The days of the fat opera singer are waning. Opera has become an increasingly visual medium, because of the influence of television and film, and directors want singers to look the part, not just sing it. They now demand more physical prowess from performers -- a swordfight should resemble a swordfight, not a couple of guys vaguely lunging at each other.
But singers who have jumped on the treadmill have discovered something else -- being fit makes them better singers. It’s why mezzo-soprano Milena Kitic is in the basement gym of her expansive Pasadena home gearing up for an intense hour-long workout with her trainer.
Kitic, who has sung with the Los Angeles Opera, Opera Pacific and the Washington National Opera, has learned that being in shape makes her better able to handle the rigors of performing and touring. She embodies the new generation of fitness-minded opera singers who understand that good health and their careers are inexorably intertwined.
A former competitive gymnast as a child in her native Yugoslavia, 38-year-old Kitic has always been active, regularly incorporating some kind of exercise into her routine, even if it was doing aerobics and stretching in a small hotel room.
She stepped up her training almost three years ago, when a friend gave her some sessions with Pasadena-based trainer Ulli Matsuura. Since then, the two have been working out several times a week, taking breaks when Kitic has to tour or travel.
Although fitness has always been part of her life, the renewed focus on strength and endurance has made a difference in her performances. “If I’m in good physical shape and my endurance is good, then I don’t need to work extra for my voice to stay in proper position,” she says. “I can sing, move as much as I like, and still look nonchalant about it, not out of breath and sweating.”
She’s not the only one who’s noticed the difference. While performing “Carmen” in Los Angeles last year, Kitic says, tenor Richard Leech, playing the role of Don Jose, remarked that pulling and tossing her around the stage wasn’t that easy. “It was hard for him to do it because I would give resistance,” she says, laughing. “He said, ‘You must be working out!’ ”
Kitic will reprise “Carmen” when she makes her debut at the Metropolitan Opera next month. “If you’re playing Carmen,” she says, “you have to look the role as much as possible, and that helps you to bring that role out easier and helps the audience to accept you. The industry has changed. It’s become a whole different business nowadays.”
This became glaringly apparent last year when American soprano Deborah Voigt was unceremoniously dumped from the London Royal Opera House production of “Ariadne auf Naxos” because her abundant physique wouldn’t fit into the black evening dress designed for her character. It was then that the world caught a glimpse of this major shift in the opera world: With a few notable exceptions, there is little tolerance for obesity -- especially among women.
No longer do singers and audiences believe that big sounds have to come from big people. Excessive weight can actually impair not only a singer’s ability to move onstage, but also proper phrasing, which requires breath control.
When speaking to students, Kitic explains why staying in shape is paramount for professional singers. “Whatever health issues they might have will slow them down because this job is strenuous,” she says. “You travel a lot, you have time changes and climate changes and stress, and those can really knock you down. The final product is gorgeous, but the preparation period is really, really hard.”
Performing isn’t the only demand on Kitic’s time. She’s also the wife of pharmaceutical executive and former Yugoslavian prime minister Milan Panic, and mother of a 4-year-old son she calls “Little Milan.” The couple have another house in Newport Beach (there’s a gym there too) and travel and entertain extensively. Kitic says she tries to stick to a healthy diet that includes fish, salad and whole grains, but never denies herself an occasional treat of the good stuff like bacon and cheese.
On a recent day, Matsuura puts her client through an hour-long circuit training workout designed to tone Kitic’s muscles and keep her heart rate elevated. A few minutes on the treadmill and some warmup stretches are followed by a combination of free weights and weight machine work (low weight and high reps), lunges, abdominals (some on a stability ball), leg lifts and a few yoga poses for good measure.
Matsuura changes the routine to stave off boredom, sometimes upping the cardio (there’s also a stair climber and stationary bikes in the gym) or taking the workout outside. Kitic hits the gym by herself on days when Matsuura’s not there, but cuts back on rigorous exercise on days when she’s performing or engaged in long rehearsals, preferring some stretching instead.
Kitic mops her face between sets and pulls her shoulder-length blond hair up into a clip. Black stretch pants and tank top accentuate a figure that is trim and strong. She seems used to the rigorous training and never whines or begs off an exercise.
Young singers seem to be living healthier lifestyles, says William Vendice, the L.A. Opera’s chorus master. Even chorus members are “into improving their health, and a lot of them tell me they go to the gym,” he says. “When I see people eating, it’s not often the candy bars and Cokes, but salads and other good things. You see a lot of people ... taking care of themselves.”
It’s usually the old-guard coaches and singers who caution younger singers against strenuous exercise, especially weight lifting, believing it expends too much energy and creates tension in the neck and shoulders, in turn creating tension in the voice.
Although sensible weight lifting is regarded as safe for singers, some techniques are better than others. Holding the breath while lifting heavy weights may eventually strain the voice, says Ingo Titze, executive director of the National Center for Voice and Speech, a division of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. Breathing through the exercise -- and not grunting -- can help avoid that.
He adds that the principles learned in working out also apply to singing: “You learn how to pace yourself and how much recovery you need.”
Bruce Schoonmaker, music professor and opera director at Furman University in South Carolina, did an informal survey of 32 professional singers and teachers about six years ago and found that 81% favored aerobic exercise for singers, and 41% advocated weight lifting. Schoonmaker, a singer himself, exercises regularly and believes in fitness for singers.
“As a performer you transfer energy to the audience, but you have to feel like you have the energy to transfer,” he says. Singers should find an activity that works for them, be it swimming or biking, instead of sticking to one prescribed routine, he says.
Young singers appreciate her candor, says Kitic, when she discusses the reality of the business and the importance of exercise. “I don’t think everybody talks about it,” she says. “Then they ask me questions, like do I think I got this role because I’m blond or because I look good, and that makes me laugh. Even if that happened, I wouldn’t know about it.... Of course, I always hope it’s because of my voice.”