IN OPERA, SIZE MATTERS
BY ROLAND FLAMINI
There's good news for gorgeous looking women with great figures and operatic ambitions: they can have a successful career without first acquiring enormous girth and the superstructure of a battleship. As it turns out, slim waists and a fetching, but moderate bust line are not, after all, incompatible with mastering such coveted roles as Mimi in "La Boheme," and "Carmen." Who knew? For centuries, the equation voice equals pounds, spectacular voice equals - well, you get the point - seemed as immovably fixed in opera as dying in the last act or hiding behind trees. Okay, there were always an outstanding handful of exceptions to the stereotype of the outsize prima donna, but that's just the point: they were exceptions.
Then, almost overnight (or so it seemed) the curtain went up on an extraordinary phenomenon - onstage were consumptive Violettas who actually looked as if they could really be wasting away; Toscas whose beauty was really to die for; bewitching Turandots worthy of the sleepless nights of "Nessun' dorma." New names, new faces, and - best of all - new bodies. It was the dawn of the age of the thin soprano. Not since the "tenore castrato" trilled his last note had opera experienced such a major change
Soprano Angela Gheorghiu's dazzling stage presence probably set this trend in motion when she made her international debut at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in 1992. But the current diva du jour is unquestionably Russia's Anna Netrebko, heard here at the Washington National Opera gala in March. On that starstudded occasion, her shapely figure, encased in white, created almost as much of a sensation as her exquisitely chiseled coloratura. At the dinner following the performance she said that when not singing she likes to model, and she has appeared in fashion layouts in glossy magazines.
An addicted shopper with a penchant for Christian Dior, Marc Jacobs and Escada, she has both music writers and fashion editors rhapsodizing over her every performance. After hearing her in "Traviata," the Spanish writer Mario Vargas Llosa solemnly declared in the Madrid paper El Pais: "For me, the tense, fluttering heroine (Violetta) will from now on have the shape, face and above all the voice of Anna Netrebko. And no one else."
Let's be clear: no one is, in any way, dismissing the glorious voices of the past. The Tebaldis and Sutherlands will forever shine brightly in the operatic firmament. But the myth that big voices needed big bodies has been blown out of the water. "Weight has no impact on the voice," says Elizabeth Futral. "What's important is how you manage your musculature and your breathing." The coloratura soprano whose repertoire includes Cleopatra in Handel's "Giulio Cesare" and Stella in Andre Previn's "Streetcar Named Desire," recently charmed D.C. audiences as Anina in Donizetti's "L'Elisir d'Amore."
Christina Scheppelmann, the Washington National Opera's artistic administrator adds, "If a singer is bigger it weighs on the diaphragm and provides a certain support so it's more comfortable, but really weight has nothing to do with singing. The resonance is in the contours of the head." The real change is aesthetic, not technical. "Consciousness of the physique has been increasing over the past years." We live in a visual age. What Joshua Kosman, music critic of the San Francisco Chronicle calls, "The tyranny of image, glamour, glitz, and good looks" has invaded every aspect of our culture. It's hardly surprising, therefore, that many opera lovers would envision Fiordiligi and Dolabella from "Cosi Fan' Tutte" as the operatic version of "Desperate Housewives." "We're all much more weight conscious, and health conscious, and we can't help noticing what happens in pop culture," Futral observes.
Singers also has to factor in the demands of a more competitive market Futral points out. "If there are ten of you auditioning for Mimi, and you all sing equally well - Mimi dies of consumption, they're going to choose the one that looks most convincing. Impresarios these days look at that: if you want a fighting chance, then you'd better get into shape."
The famous chef Auguste Escoffier created Peach Melba for the Australian soprano Nellie Melba, who is said to have had a weakness for elaborate desserts. Today's weight conscious diva would opt for a low calorie, natural yogurt laced with blueberries. Scheppelmann says that visiting sopranos are now booked into hotels with a gym as a matter of course: they don't even have to ask for it. The result is that French soprano Natalie Dessay can confidently appear onstage in a bikini. Pretty soon the only fat soprano left will be Tony. But is this good? The English lexicographer Samuel Johnson once called opera "an exotic and irrational entertainment." In a medium in which it takes a pair of lovers 20 minutes to bid a hasty farewell, is it rational to expect physical realism? Can Salome really be nubile and sixteen, as demanded in the text? In the past opera lovers have accepted the convention that good looks and good voices don't necessarily coincide in the same package, and therefore most operas exist at least partly in the mind.
The emphasis on physical appearance also has its dark side. Two years ago Covent Garden dropped the outstanding soprano Deborah Voigt from her signature role of Ariadne because of her weight. The singer duly underwent a surgical solution to the problem and in April tackled "Tosca" at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Anthony Tommasini in the NewYork Times praised her performance but added that Voigt "still seems to be adjusting her technique to her new body. Her voice may have lost some warmth and gained some cool shimmer." It's not always good to fool Mother Nature.