Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The (no longer) fat lady sings

A couple of years ago there was one of those rare kerfuffles in the classical music world that made it into the general news for a moment or two. The Royal Opera House at Covent Garden informed soprano Deborah Voigt that she was not wanted for a contracted engagement to sing the lead in Richard Strauss's opera "Ariadne auf Naxos." The reason. It was one of those updated director-centric productions in modern dress, and Ariadne was expected to wear a chic little black cocktail dress, and Ms. Voight was, not to put too fine a point on it, too fat to look credible. Everybody acknowledged that she had the pipes; she is one of the best in our times in the "heavier" dramatic soprano repertoire of Wagner, Strauss, et. al. But she just wouldn't be able to look the part of the sleek temptress the director had in mind.

Well, people wrote op-eds and took sides as to whether this was invidious discrimination or understandable artistic integrity on the Royal Opera's part. Ms. Voigt herself said little beyond expressing disappointment. But afterward, largely for health reasons, she decided to slim down with a serious diet and exercise program.

And earlier this month, she sang Ariadne at Covent Garden -- in the same production, in that little black dress, or something like it. It's a nice coda to the story. Critics loved it.

The NYT story notes: "Some opera buffs and critics detect a slight loss of warmth in her sound. Others counter that her voice has gained brightness and shimmer. It's natural for voices to change colorings as a singer matures, though most tend to become darker and weightier over time. Ms. Voigt admits that the process of adjusting to a different-size 'resonating chamber,' as she put it, took longer than she anticipated."

There are opera buffs who think fairly seriously that only overweight sopranos can negotiate the demands of the heftier dramatic roles in Wagner, and even some Verdi, that you just need that heft to have a darker tone in the higher ranges. I hope Deborah Voigt proves them wrong.

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