“Voice has become second to looks”: Fatphobia at the Opera

By | April 20, 2008

Last night I took my opa to see the Manitoba Opera’s production of La Traviata which translates loosely to something like “The fallen one,” referring at once to the protagonist Violetta’s courtisan past and losing battle with acute tuberculosis.

According to this article, opera execs/producers would also like the “fall” or decline to apply to the–specifically female–performers’ numbers on the scale.

(Can I just say how annoying it is that K. Prokosh feels the need to document her only drinking a glass of water? If I ever get famous I will do an interview where I dress up in some sort of victorian scuba gear (you know, with the the big giant fishbowl style helmets) and bring a bag full of crazy-ass food. throughout the interview I will pull out a whole ton of disparate “eats” like zoodles, celery, a zucchini, a thirty pound wheel of cheese, an entire baguette, several live parrots, turkey in a roasting pan etc etc out of the bag just to mess with the whole “this is what the interviewee is wearing/eating” trope of much body-policing and stupidity that is apparently now a prereq when you interview a woman in this patriarchal culture. Gag).

My opa–a lover of all things opera–is losing his eyesight (he has glaucoma & macular degeneration) so I pinched & scrimped & got together enough coin to get us amazing seats so that he could actually take in the performers. We were in the 4th row behind the orchestra pit, so close that I could see every sparkly bit of embroidery on the lavish costumes, the nuances of the performers’ facial expressions, actually hear their sharp intakes of breath.

Yali-Marie Williams, the fast-becoming world-class soprano who played Violetta, was FUCKING BREATHTAKING. The combination of her voice and stage presence actually caused my whole body to break out in goosebumps about a dozen times. While I do enjoy classical music/opera (often ambiantly while I’m cleaning house or you know, sitting down to a lavish ten course dinner with other like-minded uppercrust socialites like I like… a ha ha ha right, to the whole latter and “cleaning house” part of the former). I am definitely not one of its fierce and passionate champions. Believe me when I say that had we ever met in person Theodor Adorno and I would likely have come to blows over the snobbish classist tripe he wrote about popular music (as opposed to classical music)in his infamous screed “On Popular Music.” Believe me when I say that I didn’t expect to love and thoroughly enjoy La Traviata, but I did and it was completely owing to the talent of this exceptionally compelling and absolutely gorgeous Soprano whose ferocity had me completely smitten like a kitten after she belted out her first note. I actually only found this article because I was so taken with her that when I woke up this morning I commenced e-stalking her like mad googled her to learn more about her career & future engagements.

This woman is the sort of talent I get all starry-eyed and tongue-tied over. If I ever met her, I’d probably collapse into melty pile of groupie goo at her feet. She has MAD VOCAL CHOPS. I mean, christ she a won a competition that landed her a singing gig with opera legend Placido FUCKING Domingo fer cryin’ out loud. She studied performance at Julliard, and has a master’s in performance. She is a rapidly rising star with an ever increasing repertoire, lauded for her soul and impressive acting ability, and all Placido and much of the opera industry have to say to her in face of her impressive accomplishments is “lose some weight.” (I, on the other hand would probably alternate between “we’re not worthy” and “marry me” but then, this isn’t about me).

From where I was sitting (with my face practically on stage) I can tell you she is a 12/14 (not that her being either bigger or smaller than that size would make the unsolicited advice somehow permissible) at best, and while I would never expect a smaller singer to gain weight, I have to say that I couldn’t quite help but notice that her size (she’s also quite tall) is a part of her presence. To be sure, you can be a small person, with a large demeanor, but this woman just happens to be, as she states in the article I linked to, a larger person. When she isn’t stressed and is taking care of herself, this is the size her body wants to be. She is a self-identified “chubby” or “big” woman with a big fat commanding presence. She brought the whole fucking auditorium to their feet (yes HER performance specifically. Her particular curtain call is what prompted the standing o) and it fucking riles me to no end that she is being unceremoniously told by the out told that she has to change her body to keep practicing her art form, that she is having her body treated like the property of asshat directors and lazy marketeers.

“There are many things that can destroy you,” she says. “You get a lot of criticism. People believe because you are on stage they can tell you anything they want…”

Sad but true. Fuck you very much fatphobic patriarchy.

You would think that opera, which you know, has a whole fat valuing cliche seemingly built around it, would be beyond such a narrow-mind and body politic, but apparently not. From the article–which admittedly, had my journalistic integrity hackles up once the glass of water thing came up– I get the sense that while Williams is worried about her career (which she shouldn’t have to be… any person who would deny her a role would have to be a barkers douchehound) but that she also accepts her body, and has a lovely husband who values her for the fanfuckingtastic bombshell that she is.

“At auditions, they won’t even listen to me because I’m big. Nowadays it’s become that harsh. Can you imagine having that door closed in your face many times? … Have you noticed how many big people are singing at The Met? They’re not there… You have to become a big person to overcome [these obstacles]… I’m lucky* my husband loves me the way I am.”

I sincerely hope that she–and other women pursuing careers in opera–won’t put herself–or themselves– through dieting hell because there is absolutely nothing wrong with her/them or her/their body/bodies. You know, no one should go through dieting hell–which invariably damages your body and mind and, oh yeah, DOESN’T WORK– but I think it says something extra specially really fucking awful about the level of fatphobia and misogyny in the world when we feel to need to tell our fucking opera divas–women who we expect to be larger
than life, who we formerly praised for this virtue–that they need to reign themselves in and disappear (and not to mention compromise their health/ability to perform).

*It’s sad that society tells fat and and [insert any number of looksist descriptors here] people that we will be lucky to find someone who appreciates us as just as we are. Like it’s some sort of great and rare sacrifice on the part of (non-fat) others to actually find us attractive. I personally feel that Mr Yali-Marie Williams is at least equally–if not more–lucky to be with someone as talented and lovely as she is).

Comments are closed.