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  • Sam Darling

Opera and body image

Opera can change the way you see women.

Screenshot 2015-02-12 10.23.21

A before and after of Deborah Voigt.

When you first plunge into the world of opera divas you can have a bit of a shock. Why? Because you didn’t realize how trained we are by media in western culture to expect tiny women on stage or screen until you see ones who aren’t tiny.

With all due respect to our naturally Audrey-Hepburnesque gamine women of slim proportions, they are the norm in our media images and we see them ninety percent of the time when we turn on our TV, flip through a magazine, or go to the movies.

What does “average size” even mean? Look at the brouhaha over Project Runway’s real life model challenge. The plus-size woman they used as a model on the show, and who endured the fat shaming, was an average US-size 14. So when confronted with the average or normal-sized woman on TV or a modeling runway, we view them as fat.

Compounding our expectation of thinness is the fact that many of the women in the public eye are unusually attractive and young-looking for their age.

True, today there is criticism in the opera world for putting pressure on divas to fit this model of slim, pretty, and young. Certainly it’s true that there is more pressure on them today than in the past. However, I think maybe people may miss a larger point (pun!). Take a look at that after image for Deborah Voigt again. Even after her massive weight loss and personal transformation, notice that she looks bigger even in the after image than the average movie or television star your eye is used to seeing.

And that’s the thing with opera. When you’ve worked so hard to achieve the kind of vocal and acting prowess these divas have, their look and size become a secondary consideration. Glamorous? Yes. Skinny? Not necessarily.

Bodily Charm: Living Opera (xiii). The authors consider how the performing body on the stage must continually negotiate the aural and visual expectations of the audience. Exploring this discrepancy of expectations, they note that “directors today are sometimes as likely to cast for body type as voice type in an attempt to bring the realism of television and film to the operatic stage” (137).”

I love that… the “realism of television and film.” Because all those tiny, beautiful, young-looking women represent reality. [*cough* bullshit *cough*]


[Demi Moore. Realistically representing the body of the average 47-year old mother of three.]

Mass media is guilty of this more often than theatre. In film and television, the importance of the singing voice is secondary to the visual attractiveness of the cast. Think of Moulin Rouge! or Phantom of the Opera (2004). There’s a reason why modern movie musicals never crack the top 100 list of all-time best musicals and it has nothing to do with the availability of talent in the world today.

So, a funny thing happens when you go to the opera. It is a shock to see “normal” women on stage. Your eye has to re-adjust and become re-accustomed to the variety of bodies and ages and beauty represented on the stage as you would in life. And they’re still glamorous and beautiful. And if you spend a lot of time immersed in this world, you may find that your own sense of self shifts, too.

Ladies, if you want your sense of self-worth to improve, put down the magazines and go spend some time with the opera divas. They are achieving extraordinary feats of talent through work and practice and chutzpah. Their physical body is an instrument, but it is not their sole worth or consideration.

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