It isn't and shouldn't be over for fat lady who sings

Opera singer fired because of her size releases new CD

MusicColumn

April 13, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Any singer, wrote legendary - and shapely - soprano Geraldine Farrar, "must bear in mind that the world of opera is one of illusion, of fantasy, of exaggeration - and that it is hard to nurse poetic and fantastical illusions, no matter how fine the voice, when the eye is oppressed by the sight of some 300 pounds of human avoirdupois."

As much as I revere Farrar (via her vintage recordings), I think her reasoning was a little off. But her views won't go away. No doubt, if she were around today, Farrar would have weighed in heavily on the side of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, which generated international headlines last month by dismissing Deborah Voigt from its production of Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos this June.

Voigt's offense? Her physique. Turns out the company didn't want a fat lady to sing in this particular production, which called for the Ariadne to wear a modern-day, black evening dress. The director was worried that Voigt just wouldn't cut the right figure in it.

For her part, the soprano, widely acknowledged as the reigning Ariadne for quite a few years now, has maintained her cool, enjoying the unexpected publicity and getting some well-timed revenge in the form of a just-released CD from the EMI label, Deborah Voigt: Obsessions. This collection of arias and scenes from Wagner and Strauss operas includes 5 1/2 minutes of gloriously sung music from Ariadne auf Naxos. I sure hope they'll be selling copies in the Royal Opera's gift shop in June.

Arguments, pro and con, have been raging ever since word of Voigt's firing emerged. I certainly understand why some people prefer height-and-weight-proportionate singers in opera. Time was when folks on an opera stage rarely gave a thought to action, let alone actual acting; they could enter, stand and bellow, and exit to their heart's content, without concern for anything going on around them. Their size wasn't really much of an issue.

But when it becomes an issue, it tends to involve women, even though a lot of fat men have been at it, too. I never heard any serious complaints about Luciano Pavarotti's weight in an opera, for example, until he developed physical problems that severely limited his ability to get around onstage. So what we're really dealing with are sexist, as well as weight-ist, attitudes.

What we should be dealing with are vocal qualities - tone, technical security, etc. - and the ability to make the most artistically out of those qualities. On that score, Voigt ranks awfully high today.

Just aim the laser beam at any track on the new CD, and you'll get a demonstration. In addition to that Ariadne aria, she does sumptuous work in excerpts from the same composer's Elektra, Die Frau ohne Schatten and Salome. Her Wagner, too, is a feast for the ears. (Some of the selections are just snippets, and Richard Armstrong's conducting of the Bavarian Radio Symphony isn't always inspired, but those are minor quibbles.)

Although Voigt may not erase memories of other sopranos who have brought vocal richness and interpretive insight to this material, this recording reaffirms what many an opera fan already knows - this is one terrific talent. If I were a Royal Opera-goer, I'd gladly accept a whole mess of fabric in lieu of a slinky evening gown if that I meant I could hear her sing Ariadne. I would have made the same sort of argument back when the less-than-sylph-like soprano Montserrat Caballe was in her prime, spinning out those incomparably heavenly sounds.

It's not just an aural thing. Many of the larger singers out there have hardly skimped on characterization or movement. Voigt is a very strong case in point, an inevitably engaging presence onstage.

I agree that opera, as Farrar pointed out, is about illusion. She and a lot of stage directors have interpreted that to mean only singers who fit certain physical standards can aid in the illusion. But for me, a thrilling voice that can get to the heart of the music provides all the illusion I need to make the singer become the character. The size of the body never leaves as big an impression on me as the size of the voice and communicative skill behind it.

No production concept should outweigh the music. Voigt may have been shut out of the Royal Opera - temporarily, I'm sure - but, as evidenced by her Obsessions, she's going to have the last note.

New BSO conductor

Andrew Constantine will become the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's new assistant conductor in September. He succeeds Lara Webber, who started out as assistant conductor four years ago and later became associate conductor for the BSO.

Constantine, born in England of Russian descent, will be primarily responsible for educational and community outreach concerts. He will lead the orchestra in the outdoor performances at Oregon Ridge during the summer season, and also serve as the orchestral equivalent of understudy for music director Yuri Temirkanov during the regular subscription season.

While doing his studies in St. Petersburg, Russia, Constantine often heard Temirkanov conduct. He later worked with BSO concertmaster Jonathan Carney on several occasions when the two lived in London.

Constantine's conducting teachers include Simon Rattle and Leonard Bernstein. He won the first Donatella Flick/Accademia Italiana Conducting Competition in 1991 and has conducted throughout Europe.

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