Opera lite: the weight debate rocks the concert halls

With audiences demanding more 'realism', a furious row about a soprano's build has reignited the debate over weighty singers in weighty roles.

For those of us who had hoped the size zero debate might be confined to fashion magazines, there is depressing news from Rome. The Italian capital's opera house was the setting for a fresh scandal this month, when the 52-year-old soprano Daniella Dessi admitted that she had recently stormed out of rehearsals for Verdi's La Traviata after the veteran director Franco Zeffirelli made one too many unkind comments about her weight.
Dessi was slated to play the role of Violetta, a young courtesan who dismisses her impoverished lover to save his reputation and then dies of consumption. Zeffirelli apparently lambasted Dessi for her age and body shape, commenting: "She is not exactly the kind of woman who is going to die of tuberculosis." Given that a woman who looks like she might have TB would not be up to singing the notoriously demanding role of Violetta, Dessi's annoyance is understandable. Not exactly hefty, Dessi is also considerably more slender than such greats as Jessye Norman and Montserrat Caballe, who married considerable girth with musical talent without ever causing a revolt among audiences.
But although the 86-year-old Zeffirelli's comments were no doubt snide, they partially reflect a recent change in opera. In today's opera houses, it is no longer acceptable for singers to stand rooted to the stage and just deliver the vocal goods. Contemporary audiences expect believable performances as well as musicianship - those who fail to convince are less likely to get away with it than in the past.
Re-branding themselves as "singing actors", stars such as the superb French soprano Natalie Dessay have revolutionised the operatic stage by treating stagecraft and characterisation with a seriousness usually restricted to straight thespians. This must surely be a good thing - the storylines and characters of operas are what bring their scores alive. If music alone were important, then producers might as well cut costs and perform operas un-staged in concert halls. While this current shift in emphasis is mainly about agile acting, finding singers who "look the part" is one aspect of a general yen for greater dramatic dynamism.
But therein lies a problem. Many important characters in opera are supposedly very young - too young to be matched with singers of the same age. The Siegfried of Wagner's Ring cycle arrives on stage as a rebellious teenager, while the original model for La Traviata's Violetta, the courtesan Marie Duplessis, died at the age of 23. While young singers' appearances might fit the roles better, they often simply don't have the vocal strength.
Opera singers' voices generally do not reach full maturity until their mid-30s, while Verdi's main roles are something people grow into even later. The role of Violetta, for example, is so gruelling that the American star Renee Fleming (who played the role to acclaim last year at the age of 50) once wondered wryly if Verdi perhaps hated sopranos. A young soprano singing such a role would be likely to start it sounding thin and reedy and end it being carried offstage on a stretcher.
But just because singers need a degree of maturity to tackle the big roles, does that mean it's unreasonable to expect them to look after themselves and keep reasonably slim? Perhaps not. While Dessi is not exactly large, the unwittingly comic sight of portly, puffing singers trying to pass themselves off onstage as gamine young striplings can unquestionably be off-putting to audiences. At the same time, losing weight can badly disrupt the most important aspect of any production - a singer's voice. When Maria Callas slimmed down in the mid-1950s to the statuesque, glamorous figure we know from her old publicity photos, many felt her voice suffered irreparable damage.
Without her weight to provide support, it is claimed, her voice started to strain and wobble. Other singers have lost weight with less damage - Deborah Voigt went as far as having gastric band surgery but is still in fine form vocally. Nonetheless, singers often have to change their techniques significantly to adapt to their new physiques. Given the potential perils of radical weight loss, it seems cruel to oblige singers like Dessi to starve themselves and hide their maturity when it is precisely that maturity that improves their singing of these roles. Those who find a middle-aged Violetta hard to accept can always close their eyes and seek out the character's passion and fire where it should properly be found - in her voice.

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