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

Share

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.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Photographer / Floorplanner / Domestic Energy Assessor

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Photographer/ Floor planner /...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Surrey - £40,000

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Guildford/Craw...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Assistant

£13500 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Assistant is...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £35,000

£16000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious and motivated Sale...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband hasn’t ‘suddenly’ become a robust leader. He always was

Steve Richards
 

Costa Rica’s wildlife makes me mourn our paradise lost

Michael McCarthy
Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence