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Jennifer Rivera Headshot

Shouldn't You Be Skinnier? (and Other Opera Singer Rubbish)

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Okay, I admit it, I only seem to find time to blog when something really gets under my skin. And right now, my fingers are a burnin' while my post pregnancy muffin top is spilling over. I'm a bit late to the game -- I've been out of the loop for a day or so and missed the initial hullabaloo involving a young mezzo singing Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier at Glyndebourne and her negative reviews, which had nothing to do with her singing and everything to do with her physique. The thing that really gets to me about the reviews is that all of them, almost grudgingly, admit that she sang the extraordinarily difficult role beautifully. And yet the bulk of their criticism is reserved for her body type. And she's not even playing some sexy 16-year-old ingenue -- she's playing a teenage boy!

There are so many issues going on here, I'm not sure where to start. First there's the whole craziness about opera singers and their bodies. We are on the precipice of something really dangerous right now as we try to balance the entertainment industry ideal with the olympic challenge of opera singing. On the one hand, we singers are hired as part of the entertainment industry, and therefore are expected to be the "whole package" in order to sell the product. However, what we do as opera singers is quite singular. The physical force needed to produce unamplified singing to large numbers of people is unique and has a very different physical requirement than any other performing art form. It also requires a certain natural talent that cannot be trained into a person who isn't born with it. Therefore, expecting every single person to "look like" the character they are portraying will leave out certain, very special voices that in other eras, when weight and appearance were less of an issue, were considered some of the greatest voices of their generations.

Some people would argue that this is just the way things are now, and that people who want to succeed in this art form should just do the work it takes to remain in excellent shape as part of the requirement of being a performer. It's what actors and actresses in both television and theater do, so why shouldn't opera singers be expected to do the same? Let's put aside for the moment the conversation about whether getting too skinny or too muscular affects the operatic singing apparatus, because there seems to be some argument about what is factual in this regard. I personally think it absolutely depends on many factors including your natural body type, your voice type, the repertoire you sing, and your gender. I believe that because women sing in a range that is so far from their speaking range (as opposed to men, whose vocal range is much closer to their speech range), and because we have all those funky baby making parts in our middles, weight loss or gain and muscular definition actually affects our singing more drastically than it does men. However, this is my totally unscientific observation based on friends, colleagues, and my own baby machine -- I mean, body.

Let's also just forget for a moment that opera is merely telling stories about individuals who could potentially be any shape or size. Very rarely is the libretto specific about the height and/ or weight of a character. But here's something that has always baffled me about all the entertainment industries; Fat people actually fall in love. Short men and tall women fall in love with each other. People of all shapes and sizes come together on this earth and DO ALL THE THINGS. So why are we so obsessed with only portraying the tiniest portion of the population doing ANY OF THE THINGS? In opera, of all the ways of presenting a story, it should get the least attention since there are just so many other elements coming into play.

And then there's the whole elephant in the room; the objectification of women and their bodies. Yes, men are certainly shamed and criticized for their looks, but somehow the expectations and resulting language of ridicule for women cuts deeper. A slightly "doughy" man is rarely cause for comment in a review, and yet so many of the reviews found it necessary to hone in on this one aspect of this mezzo's physique, even while she was portraying a man. Upon reading some of those reviews, I almost got the feeling that the reviewers were mad that their lesbian opera fantasies weren't getting them adequately excited or something. I only say this because it just seemed so crazy to me that someone who tackled that role in what seems to be a mutually agreed upon musical success would be described in such offensive language.

It's insanely difficult and stressful to be an opera singer, especially one at a high enough level to warrant multiple reviews in international publications. The requirements are fierce and taxing. It's also very difficult and stressful to be a woman in a modern world, saddled with unrealistic expectations of both beauty and womanhood, trying to juggle basically unattainable standards of physicality with career success and -- gasp -- even potentially with motherhood. Having some greasy little booger sitting behind a computer screen and complaining that we're too "stocky" is just too much. I'm sorry, it is.

Yes, it is our responsibility as performers to keep ourselves in some semblance of health and to be able to move and act according to our requirements. But expecting opera singers to look like models is simply another erroneous attempt to make opera more appealing to the masses. Opera is not meant to appeal to the "masses." It's meant to appeal to people who appreciate the most superior qualities of the human voice. Calling a perfectly beautiful and well-shaped woman fat turns what we do into little more than a wet t-shirt contest.