Department of Theatre and Film
Weight, Loss, and Opera: Deborah Voigt and the Little Black Dress
On the stage, opera revels in excess; scenery soars to the sky, costumes glitter and shine, and the voices reach heights sometimes unimaginable for the human voice. In addition, some might argue that in opera body size, specifically female body size, thrives on excess as well. The oft-quoted phrase “It ain’t over ‘till the fat lady sings” conjures up the image of a heavy woman hitting high notes with strength, passion, and vitality, and it suggests that in opera fatness is accepted and perhaps even required. The sanctioned place for the ample opera diva calls into question dominant cultural ideals of femininity and female beauty. However, that might be changing, for in this last decade a large female opera performer lost almost half of her weight and transformed into a much more slender body. The case of Deborah Voigt, an American soprano born in 1960, recognized internationally because of her performances on the operatic stage, reveals that the opera star who loses weight, and thus takes up less space on the stage, complicates the idea of operatic excess and calls attention to the unrelenting and rising pressure to conform to ideal (that is, thin) female appearance. Observations about Voigt’s voice after her weight loss also show that perceptions of the female voice and body are inextricably linked. Because of the highly aural and visual nature of opera, one finds that both elements play a role in audience responses to the performances (of the voice and of the body) of female opera stars.
Linda Hutcheon and Michael Hutcheon explore “the physical dimensions of the art form—singers’ bodies, spectators’ bodies, but also dramatized representations of bodies” in their book Bodily Charm: Living Opera (xiii). The authors consider how the performing body on the stage must continually negotiate the aural and visual expectations of the audience. Exploring this discrepancy of expectations, they note that “directors today are sometimes as likely to cast for body type as voice type in an attempt to bring the realism of television and film to the operatic stage” (137). Turning to contemporary opera history, the Hutcheons consider perceptions of opera performers’ physical and vocal attributes. As in the case of mid-twentieth century soprano Maria Callas, audience opinions on not just the voice of the singer but the appearance prove widely varied and equally as passionate. According to Linda and Michael Hutcheon, after Callas’s highly public weight loss “public opinion was utterly polarized—and still is” (137). As the Hutcheons explain, some critics praised Callas’s new body and claimed she gained new power and freedom with her new figure. Others felt she lost power of voice and presence. The Hutcheons observe that “ears, it would seem, are amazingly subjective organs and are more connected to the eyes than we might think” (140). What is clear is that reception of the female opera voice is inextricably linked with the female opera body.
Though the aural and the visual are linked, audiences will usually find that one matters more. In a telling interview, John Simon, former long-time critic for New York Magazine who is this year retiring from the Bloomberg News, reveals: “The first qualification in women for me is that they should be lookable at. If they’re unsightly beyond belief, I don’t care if they sing with the tongues of angels” (Sheehy). Simon is less than tactful, but his statement sheds light on the perhaps surprising significance that conventional markers of female beauty have on (male) critics’ assessment of opera divas. More specifically for Simon, fatness is equated with a deficiency of femininity and female beauty. He states: “Huge fatness in a woman bespeaks the opposite of femininity” (Sheehy), further clarifying his view of female beauty. For a critic like Simon, femininity depends on the containment of flesh. Restricting the fleshy materiality of the female form leads to female beauty. Susan Bordo notes this cultural trend in her book Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body, and she points out the gradual change in ideal beauty to not just a thin body but a “solid” and “tightly managed” body that does not “wiggle” (191). With the directive to rid the body of any loose and “wiggly” flesh, a female opera singer, to reach the ideal of feminine beauty, must hem in her bodily limits; this places her in a double bind on the stage. First, she is expected to cultivate a taut, smooth body free of excess fat, but second, she is confined by tight, corseted, and elaborate costumes when on the stage. Twice as restricted, the female opera star’s voice must still reach and travel outwards to soar, to fill, and to go beyond the predetermined limits set for women in order to touch a whole theatre full of people; it is only through the immaterial voice that she may claim a space. Though visually and physically she is confined, the immateriality of the voice is required to fill space, for in opera it is the voice that lingers in the minds and hearts of the audience.
