One of the world’s pre-eminent sopranos, Deborah Voigt, was dropped from this summer’s Covent Garden production of Richard Strauss’Ariadne on Naxos because the casting director deemed her too overweight for the role. Can an opera singer really be too fat?
Despite the success of a few far-from-slender singers—Luciano Pavarotti being the most conspicuous example—there is no scientific evidence to suggest that greater mass allows for better range, breath control, or projection without microphones. Nevertheless, heavy opera singers tend to believe their weight aids them. And since singing, like any other human talent, is greatly affected by the performer’s comfort and state of mind, a soprano who believes that her heft helps her with tricky arias may actually give a better performance.
For fat opera singers, much of the 20th century was a golden age when voice was everything. During the last few decades, however, there has been a renewed emphasis on the dramatic qualities of opera: Mobility on stage and physical credibility in a role are now essential to a singer’s success. It is no longer sufficient to simply produce beautiful music. Opera singers must be able to act, and like actors, they will often be cast based on their appearance.
This preference for svelte singers is due in part to an effort to promote opera among a younger audience. For example, the San Francisco Opera Web site exclaims: “Many of our singers could double as fashion models!” But the change is also a throwback to the tastes of the 19th century, when critics skewered the premiere of Verdi’s La Traviata because the production asked audiences to believe its oversized prima donna was dying of consumption. And Maria Callas—whose influence was felt throughout 20th-century opera—may also have had a hand in this return to thinness: She shed 65 pounds late in her career, and while aficionados argued her voice was never the same, she did win the affection of Aristotle Onassis and stardom far beyond the opera stage.
Bonus Explainer: The phrase “The opera isn’t over until the fat lady sings” (and its variants) is of fairly recent vintage and was coined far from the Met. Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations and The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs credit sports broadcaster Dan Cook with the first recorded use of the phrase at a 1978 basketball game between the San Antonio Spurs and the Washington Bullets.
Explainer thanks opera scholar Philip Gossett, the Robert W. Reneker distinguished service professor and dean of the humanities division at the University of Chicago.