October 19, 2010

Sing Large With Small Bodies

It's been talked about since Maria Callas slimmed down to resemble the glamorous Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's and subsequently had vocal problems. Was it the weight loss itself, or the resulting loss of muscles mass that accompanied it? One suspects the latter. Without mention of Callas, this topic came to the forefront in an interview that Dame Kiri te Kanawa gave to the BBC. You can watch it here. Her line "sing large with small bodies" jumped out at me. Is it true? Are singers being asked to sing large and be model thin? Yes. I think it's an accurate assessment. My own observation is that this is a result of the ever-growing mania for cinematic 'realism' onstage. We want the fantasy, not only of hearing beautiful sounds from singers, but the additional kick of hearing it from god-like bodies and faces.


 Audrey Hepburn


This is nothing new. Some time ago, I read an account of Richard Wagner insulting the great contralto Marianne Brandt - a student of the legendary Pauline Viardot-Garcia - after her onstage audition with full orchestra, denouncing her as 'ugly'. She ran from the theater, returning only when Viardot-Garcia demanded Wagner's public apology, which he gave. One wonders if Brandt could have the career today she had during her own era.


Marianne Bandt


Men aren't immune to the desire for the body beautiful onstage either, as evidenced in blogs such as Barihunk, which extol beautiful voices in muscled bodies. But I wonder if a kind of body fascism is involved. I have only to remember my first fitting at The New York City Opera where I was told that I was hired because 1) I could sing 2) looked good and 3) fit the costume.

There's no business like show business.

2 comments:

  1. A singer colleague of mine was not rehired as a soloist at San Diego Opera after a famous stage director (initials, T.C.) came on board. She was a nice looking woman, somewhat stocky and in her late 40's with a gorgeous voice and rock-solid technique but the analysis of TC (found in the files by a friend of the singer after the re-audition TC demanded) was: " P.T. - beautiful face, beautiful voice, old and fat" (!) What chance do even extraordinary singers have in a world dominated by that kind of bias?

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  2. I saw Dame Kiri's interview a few weeks ago and cheered. This trend toward movie-like reality on stage is not only contrary to the true intention of a theatrical experience, it is nearly impossible to achieve with a consistently high level of musical and vocal quality. Even if extremely fit, the kind of body that produces an Aida or Amneris sound is not going to wear a size 2 dress. Who doesn't know this?

    How many absolutely amazing singers of the past would we have missed if they'd been expected to look like underwear models? And I'm not talking about Montserrat Caballe or Jessye Norman or Luciano Pavarotti. Nobody believed Renata Tebaldi looked like a consumptive young girl in Paris, but people paid money hand over fist to witness her performances of Mimi. Marjorie Lawrence sang Brünhilde and all her other roles seated after struck with polio--what would today's Regie tyrants make of that?

    We live in a Photoshop world in which any performer is expected to look like a model or star athlete. One wonders whether Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Russell, Betty Grable or any of the other sex symbols of the 40s/50s/60s would be considered fit or pretty enough today.

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