“A chubby bundle of puppy fat.” “Unsightly and unattractive.” “Repulsive figure.” These comments count as professional feedback in the world of opera. At first glance, they may appear to be isolated cases; only seldom does body shaming make headlines in the opera industry. The most prominent exception was the “little black dress” which did not fit Deborah Voigt, resulting in her being expelled from a Royal Opera House production of “Ariadne auf Naxos” by Christof Loy. In 2004, Voigt underwent gastric bypass surgery; a solution that is part of a problem that shapes everyday life for many singers.
Lose 10 kilos and you’ll pass the entrance exam. This was the advice given to soprano Sarah Funk before she even started her studies. She lost 11, and gained a place at conservatory. “The foundation is already set,” she tells me, “it’s quite clear: Either you look a certain way, or you can’t be a singer at all.”
Throughout her studies, Funk’s figure was a recurring point of discussion. The German Central Agency for Performing Artists (ZAV) advised her to lose weight before auditioning again. Within the conservatory, comments about her body—often well-meaning—became increasingly common, including from teachers. After auditioning for a scholarship, one comment to Funk summed up the issue: “The perfect voice in the wrong body.” Increasingly, it was not only the soprano’s self-confidence that took a hit, but her voice too.
It took courage for Funk to speak out about her experience of body shaming on social media on July 8, 2020. But the response to her post was overwhelming: “Finally, somebody dares to talk about it,” commented one singer.
“Diversity applies to pretty much everybody except fat people,” opera critic Uwe Friedrich tells me. The pressure to conform to a societal ideal of beauty has “increased enormously” in recent years. Studies have shown that slim people who better conform to such standards have greater career prospects generally, especially during the application process—something that can be easily applied to the opera industry as well.
However, the point at which a singer is considered “fat” obviously lies in the eye of the (predominantly male) beholder. The mezzo-soprano Sevana Salmasi is five feet, seven inches tall and wears a size 16-18. She performs internationally and has won plenty of prizes. Still, body shaming runs like a thread throughout her career: “I’m not unattractive now. But from the neck down is where the criticism begins.” She tells me that, during her studies, a director suggested she undergo breast reduction surgery, otherwise she would have little chance in the “pants role industry.” Salmasi then switched to soprano roles and had a number of rejections—especially for operettas—because she was “too thick” for those in charge. She has since switched back to singing as a dramatic mezzo where her body is “tolerated” more. “Not because you are ‘the beauty,’ but rather because you play the maternal roles, or the witch.”
The soprano Wiebke Göetjes talks about her own experiences with body shaming on her YouTube channel, What’s Opera Doc. The reason for a rejection at one of her auditions was because they didn’t want singers “that fill the stage with their behinds.” Although she passed an audition at the Meininger Staatstheater, the director (whom she doesn’t name) sank her lower body into a hole for two-thirds of the production. For six weeks, he whispered in her ear that he was only doing it because he did not wish to see her “disgusting figure.” Göetjes suffered from depression after the production.
“Anybody who says that body shaming isn’t an issue in opera is clearly a man,” suspects mezzo-soprano Katharine Tier. I speak to her on video chat from her native Australia. She has since turned her back on the opera industry. Tier is convinced that women are significantly more affected by body shaming than men. “Excess weight” (a term that replaces the more common, but often pejorative “overweight”) in men is seen as “rich” or “fatherly”: “We just adapt it so he can still be the sexy man. But when a woman is fat, that’s it. Because she can’t be sexy,” the singer tells me."Anybody who says that body shaming isn’t an issue in opera is clearly a man." Mezzo-soprano Katharine Tier on the current state of body-shaming affairs in the opera industry. @vanmusicmag Click To Tweet
This observation of a dubious connection between body shape and attractiveness is confirmed again and again, whether consciously or subconsciously. When German opera critic Jürgen Kesting tells me that every director wants to have an “attractive, physically attractive” singer onstage (he did not want to name names). Or when music journalist Manuel Brug writes in Die Welt that “Theater is a world of illusion, and usually costume designers find very good ways to make even overweight singers appear alluring and attractive.” There is a worldview conveyed here: Fat women (or men) are only “alluring and attractive,” and only then truly feminine (or masculine), when the appropriate help is given—i.e., if the audience is sold attractiveness as an illusion. Or—even easier—the singers take it on themselves to fit within the “ideal.” The soprano Derya Atakan tells me about a comment once directed at her singer friend: “The way she looks, she could never seduce anybody.”
That body shaming primarily affects women is also due to underlying power structures, believes Thilo Dahlmann, professor of voice at the Frankfurt University of Music and Performing Arts: “It is usually men who cast roles.” This doesn’t mean though, that men are unaffected. Tenor Allan Clayton was told by a critic that he needed “to spend more time at the gym if he [was] to be stripped regularly to his boxers.” Another tenor comments on a video online about body shaming: “These days, if you’re too fat as a man you’re given the buffo roles. Can’t bigger people love? Be heroes? It’s colossally irritating, but it’s commonplace today.” Katharine Tier remembers her time at the Badisches Staatstheater, when artistic director Peter Spuhler (since fired for abuse of power) preferred to hire “men with six-packs.” She adds, “He loved to get beautiful men who couldn’t sing.”
