Monday, July 11, 2011

no "fat lady sings" puns in this post (from me)

Opera is a fascinating place to look at issues of size because sometimes fat people just have to exist there. That is not true everywhere, despite what fatphobes might think about this world in which fatness creeps ever upon us. It is easy to watch TV or pick up a magazine and find it curated free of fat people. But singing opera is a rarefied skill and sometimes size goes along with it, for reasons that are not well understood, including in their necessity.

As opera continues its fiscal quest to be relevant to modern opera-unfamiliar audiences and leverage its plots to fill seats (rather than turn people off), there is a lot of conflict about Looks. Creating a digestible, artistic, Thing. Deborah Voigt's dumping by Covent Garden and subsequent weight loss surgery, and Daniella Dessi's fight with Zefferelli after he berated her for her size, are obvious examples.

Opera's conflict over fat people on stage is different than the battle that goes on in other media, though, because to some degree, sometimes, fat singers have clout. Not the final word, and not enough clout, probably, but you cannot sweep--for instance--Stephanie Blythe under the carpet. The contralto of a lifetime cannot quite be dumped wholesale because you are uncomfortable with the fact that she is fat.

And still there are people who would do that. This piece about Lyndon Terracini, the artistic director of Opera Australia, is the most elaborately unchallenged defense of looks-related prejudice in opera I think I've read:
The fat lady has sung. And if Lyndon Terracini continues to get his way, she won't get an encore until she at least shifts some weight.

Lest the man charged with overseeing the future of opera in Australia be accused of sexism [whew], he is quick to point out that his shape-up-or-ship-out message applies to all performers, regardless of gender.

''If you're seeing a couple making out and one of them is obese, who wants to watch that?'' he says with a theatrical grimace. ''It's obscene. You just think, 'Jeez, for Chrissakes, don't let the children see that'.'' [emph. mine]

. . . If casting ''triple threats'' who can sing, act and look good helps spark an interest among people who think opera is only for the old and rich, then he makes no apologies for upping the unemployment rate of overweight singers.

''You go to a movie and you see people who look exactly right for that role,'' he says. ''They're consummate actors and they're completely involved in what they are doing, so their performance is totally believable.

''That's what I'd like in opera: for people to be fabulous singers, look wonderful and be completely and totally absorbed in their character. If you can't get off the seat, if you've got to sit on a rock all night, who believes that?''
His circular argument, boiled down, is basically: fat people are gross and we should not have them on stage to interfere with our suspension of disbelief that the world does not have them in it. So we won't. It's horrible, but refreshingly open, in a way, in the workings of its prejudice.

I can't help thinking that artistic decisions like this will bite people like Terracini on the ass. People who love opera adore good singers, and functioning prejudice like this can alienate even standard issue opera fans who would prefer thinner singers to look at. It's just not that simple. The reason? Opera happens in 3-D. You don't just look at it: you take a bath in it, listen to it, feel your body vibrate from it. Good singing is good singing. Nobody appreciates that taken away from them.

[Link via Brian of Red No. 3]

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