A while back, I taught a Music Appreciation class to a few High Schoolers. I worked up from the Medieval Era all year, waiting with bated breath for the Romantic Operatic Era, my favorite, to come along. Finally, it did, and I was so excited. I put together a program all about it, complete with snippets of music, laboriously corrected librettos, composer information and more. But my students, unsurprisingly, didn’t seem to share my enthusiasm. They were a great class, but were quite prejudiced against anything over 50 years old. As I began to explain the differences between fachs, I noticed one student who was giving me the most bored and exasperated expression. I asked him what was troubling him, and he told me that he couldn’t understand how I could make such a fuss over overweight, ugly, pompous Europeans.
I could almost imagine Maria Callas laughing in coloratura at him.
This is definitely one of the shallowest images of opera society likes to put forward, and one I had wrongly assumed was universally known to be ridiculous. We’ve all seen the caricature: The enormous woman dressed in an equally enormous and gaudy viking costume shrieking histrionically from the stage while everyone hides under their seats from the destructive sound waves.
When my student told me his belief on the subject of opera singers, I must confess that after a small pause, I burst out laughing. Quite loudly. The whole class was befuddled. I informed them that the next day, I would cure them of this belief once and for all. And that evening, I easily put together a little collage of the world famous opera singers who showed this stereotype up for the myth that it is…
Their faces were priceless. With all of the “Whoa!” and “What??” reactions, I’m fairly sure a few of them would have been interested in purchasing Jonas Kaufmann and Elīna Garanča posters for their wall, had I been offering them for sale.
This was also an excellent opportunity to correct their ridiculously shallow “fat = ugly” mindset. Because even the more full-sized opera singers are every bit as gorgeous as their thinner coworkers. See Montserrat Caballé and Luciano Pavarotti on the right for reference.
But there’s always a story behind a stereotype, right? So where did it come from? Indeed, the famous helmet and braids have ground in reality. Many Wagnerian productions in the 19th and early 20th century used these as a visual cue to let the audience know “They’re vikings. See, they have helmets”. Nowadays, however, the stage directors have ditched the gimmicky outfits and use costumes which tend more toward the serious nature of the operas.
There is also definite truth in opera singers often being on the bigger side. Many singers, especially in the spinto and dramatic fachs must have bit of girth to support the enormous sound they produce. Remember, opera doesn’t use microphones. Like, ever. And when’s the last time you heard someone Kristin Chenoweth’s size hit a full voiced, fortissimo C6 over a 90 piece orchestra, with no mic in a building that seats 3,000 people ? Probably never. So while plenty might poke fun at the “tubby” soprano playing a dainty ingenue, it’s the soprano who’ll have the last laugh as she basks in the flowers, money and love flung at her by an adoring public.
Opera fans, while highly judgmental in other areas, have to be one of the least judgmental crowds when it comes to physical appearance. They don’t care if you are fat, skinny, black, white, Asian, pretty, or ugly. If you sing well, you are their one true god.
However, as witnessed by the pictures above, being drop dead gorgeous probably helps…