Weighty issues for an artificial world

It's not true, as people used to say, that a thin singer doesn't have the vocal power of a fat one

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Some of Deborah Voigt, apparently, is back. The celebrated operatic soprano, famous not just for her splendidly burnished tones but also for being the size of a bus, was last glimpsed being rudely removed from the set of the Royal Opera House's
Ariadne auf Naxos. The producer's concept of the Ariadne role had the singer in a tight black mini-skirted dress. One look at Ms Voigt suggested that the concept was not going to work, and she was rudely sacked from the production and escorted from the premises, possibly in a wheelbarrow.

Some of Deborah Voigt, apparently, is back. The celebrated operatic soprano, famous not just for her splendidly burnished tones but also for being the size of a bus, was last glimpsed being rudely removed from the set of the Royal Opera House's Ariadne auf Naxos. The producer's concept of the Ariadne role had the singer in a tight black mini-skirted dress. One look at Ms Voigt suggested that the concept was not going to work, and she was rudely sacked from the production and escorted from the premises, possibly in a wheelbarrow.

Ms Voigt is probably quite used to these humiliations - it is said that earlier in her career, Sir Georg Solti asked her directly: "Why are you so fat?" But this time, she went home to the US, probably considering that if you are regarded as fat even in America, then you probably ought to do something about it. Anyway, she had bits of herself stapled up, and in nine months lost something like 7 stone in weight. She is now a mere size 18.

It isn't, of course, compulsory to be corpulent to be an opera singer, though the image tends to linger. Most opera singers now are perfectly normal in size, and many younger ones are actively fit. It is quite a treat to see the ENO's new Brunnhilde, Kathleen Broderick, a splendidly feisty figure, bounding around the stage; older Wagnerians will remember the groaning of the same boards as their Brunnhilde of the 1970s, Rita Hunter, came into view like a docking liner.

It's not true, as people used to say, that a thin singer doesn't have the vocal power of a fat one. It is true, however, that a fit singer needs to work a little harder; Ms Voigt has said that now she needs consciously to exercise her muscles when singing, where before her body would do all the pushing for her. The crucial factor in voice production seems to be not the body, but the face; all great sopranos have very big chins.

Nevertheless, there remain quite a number of sopranos who would test the resources of Evans Outsize, to say the least. The startling apparition of Sharon Sweet, Jessye Norman at her peak, the much-loved Jane Eaglen have had us all suspending our disbelief in some most unlikely roles.

The hardcore opera fan will argue that it is ridiculously superficial to complain about a 25-stone Carmen, a Kundry without evidence of ascetic living, or a lard-arsed Melisande. We are supposed just to close our eyes and enjoy the quality of the singing.

Well, there is some truth in this. For my money, the greatest Isolde of the age was the very substantial Margaret Price; but she never sang the role on stage. Instead, we have a magnificent recording, where the Isolde of your imagination can be, if you choose, a slender 18-year-old Celtic princess with a voice of steel.

But is it not the case that the difficulties opera houses now have with these fat singers display not a greater commitment to dramatic realism, but an inadequate grasp of dramatic potential? Of course, some roles are hopelessly compromised when the singer is ludicrously physically inappropriate. Lulu needs a soprano as physically perfect as Christine Schafer, a few years ago at Glyndebourne; there must be at least a suspicion of wasting in Violetta in La Traviata.

But roles for the fat are not limited to Mistress Quickly in Falstaff. I don't really understand why opera houses don't grasp the dramatic potential of casting someone very fat in some roles where they might prove startlingly effective. I always thought that the real story behind Turandot's sulking and demanding ways was that she was probably immensely large, and had always been carried around like a great slug in a litter. In the Ring of the Nibelung, Brunnhilde is obviously not going to be fat in an ideal world, but Erda, lying around all day waiting to be woken up, very well might be.

Actually, despite Ms Voigt's sacking from the Covent Garden production, I would have thought that Ariadne in Ariadne auf Naxos was another perfect fat role; another girl who lies around on a desert island for years stuffing her face and feeling sorry for herself.

I've never seen any production really grasp the nettle and turn this into a positive advantage. But then it must be said that, even now, productions of operas hardly ever rise to any kind of plausible human realism. Watching the first act of The Valkyrie from Covent Garden on the television the other day, it was almost horrifying to see how intense and real a three-way relationship had been buried in the entire gamut of fake operatic gestures. Nobody walks like that; nobody waves their arms like that; nobody clutches themselves like that. It was like a No drama in its remoteness from human experience.

And when you see a production really skilled at getting singers to respond normally to each other, it is almost like a shock; the marvellous Richard Jones Ring which this one replaced, was quite exemplary. But you can count such productions on the fingers of one hand.

Opera is artificial, and unnecessarily so. I wish I could believe that the most significant contribution to this falsity is simply the weight of some of the prima donnas, or that it will become more plausible when they have all been made to lose nine stone in weight.

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