Writing in 2000, Linda and Michael Hutcheon observe that “Despite a society that values thinness almost to excess, opera culture today remains stubbornly recalcitrant” (144). Noting the careers of “stout” opera singers such as Jane Eaglen, Sharon Sweet, Alessandra Marc, Deborah Voigt, and Margaret Price, they propose that “The heavy singer’s body will likely not disappear from the opera stage, even in this culture of slimness, and the audience watching and listening may well continue to be caught between the allowances of operatic artifice and the demands of theatrical realism” (151). Their point is still largely valid at the moment of this publication. The list contains opera singers who are, by society’s standards, overweight. However, one of the listed examples no longer fits the description of a “stout singer.” Much like Maria Callas in the 1950s, after the 2004 debacle of the little black dress Deborah Voigt underwent a dramatic bodily transformation that stirred the opera world. No longer on the list of large singers bucking the ideals of female beauty, Voigt has made the journey from stereotypically large opera singer to svelte performer.
Voigt is one of opera’s foremost dramatic sopranos singing today. She has performed in a myriad of roles across the globe and recorded several albums for the public to enjoy. She is famous for several reasons, but especially for singing Strauss and Wagner roles. As Clyde T. McCants explains, Voigt “is the realization of the great Richard Strauss heroines and the long-awaited hope for the dramatic soprano roles in the operas of Wagner” (355). As an overweight person, Voigt’s figure had not prevented her from obtaining roles and rising to stardom. At her highest weight, she wore a dress size 28/30. Fans loved the ample beauty for her voice regardless of her size. But in 2004, a Royal Opera House director fired Voigt for the specific reason that she was too fat. Voigt had a contract with the Royal Opera House to play the role of Ariadne in Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos at Covent Garden. Director Christof Loy wanted her to wear a “sleek black cocktail dress” that he imagined as part of his directorial vision for the production. He decided to let Voigt go because he felt she could not tastefully wear the little black dress (Ginsberg).
Voigt decided to make a change. The decision was not entirely sparked by the Royal Opera House incident. As she explains, “I didn’t feel good. My knees were starting to hurt… I knew it would be only a matter of time before diabetic or hypertension problems” (Guardian). She underwent gastric bypass surgery, which limits stomach intake; with fewer calories absorbed and less food consumed, she lost over 150 pounds and went back to the stage. After her significant weight loss, in October of 2006, Voigt added the role of Salome to her extensive resume. This character, a very seductive young woman who tempts and tricks Herod with her smoldering sexuality, was important to Voigt because it showed she could embody an important marker of conventional female beauty: thinness. In 2008, the same opera house that let her go called back and offered her the role once of Ariadne once again. Voigt and her publicity team used the invitation as an opportunity to spoof the whole incident. They released a short video on YouTube entitled “Deborah Voigt: The Return of the Little Black Dress.” In this video, an actual little black dress floating on a hanger “knocks” on Voigt’s door and attempts to lure her back to the stage by apologizing about the way it acted. Laced with puns on weight, the dialogue pokes fun at the original incident as well as the decision for the company to ask her back now that she has slimmed down. Voigt has shown that she is a good sport about the whole thing, but the incident reveals an undeniable fact: the thin female body triumphs over the fat, even on what Linda and Michael Hutcheon once saw as the “seemingly recalcitrant” operatic stage.
