When the fat lady sings

Why are opera singers fat? Or, rather, why is there such an enduring stereotype of fat opera singers?

I was in the audience at Orchestra Hall Saturday night for the Sommerfest finale, a concert performance (minus the stagecraft) of Verdi’s “Aida.” Not all the singers were fat. In fact, they displayed more or less the same range of body types you’d find among the general population: tall, short, slender, average, overweight. None of them looked obese.

Like a lot of myths, the one about fat opera singers is grounded at least partially in reality. Early forms of opera were relatively small-scale productions. By the 1800s, however, composers and opera houses wanted their work to be grand, with singers capable of really belting it out. The larger the singer, or so the theory went, the greater the lung capacity and breath support to enable a show-stopping performance that could be heard all the way back to the last row, especially in an era before sound systems and acoustically designed concert halls.

Dr. Stephen Juan, an anthropologist and advice-meister from Australia, explains some of the thinking behind this belief:

There are several theories attempting to explain why opera singers are often pleasingly plump. One holds that a large amount of fatty tissue surrounding the voice box (larynx) increases its resonance capability and thus produces a more pleasing sound. The amount of this fatty tissue varies from singer to singer. It is almost impossible to have a great deal of fatty tissue around the voice box without carrying a great deal of fatty tissue elsewhere on the body.

A second theory holds that opera singers need a far more powerful diaphragm than normal to be able to project their voice above the sound of a large orchestra in a large opera house. A large chest cavity and good control of the lungs will provide a suitable mass to help drive the diaphragm to some extent. A large body mass and a large body frame to support it help even more, so there is a huge advantage in being huge.

There doesn’t appear to be any scientific evidence to support any of these theories. One intriguing study, published in 2001 in the Journal of Voice, suggests that professional opera singers tend to develop a larger-than-average rib cage and hence might look fatter than they actually are.

Busy touring and rehearsal schedules also can wreak havoc with performers’ efforts to maintain a schedule that allows them to exercise and eat well.

These days, though, opera has gone on a diet. Opera companies – and audiences, for that matter – want singers who are svelte. Some singers have even been turned down for a role because they’re deemed too heavy, most famously in the case of Deborah Voigt, who ended up having bariatric surgery to help keep her career on track.

Here’s a singer who blogs about the challenge of keeping her weight down:

Even though I’m producing four operas, running an opera company, working a day job, performing, auditioning, trying to manage my weight, about to have a birthday, and trying to survive day to day, I’ve also been dealing with other outside factors that involve people I love and trying to help them with their struggles. I think I’m pretty much at my breaking point.

In other words, opera singers are up against many of the same difficulties that everyone else faces. Maybe it’s time for the old stereotypes to make their final curtain call.

Image from the U.S. Library of Congress