Uwe Friedrich tells me that overweight singers above all play “comic roles.” He refers to the Komische Oper in Berlin, where under director Barrie Kosky, it is mostly slim singers who play the main parts. In an interview, Kosky argues the contrary: “All body shapes” are permitted on his stage, and body shaming in both the rehearsal room and production is “never the case.” (Kosky declined to comment on allegations made by the singer Kathryn Lewek of body shaming during his production of Offenbach‘s “Orphée aux Enfers“ at the 2019 Salzburg Festival.)
There is another prejudice that accompanies stereotypes of overweight people: that they are lazy or immobile. “For plus-size singers, advice can quickly turn toxic,” writes Zach Finkelstein in an investigation for his blog, The Middleclass Artist. “Feedback might include faulty assumptions about a singer’s health, associating weight with an indolent lifestyle and poor vocal technique.”
Sarah Funk, who thanks to years of ballet has no problems with athletic activities, was repeatedly labelled as lazy during her studies because of her body. “It can be very painful, especially when you are constantly making the effort and putting your heart into it.” One American singer reports that a director did not trust she could handle a physically-demanding production, despite her being undoubtedly able to do it.
It’s possible that the widespread cliché—held predominantly by those outside the industry—of a “fat opera singer” standing motionless at the edge of the stage has something to do with this. Whether Montserrat Caballé would stand a chance today is questionable. Likewise, it is doubtful whether Barrie Kosky would cast her in one of his productions. He does, after all, tell me on the phone that she has “zero acting talent” and “no interest in theater.” He makes no comment on her appearance. (Kosky demands fitness from his singers, he says, but that doesn’t mean a “Hollywood body.”) Sarah Funk understands that one should be athletic and fit in musical theater. “But that doesn’t mean that if you’re larger, you’re not athletic,” she adds. “That’s just a widespread superstition.”
The common prejudice that singers are to blame for their weight (and must therefore be brought out of this self-inflicted immaturity) manifests itself in several statements made during the interviews I conducted for my research. Jürgen Kesting, who has long been a jury member in singing competitions, sees it his duty to “help” singers: “Let’s say there’s a 20-year-old, and she wants to sing Gilda or Pamina. And the poor thing is five feet, five inches tall and weighs 175 pounds. If I were her accompanist, I’d say ‘Girl, watch out: It would be good if you stop being a foodie—as many singers are. It would help your career to do a bit about your appearance. Please… that’s what everybody says to their spouse: ‘You’re getting a little voluptuous!’”
When I ask about body-shaming comments made to young singers, Kesting responds that such public complaints are excuses for a lack of success or weak vocals. When I counter that those affected might be deterred from their studies or from a career, or suffer psychologically from body shaming, Kesting says: “I think that’s one of these rumors that are always circulating, that somebody is being destroyed. If he is so badly damaged by such a remark, then he has no business on stage! He doesn’t have the self-confidence, the ego, the energy to hold his own in this demanding profession.”
I also speak to opera director and longtime casting director Hein Mulders, who advises young singers to be disciplined about their weight. It makes things easier career-wise, and they don’t have to face criticism about their bodies. He tells me that directors are usually happy to see model measurements and tend to typecast. Such preconceptions could indeed be broken by a singer with different-colored skin, shape, and size—if they deliver an above-average performance. What he seems to mean is that there is more demanded here than of an “ideal weight” (and white) singer.
Katharine Tier has profited from requirements placed on the singer’s body, she tells me. She is convinced that she has been cast several times not because she was better-qualified for the role, but because she was “the thinner one.” But Tier herself has suffered from pressure with regards to her size; has gone on one diet after another and exercised excessively because she feared her weight might be commented upon. Her fear stems from the positive feedback and offers she received after losing weight when younger. “When I lost weight, I could be marketed better. It’s just an advantage when you’re thin. And you can’t tell me body shaming isn’t an issue.” There were regular comments on what she ate in the canteen at the Badisches Staatstheater. Because she worked out intensely and fasted intermittently, she would eat two large—albeit low-calorie—meals per day. Tier remembers one comment from a colleague: “Oh my God, how can you eat so much?” When she went to get an ice cream, a musician asked her: “Are you depressed? It’ll make you fat!” A conductor would make unsolicited comments about her belly, and ask whether she was pregnant. Tier turned her back on the opera industry as a result of her eating disorder. Body shaming wasn’t the trigger, she says, but she is convinced that she would be unable to be healthy in the opera industry.
For Derya Atakan, body pressure during her vocal studies also became a burden. “The more you weigh, the more visible your body is. Losing weight was a way for me to become a little less visible and less vulnerable.” During her studies, her anorexia erupted once again: “A few buttons were pushed that triggered it.”