Due to a significant change in body size, there is a difference in both Voigt’s experience of singing and in the public’s reception of her singing. She now deals with singing in a new and different body. Voigt has discussed the fact that her weight loss required adjustments relating to breathing and breath control when singing. She states, “I don’t think my voice has changed, but I am only hearing it from inside, so I can only speak about the sensation of singing. Every 20 lbs. I lost, I felt less rounded and less able to support the sound… At 150 lbs. heavier, you take a breath and those muscles are already engaged, you don’t have to think about it. Now, I have to think about it, about how things line up” (Guardian). Since the body houses the voice, a change in body will most likely impact the voice and alter the audience reception of that voice. First, Voigt starts with her experience of producing sound. From that point of entry, she gives the opinion that she felt a loss of breath support. This loss of support forced her to relearn how to sustain breath for singing. As she shrank, she continually reconfigured her inner and outer foci to create the desired sound from her new body. For Voigt, moving through life as a smaller being required a new perspective. The outer shell changed, as well as the inner content.
Voigt’s speculation on the new timbre of her voice again lets others in to her point of view of her singing. As she thinks about how her voice feels to her, she also thinks about how it looks: “In terms of the timbre, the size? I don’t think the size of my voice had changed. Maybe it’s a little brighter, more silvery rather than gold” (Guardian). Picturing her voice as a color, she offers that it has shifted from gold to silver. Voigt feels the size of her voice has not changed and suggests that the voice, far from intangible and ephemeral, can be conceived of in terms of quantifiable matter. However Voigt experiences and describes her new voice, experiences and descriptions of her new body will likely be close behind.
Moving to the audience reception of Voigt’s new voice, as mentioned before the eyes and ears can become inextricably linked for opera spectators. Audiences hear and see, and the resulting weight and size metaphors combine both senses. As audiences and critics visually take in her slimmer body, they cannot help but juxtapose this (visual) image with her (aural) voice. When commenting upon Maria Callas’s vocal performances after her significant weight loss, some critics declared her voice no longer possessed a “weight of tone” and claimed that it was “thinner” (Hutcheons 142). Her mother famously “lamented the loss of her ‘rich and round’ tones” (142). Likewise, critics used bodily metaphors to describe Voigt’s new voice. Critic Leon Dominguez, commenting on Voigt’s performance in the production of La Forza del Destino at the Metropolitan Opera in March of 2006 proposed that her “voice has shed some of its ‘fat’ (for lack of a better word), and while there’s still an abundance of richness and cream, it’s considerably more supple than before” (Dominguez). Audiences hear with both senses, and cannot help but conflate the aural and the visual in both the experience of the performance and in later descriptions of the performance.
Dominguez’s comments on audience reception of the voice expose the link between the visual and the aural. But his comments also expose a much more formidable take on the ideal female form. In the same review of Voigt’s 2006 performance, Dominguez argues that “by shedding her body’s excesses (via gastric bypass), she has become more exposed and vulnerable, more sensitive to the romantic sensibilities of women, and is therefore more game, both vocally and theatrically, to languish in the depths of the tragedy of a scorned lady (Dominguez). Dominguez evokes an image is of a slimmed-down voice as well as a slimmed-down body. He sees the new Voigt as more feminine, and therefore more exposed and sensitive. For him, Voigt’s former figure was excessive and thus unable to embody “the romantic sensibilities of women.” Proposing that thinness makes a woman, Dominguez assumes that excessive weight pushes a woman into a gender-less realm. Without sensitivity to “romantic sensibilities,” the overweight woman here is supposedly numb and unable to experience or even represent the tragedy of being a scorned woman. Conventional views of femininity suggest that as the borders of the body move inward, a woman moves closer to the ideal of female beauty. The female opera star is not just a voice but also a body that is required to support the dominant visions of the female form.
As Linda and Michael Hutcheon note, “With our ears accustomed to the technologically perfected voice, our expectations for actual live performances are raised beyond the humanly possible. Disappointment can result from comparing what we are used to hearing on recordings with what we actually hear in performance” (14). Can this be said of the visual element as well? Have audiences become so accustomed to the perfected images of women’s bodies on screens and in print advertisement that they expect that same perfection from women’s bodies onstage? Not long ago, the operatic stage was a space “stubbornly recalcitrant” to society’s demands for a thin body. But the case of Deborah Voigt and the little black dress proves that the space once sacred for the “fat lady” to sing continues to shrink before our very eyes.
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