeightlessOne said...

So I'm reading the NYTimes Arts section today about a current opera production and I see this:

"This was the second consecutive time in the six-performance “Tristan” revival that trouble halted the production. Last Friday, Deborah Voigt, who was singing Isolde, left the stage during Act II because of a stomach ailment and was replaced by Janice Baird, her cover, who made her Met debut."

Now, I have no idea if Ms. Voight's stomach ailment was due to her WLS, but it makes me think... And it makes me sad...

Harpy said...

Montserrat Caballe is 75, quite fat, and still regarded as one of the best sopranos in history. And she's still performing on the stage, performing roles depicting young gorgeous heroines - a couple of years ago (I think) she played Massenet's Cleopatra. And people still come in droves to see her.

It is utterly astounding and confounding that directors are passing up talent for looks. It's happening in all areas of classical music, too, where now to get a tour and a recording contract you're supposed to be HOTT with decent talent as opposed to looks-like-who-cares with spectacular talent. Also if female you ought to be wearing skimpy clothing.