But how do those responsible in the opera industry see the relationship between the visual and the voice? Hein Mulders is convinced the ratio is “50:50.” For Barrie Kosky, visuals are “very important.” In the genre of musical theater, the body is “as important as the voice.” (Kosky makes a distinction here with opera.) Director Frank Hilbrich also says that visuals “play an enormous role.” But a distinction should be made, he thinks: Singing is an “extremely physical action”—it is not for nothing that one speaks of the “embodiment of role.” But demands placed on singers’ bodies have been influenced by “a completely clichéd and fatuous erotic image” through advertising and film, he explains. Far more important is a natural and self-confident way of holding the body: “A singer has to handle her 200 pounds. And when she does that sensually, then I lay there and I am thrilled.”
It is also possible that the role of the visual and of the body are inadvertently associated with the notion of authenticity. For Hein Mulders, who is now artistic director-designate of the Cologne Opera, a role needs to be believable. “And that’s where the visual plays an important role.” The audience’s imagination needs to be taken into account. Mulders gives an example of the tuberculosis-stricken Mimi from “La Bohéme,” who can only be played convincingly by a thin, young singer. When asked about this argument, Uwe Friedrich replies that this is a “lack of imagination on the part of theater directors and managers…who adhere to a pretty flat realism. Especially in opera, which is a performative art with a much stronger degree of abstraction.” That means that, in the 21st century, Mimi no longer needs to die of tuberculosis; the role is not dependent on body shape.
Another problem is perhaps that those making decisions increasingly know less about the voices and bodies of singers. Tier blames a general trend of using directors from outside the opera sphere in productions. This leads to a lessened understanding of singing technique and the physical work required. Music psychologist Magdalena Zabanoff tells me that many decision-makers are no longer in the position to make decisive assessments of artistic and vocal criteria. The result is that casting decisions are relegated to a lower lever: “It is no longer the voice that is judged, but the visible, the physical.”“It is no longer the voice that is judged, but the visible, the physical.” The current state of body shaming in opera—and what many in the industry are doing to fight back. Click To Tweet
In a 2014 interview with Stephen Sackur on the BBC’s ”HARDtalk,” the soprano Jessye Norman suggested that bad costume design was equally to blame. There is often a lack of knowledge about how to favorably dress different body types. Sevana Salmasi (who studied fashion design alongside singing) also sees a problem here: Often, she says, the concept or the entire costume is ready before casting. The case of Deborah Voigt and the black dress is a prominent example of an issue that is prevalent, as Friedrich confirms: “If the costume designer is dreaming of Audrey Hepburn and didn’t have the measurements sent over or didn’t check any photographs, and then wants to put a highly dramatic soprano into a Jackie Kennedy outfit, then that won’t go well.” That appearances trump the voice and well-being with some costume designers is an issue mezzo-soprano Ulrike Malotta (who has on multiple occasions received criticism for being “too thin and unfeminine”) also talks about. After asking that a corset not be made too tight so that she could breathe, she was told, “Darling, do you really think people care how you sing? The main thing is that you look great!”
Casting director Boris Ignatov of the Stuttgart Opera explains things differently: “Over 60 percent of my casting job involves filling existing productions with new people.” He needs to keep an eye on the budget. “You don’t necessarily want to splurge on the costume department because of a new costume. That’s a situation where I unfortunately have to bite the bullet.” He is hesitant when asked if casting is also dependent on dress size: “Sometimes yes, sometimes no. It depends on what the priorities are.” The competition in the market is enormous, and so many singers want the job. “You also have to keep that in mind,” Ignatov says, and advises singers to maintain a “Teflon” coating—that is, a thick skin. He leaves me with one last comment at the end of our conversation: “You can’t let a negative comment get to you. Otherwise you won’t get anywhere in this business.”
Singers need a thick skin, but they are not allowed to be thick themselves. They should be able to make music sensitively, but have a hard shell for the tough market. Sarah Funk shares her concerns: “What I dislike is this [response of] ‘Don’t take it personally!’ You are a person, and the soul, voice, and body belong together. I’d rather not be an opera singer than have to separate that.” Zabanoff also advises affected singers to free themselves of victimhood and tells me about a useful mantra: “It is not me who is wrong. It is the house, the orchestra, or this director who does not fit my profile.”
Universities, opera houses and ensembles, and the media need a culture of conversation in which experiences with body shaming and criticism can be shared with respect and without fear. In many areas, there is still concern about putting one’s career at a disadvantage. It remains a “taboo topic, which is discussed behind closed doors with trusted confidants,” Derya Atakan tells me. Salmasi sees it the same way: “It is still off the record, but that will come.”
The body is the singer’s instrument. And when the body is questioned, so is the voice. Sarah Funk has learned from her experiences and now works as a self-love coach. With Malotta, she started a podcast called “Sorry, the Fat Lady Sings.” The two women talk about body shaming and other taboo issues in the opera industry. They see themselves as fighters for a better working environment in the business. Funk says, “If a singer truly feels free, then they can deliver a much more honest performance. And then people might truly be touched.” ¶