Welcome to the new Independent website. We hope you enjoy it and we value your feedback. Please contact us here.

There’s more to opera than a fat lady singing

The best singers I’ve seen in the past decade are not women Dame Kiri would describe as having ‘beef’
  • @janemerrick23

The last time I went to the opera was a month ago, to see The Magic Flute at Covent Garden.

This opera features probably the most archetypal “fat lady singing” aria anywhere – the Queen of the Night’s Der Holle Rache, where the coloratura soprano must hit a High F several times, as well as stretching her voice over two octaves.

The Queen of the Night that evening at the Royal Opera House was a Russian named Albina Shagimuratova, who had the most extraordinary upper register, and hit the top notes with force. She also happened to be on the larger side, to put it kindly. But could a slimmer singer have done the same justice to Mozart’s menacing matriarch? Or do the biggest voices need to be big in every way?

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, the legendary soprano, says they do. In an interview with Radio Times, she says “you’ve got to have beef on you if you’re going to sing” and bemoans the pressure on younger female opera singers to lose weight to get roles.

When she visited New York’s Metropolitan Opera recently, she witnessed young women performers “starving hungry but terrified to put on weight”. When she was at the peak of her success, she would “eat to sing”.

At the same time, Dame Jenni Murray, the Woman’s Hour presenter, has condemned the marketing of female classical performers, with the most attractive being pushed by record companies. She names violinist Nicola Benedetti and trumpeter Alison Balsom among “the ones who are prepared to go along with the old idea that sex sells”. Both women are hugely talented, and also happen to be very beautiful. Does Dame Jenni have a point?

There can be no doubt that there are violinists, trumpeters and other musicians who are just as talented as Benedetti and Balsom but lack the glamour desired by people (OK, middle-aged men) who run record companies. Bond, the all-female string quartet, can play their instruments well, but it is depressing to discover that the two men who put the act together, Mel Bush and Mike Batt, wanted a group of “beautiful and talented” young women.

It is not breaking news that sex sells, as I’m sure Dame Jenni accepts. Both she and Dame Kiri are fighting a losing battle to break this age-old rule. Sex has been selling since Mozart wrote The Magic Flute, and before.

It is right to complain about the objectifying of young women in classical music and opera, but I find it difficult to criticise either Balsom or 25-year-old Benedetti, who, by the look of her website, does not seem to dress provocatively. There is no getting round the fact that she is beautiful. She also won BBC Young Musician of the Year in 2004, has an established recording career, and is in the middle of a lengthy concert tour. If she wasn’t any good, she would have been found out by now.

Which brings me to Dame Kiri’s remarks. In the 10 years that I’ve been going to Covent Garden, the sopranos have ranged in body size. Around the time of my first visit, Deborah Voigt, the American soprano, was sacked from a Covent Garden production of Ariadne auf Naxos for being overweight. She was 25 stone, which is probably rather a limiting size for negotiating a three-hour performance. After having gastric band surgery, she lost weight and was invited back. This is an extreme example.

Then there is the story about Maria Callas, surely the greatest ever soprano, who, it is said, “lost” her voice when she lost weight. I was not alive to hear her sing live, but I have a recording of a slimmer Callas singing “Un bel di vedremo” from Madame Butterfly, and it is exquisite.

Larger-than-average sopranos still get leading roles, but the best opera singers I’ve seen in the past decade – Angela Gheorghiu, Anna Netrebko, Renée Fleming – are not women whom Dame Kiri would describe as having “beef”. They are not too thin, but rather are a healthy body size. It would not matter if they were “overweight”, but it just so happens that they are not. Their success proves Dame Kiri wrong, surely. It is not about being fat or thin if you have the voice.

The same goes for men. The best tenor I have watched on stage at Covent Garden is possibly the greatest singer of his generation: Jonas Kaufmann. He is not overweight by any means. But, boy, can he sing.

It is probably the case that opera singers are simply healthier than they once were, with eating sensibly part of preparation for a performance along with rehearsals, in the same way that footballers (usually) no longer drink alcohol and smoke before a match. With tighter performance schedules, and recording commitments, must come a healthier rigour. Gone are the days when tenors would consume several bowls of pasta and a bottle of red wine before a performance, as Luciano Pavarotti did earlier in his career, before he was advised to diet (which, when he did, did not affect his beautiful voice).

Of course, no young woman, or man, should feel that they need to starve themselves to get the big role. But we need to get over the fat lady singing.

Twitter: @janemerrick23