Opera singers need plenty of “beef” to hit the high notes, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa has claimed, as the soprano condemned the pressure on young girls to starve themselves in order to meet the demands of concert managers.
The stereotype of the well-upholstered female soprano has been challenged following the emergence of glamorous opera stars such as Anna Netrebko and Angela Gheorghiu, who are marketed on the basis of their looks as much as their vocal abilities.
But Dame Kiri, the acclaimed New Zealand soprano who made her operatic debut in 1968, said she deplored expectations that female opera singers should now be as thin as Hollywood stars.
“When I was at the Met (in New York), I would see these young girls, starving hungry but terrified to put on weight,” Dame Kiri, 69, told Radio Times. “They couldn’t even go down to the canteen and eat in front of anyone because they were being watched.”
“You can’t do that. You’ve got to have beef on you if you’re going to sing. I was never really hugely big, but I certainly weighed more than I do now. I ate to sing.”
Dame Kiri said she would try to lose weight on occasions but “I was also aware of how much I couldn’t or shouldn’t take off.”
The sexualisation of female classical musicians was also criticised by Jenni Murray, the Radio 4 Woman’s Hour presenter.
“The women who seem to be most welcome are the ones who are prepared to go along with the old idea that sex sells,” Murray told the magazine. “Look at the way the violinist Nicola Benedetti and trumpeter Alison Balsom are marketed.”
Benedetti, 25, the Scottish musician who has become a hugely successful concert hall attraction since winning the BBC Young Musician of the Year contest in 2004, declined to comment.
Last year, she said: “I’m a crusader for classical music. But I don’t think dressing provocatively should be part of what I do. My focus is on the music.”
Dame Kiri, whose career took off after she came to Britain from New Zealand at the age of 21, said television shows like Britain’s Got Talent were unlikely to produce the next generation of operatic talent.
“I’m always wary of someone who is a bus driver and decides, aged 28, that they want to be a singer,” she said. “There’s got to be a period of study, from age 16 to 22, and then it moves along. You can’t just think, ‘Oh, I can sing in the bathroom, I'll be fine tonight on stage’. Not at all.
“There is such a demand on the voice for it to be able to produce night after night. It’s the building up of the muscles that make that pair of vocal cords really work.”
However Dame Kiri, whose career took off after she came to Britain from New Zealand at the age of 21, remains a patron and jury member of the BBC Cardiff Singer Of The World competition, which will be screened next week.