How Well Does the “Fat Lady” Sing?

Written by Violetta Lazin

Violetta Lazin, soprano, is a former student of the McCray Studio. Violetta lives in The Hague, Netherlands and is the co-founder and Artistic Director of ARTax Music.

January 8, 2020

or…Do I need to be fat to have a big voice and be a good opera singer?

It ain’t over until the fat lady sings or so goes the saying…and with it the generalization that all opera singers are fat or better yet: that in order to be a good opera singer you need to gain a lot of weight. This is NOT true.

But how about L.Pavarotti, M.Caballé, Jessey Norman, Joan Sutherland? I hear you give a simple answer: how about M. del Monaco, F. Corelli, L. Gencer, N. Ghiaurov just to name a few?

But let’s start from the beginning.

A bit of history

The myth that an opera singer needs to be large has some ground in history. As opera and instruments developed by 1800, opera became bigger, fancier – a larger than life affair. Opera houses and operatic composers wanted to ensure grandeur and some of this went with a theory that larger people produced larger sound and looked more impressive on stage.

Another theory was that having more fat tissue around your larynx ensured a more ear-pleasing sound, and it’s virtually impossible to have any fat around your larynx without having large amounts of fat everywhere else in your body. A theory that to this day has not been proven.

The medical explanation

Nowadays there are medically supported theories that singers are predisposed to put on weight because “exsertion in the lungs acts as a trigger for their appetite” due to “the mechanism of singing encourages the lung cells to release chemicals including leptin, a protein made by the body’s fat cells that is involved in the regulation of appetite” says Dr. Peter Osin of the Royal Marsden Hospital in London.

The loneliness of the job

Marilyn Horne once said, “Ours is a very lonely profession. Eating is company.” The more successful and popular you become, the further away from home you go, and of course, the more times you end up sleeping alone in a foreign hotel room. Busy rehearsal schedules and tours can get in the way of maintaining a regular schedule consisting of eating and exercising well.

Modern times have brought the extra pressure of more performances, of busier schedules, of the expectation to be perfect (like on a recording) on every performance because a failure to do so may be recorded on someones phone and made public for the world to see, which in turn most likely will negatively affect your future carrier. Stress is a powerful motivator for putting on weight without even wanting to do so.

There is also a belief that loosing to much weight, especially when done too fast, may very negatively affect your singing and your voice as well as a belief that working out might do the same.

However, the theory that all opera singers were and are fat simply doesn’t “hold water” when put to the test. For every sizable operatic singer you can name, I can match you with a few that were the very opposite. Many world stars from the golden age of opera to today were quite petite in size and the most were/are just normal size humans like you and me, who, throughout their lives, might or might not struggle to put on or lose a bit of weight.

Sizing up vocal power

One thing is for sure: vocal power comes from the projection of sound and proper vocal technique not the size of a person. Singing is a top sport in a way, so, good physical shape, stamina and proper rest do play a role in it. Exercise and staying in shape will NOT negatively affect your performance as long as you do it correctly and keep healthy objectives in mind. As long as a person is naturally thin and not anorexic – with proper vocal development one may obtain a powerful voice. Though you might like to know, small voices projected properly can have a very long “reach” as they can “carry” very far in a hall as well.

Final thoughts

Also, times are changing and not always for the better. The fact is that singes of the past could be fat because it was all about the voice. No one cared if Madama Butterfly was bursting out of her kimono as long as the singing was beautiful. Opera was a grand illusion – but not any more…. Even big operatic stars nowadays are ashamed of their body size and even fired form productions because their size is not appropriate to the stage director’s “artistic idea” or the critics in the newspapers. Televised broadcasts of operas that are supposed to popularize the genre with the younger generations are all about the visual experience but often at the cost of the vocal quality of it because singers really need to “look the part” and be able to act their way through the opera rather than being able to sing it.

Where will it all lead? We simply don’t know but one thing is for sure….it ain’t over… until the fat lady sings!

Notes:

[1] See here

Cover photo by Valentin Petkov

About the author: Violetta Lazin

About the author: Violetta Lazin

Soprano

Violetta Lazin, soprano, is a former student of the McCray Studio. Violetta lives in The Hague, Netherlands and is the co-founder and Artistic Director of ARTax Music.

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