8.18.2011

Returning to the Stage

Weight and opera singers is a connection that has been around about as long as opera has. We are all familiar with the whole "fat lady singing" thing, and the stereotypical opera soprano who is quite rotund and wearing the helmet with the horns. There is a famous (infamous?) review of two well-known singers in the 50s or 60s that stated "it was like watching two refrigerators make love on stage." In truth, the days of the overweight soprano have ended. I'm not saying that all opera sopranos are model-thin, not at all, but it is no longer common to see women weighing upwards of 250 pounds on the major stages. To this end, there is now an insurgence of negative weight loss issues rising in the opera world, but that's another blog for another time.
Part of the reason for thinner singers is the rise of media like movies and television. The public sees beautiful women in leading roles on their screens, and they have developed a certain expectation for the same in live theater as well. The "suspension of disbelief," which is key to many factors in live theater, can only be taken so far. One "joke" about opera I've read says something like... it's an art form where the audience is forced to believe a woman who weighs 300 pounds and has been singing for 4 hours is dying of consumption.
Another part of it is sheer vocal and personal health. In the days of significantly overweight opera singers, air travel was not as easy as it is now. Singers would be contracted by a house (opera company) for extended periods. Nowadays, it is not uncommon for a singer to fly in, sing a weekend of performances, fly to another city during the week to rehearse a different show or sing an audition or simply see their family, and they fly somewhere else come the weekend again. All that air travel takes a toll on your physical and vocal being, and you simply have to take care of yourself.
I'm trained as an opera singer, and it is something I enjoy doing although various factors have made it a very secondary focus in my career goals. I'm happy to do regional singing, and this weekend I'm returning to the stage (for lack of a better phrase) singing some scenes with a fledgling opera company. The last time I sang opera on stage, I weighed about 40 or 50 pounds more than I do now, and I was in considerably worse cardiovascular shape. The rehearsal and performance schedule for this weekend's performances is a bit taxing -- we are cramming quite a lot into a very, very short period of time. But I have noticed a few things that I credit to the weight loss for me.
I have much more self-confidence on stage. Now I was never one to be really shy on stage; my very first role at the age of 19 or 20 I was required to do a complete costume change on stage while singing, and even sang a duet wearing nothing but my skivvies and a slip. You just do it. But there would be those moments where I would be a little self-conscious about my shape, my roundness, the excess weight. Now the added confidence I have in everyday life translates to the stage as well.
This is particularly true in one of my scenes which is a love duet. I will digress for a moment and say how nice it is to work with professionals as opposed to some academic situations; pros can step in and do an intimate scene without weirdness where as when you are still in school sometimes it is harder to separate the actions of your characters from real life. This weekend the love duet I am doing is with a wonderful tenor who is very comfortable in romantic scenes and has no qualms about being physical. And now that I am slimmer (not slim, but slimmer) I am more comfortable in the scene, and the scene is more believable.
There is one downside to the weight loss, though. I've lost some of my padding! I've always enjoyed physical scenes -- scenes with combat or other specific physical actions. I'm particularly good at stage fainting. During my Masters, I actually had a director ask me to make my faint less real, because I was scaring him in that I was actually fainting and not acting. One scene this weekend ends with me fainting (how operatic, no?) and after three or four faints I'm nursing a rather deep bruise on my hip.
However, I will take a few bruises over the 75+ pounds I've lost to date!

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