Low note for divas

Times Staff Writer

You know it's really over when the fat lady ain't allowed to sing.

The news that the Royal Opera at Covent Garden in London was dropping soprano Deborah Voigt from her long-standing commitment to perform in Strauss' "Ariadne auf Naxos" because she was too large to suit the costume was greeted with an appropriate amount of shock by the opera community. In the days following the announcement, the decision was called appalling, unbelievable and dangerous by music critics here and in Britain.

Voigt is widely considered one of the top sopranos in the world. Ariadne is her signature role. That she would be bounced because she doesn't "look the part" is considered by many in the opera world proof that image has become far too great a consideration in an art form that for centuries prided itself on transcending the more literal conventions of other theatrical enterprise by placing the quality of voice above all else.

For others, it was a low blow against a beloved cultural icon. As the gap between what women are supposed to look like -- 3-D hip bones, abs suitable for framing -- and what they actually look like spreads more quickly than the national obesity rate, there was comfort to be found in the mythic opera star, she of the well-rounded contours and Viking helmet.

From Willa Cather to Looney Tunes, the popular image of the diva is inevitably large-bosomed and double-chinned, swathed in velvet and furs, trailing admirers and denuded boxes of bonbons on her way from triumphant performance to a sumptuous 10-course meal under a five-tiered chandelier. She is the last vestige of a time when beauty was defined by plenty, by opulence, by luscious overabundance. Of talent and attitude and wondrous flesh.

Opera star is also one of the few female job descriptions among the performing arts that did not require a dress size preceded by a decimal point. All you needed was the voice -- the transformation of a middle-aged, plus-sized woman into a young consumptive through the sheer beauty of her voice was part of the magic of opera.

More than that, the opera star embodied the artist who was beyond the mundane social conventions -- "diva" has long been shorthand for any talented woman, or man, who lived life large, who threw tantrums and crockery, who brooked no criticism, who did as she pleased and did not care what anyone thought.

In reacting to her dismissal, Voigt lived up to her archetype -- "I have big hips," she shrugged. "Covent Garden has a problem with them."

But she did mention that she planned to get back on track with a diet and her personal trainer. A diva with a personal trainer? Say it ain't so.

"Are you kidding? We talk about that all the time," says Suzanna Guzman, a Los Angeles mezzo-soprano who has sung all over the world. "Atkins is huge, and every package [from opera companies] now includes a gym membership."


The Hollywood influence

It didn't used to be that way. For generations, conventional wisdom in the opera world was: Lose the weight, lose the voice. Anyone with a job that involves a lot of travel is at risk for unhealthy eating, and singers, who don't dare eat for hours before a performance, often find themselves downing dinner at 11 and then going right to bed.

Maria Callas transformed the image of the opera star in the early 1950s by dropping a ton of weight and throwing herself into the acting portion of a soprano's role. She became a celebrity well beyond the confines of the opera world. All to the detriment, many felt, of her voice. But as opera companies have struggled to replace their aging audiences, the directors have had to cater a bit more to people who, raised on television and film, are used to seeing actors who look the part. If Franco Zeffirelli could cast a comely 16-year-old to play Juliet, so could an opera company.

"It is definitely a Hollywood influence," says Guzman. "Opera has become far more visual -- in Baz Luhrmann's 'La Boheme,' all the actors were lovely, but at some point you want to hear someone who can actually sing the music."

Now, she says, the focus is on soprano Renee Fleming making Blackwell's Best Dressed list or baritone Rodney Gilfrey's six-pack stomach in "Billy Budd." "Even Denyce Graves, who is the Halle Berry of opera, just lost a chunk of weigh so she would look better in music videos."

Guzman, who is tall and slender, says that concern over diet has replaced the infamous hypochondria that has plagued singers. And she cannot believe what people will say to some of her heavier colleagues. "These women, these beautiful women with these amazing voices, and people will just come up to them and say, 'When are you going to lose some weight?' "

Opera watchers say that, in general, singers are smaller than they once were. Some of this is simply increased awareness of the health problems associated with obesity -- many opera singers are going low-carb along with the rest of Americans. But much of it is in answer to increased pressure from opera companies.

"It varies from opera house to opera house," says Andrea Anson, who has been Voigt's manager for 14 years and is vice president of Columbia Artists Management in New York. "Munich and Covent Garden are more aesthetic-conscious than other houses, but in general we are seeing production directors whose main focus is appearance."

Youth and beauty are now as in demand in the opera world as they are in the movies, but just because a performer looks like Salome doesn't mean she can sing like Salome.

"It is very difficult for people who are young and put in roles before they're ready," says Anson. "We are seeing it all the time now. They are straining like crazy, and you hear the results. Beautiful voices take time to cultivate, years. And the nerve to always be better, that comes with maturity."

Guzman says she has seen many young singers burn out because they are cast in roles that they may be physically suited for but for which they are neither emotionally nor musically prepared. And, she adds, "there is nothing worse than a gorgeous actress who just can't hit the notes."

"People keep saying we don't have the big stars we once did," she says. "And I wonder if this is why. I wonder if Debbie [Voigt] isn't among the last big opera stars."

In the last 10 years, Anson has had to have many conversations with clients and potential clients about weight and appearance. "Twenty years ago, this was not a topic," he says. Voigt, he adds, has always been aware of her weight, which has fluctuated over the years. But still, he was shocked at the Royal Opera's decision.

"Debbie is an A-plus talent," he says. "There are very, very few singers in her category. If she was even just an A singer, I would expect this to be a problem, but when you have a talent like this...."


Transcendent beauty

Since it began, opera has fueled a debate over priorities: Does music come first, or production? As so many areas of the fine arts struggle for patronage, opera has been relatively successful in capturing a new audience, in part because of the shift toward aesthetics. "The times are over that we can close our eyes to modern images and expectations of the audience," says Edgar Baitzel, artistic director of Los Angeles Opera. "In Los Angeles, we don't have a traditional opera audience; we have the biggest overlap of those who go to movies and the opera."

Baitzel says he is very upset over how the Voigt situation was handled. When the Covent Garden production of "Ariadne," which revolves around a very lithe and sexy Ariadne, debuted a year ago, he says, the company knew Voigt was scheduled to play in the revival and should have considered that when designing the show. "A singer of her talent does not need these sort of headlines. I wish we could get her to sing Ariadne."

But he says he and his colleagues have had to be aware of a more visually demanding audience, using lights, staging, makeup and costumes in an imaginative way should the performer be much older, or larger, than the character might seem.

"What counts in our profession is voice," he says. "You don't want to know the ages of [some singers]. But our profession is about talent, and you want to barter with that carefully."

For opera lovers, the experience is inevitably about transcendence, about surrendering reality to the glory of the music. But even for those who are not opera fans, there is strength to be found in an art form where talent aces youth and beauty. The diva is adored because she doesn't fit the conventional standards of glamour or sexiness, but instead of shrinking into a corner, she jumps up on the table and defines beauty through art rather than the other way around.

"Opera was a refuge for me," says Guzman. "Where else could a brown-skinned girl from East Los Angeles go up on stage in a role that calls for a blond and have people say you've got the part because you have the voice."

For centuries, the ideal female form was one that overflowed -- from the goddess figures of the Fertile Crescent to Rubens' nudes, a fleshy woman boded well for whatever society she represented. Here there was wealth, here there was plenty, and she could hit the high notes.

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