There is something funny happening in Opera these days; the slimming down of sopranos. The 47-year old American, Deborah Voigt, was recently fired by the Royal Opera House for being too fat. Now, I want to make this clear, Deborah is known for her Wagnerian roles. You know- the ones famous for the coining of the term it isn’t over till the fat lady sings. Apparently, the singers’ appearance has become more important than the voice.
Ms. Voigt has just started her comeback, after losing 120 pounds as a result of gastric-bypass surgery. There was a time when the casting for an operatic production was done on the merits of the quality of the voice and not the singer’s physique and beauty.
In March of 2005, Jennifer Wilson burst onto the international scene by understudying for Jane Eaglen as Brünnhilde in Wagner’s five hour Götterdämmerung, just a day after singing the same character in a rehearsal of Die Walküre. This was an athletic feat, not only for the voice, but also for the physical stamina involved. She has, what could be described as a big-voice. Also you could say, she had the “goods.” Unfortunately, American vocal training favors lighter, flexible voices with a wide range. But opera has traditionally relied for it’s survival on the powerful, concert-hall filling voices.
Segway into: the microphone.
The coordination of lungs and diaphragm, and the proper use of breath, which are the fundamental prerequisites for sustaining powerful voices in huge auditoriums, are no longer required. As Deborah Voigt said, “I’m hoping that we don’t go so far as to put microphones on soubrette sopranos and have them singing Isolde.”
Now we have to take into account that bigger voices take longer to mature. By the time they do, many of those that possess them are 35 years or older. In other words, they are no longer the “Hot Babes” of opera; the ones that sell CD’s like Cecilia Bartoli. Speight Jenkins of the Seattle Opera said, “Voice teachers in general do not encourage the unique, original voice.” Instead, they encourage “the voice that can hit all the notes and do what is supposed to be done,” regardless if they have any flair or artistry.
So now we have singers with attractive bodies, and light, agile voices. Quick fame, like we have with American Idol, is the way to go. OK, so you just had dinner and you have to sit through an opera. So who wouldn’t rather watch a “hot babe” perform a virtuosic aria from Mozart’s Abduction From the Seraglio, instead of that “huge chick” belting out five hours worth of schnapps and sausage music.
This shift towards “popera”, with the use of microphones and pretty girls is starting to blend the genres of Broadway and Opera. Will we be seeing Sarah Brightman singing “Dich, teure Halle” from Wagner’s Tannhäuser, on 42nd street next season?
So Deborah Voigt is back now, in her slimmed down version. But will the voice be the same? ''I think that the face of opera is changing,'' Voigt said. ''To assume that one can weigh 300-plus pounds and still be viable on today's opera stage is naive.” But as they say, it isn’t over till the skinny chick sings.