Fat Ladies Singing

Deborah Voigt, pre-WLS, performing

Deborah Voigt, pre-WLS, performing

In the comments of a recent post on Shapely Prose, a few of us in the fat community mentioned that we were classically-trained singers. For those not in the know, a classically-trained singer typically sings opera or folk music and ballads.

An interesting thing about classically trained singers is that, for a significant span of time, fat people were quite present and sometimes dominated the scene, especially as what are called “Wagnerian sopranos.”

As you can see, there are faces of all sizes in this crowd, but the average is decidedly fat, even in the modern-era sopranos. It should be noted that Deborah Voigt, the last soprano on the list, got WLS after being fired off one show by a fat-phobic director for not fitting into a dress. The director decided to replace the filler of the dress, rather than letting the dress out, or switching to a more reasonable period dress. Voigt then caved to insecurity and concern trolls and butchered her healthy organs in a three-hour weight Voigt, post-WLS, in the controversial "little black dress"loss surgery procedure. She lost 100 pounds afterwards and was rehired by the company that had fired her for being too fat. Her fans have cheered the results of her barbaric surgery, and she’s working more now than ever, though I’m fairly certain her voice and talent haven’t improved because she now can fit into some particularly-shaped bits of cloth.

But she’s not the only one on that list who was plagued with problems based on her weight. Want to guess which is the next one? If you scanned through and picked out the other modern soprano of the fatphobic era we all currently “enjoy,” you’d be correct. Jane Eaglen has also been badly characterized and passed over because of her weight in favor of thinner, less capable singers. Unlike Voigt, however, Eaglen refuses to apologize for or mutilate herself because of her weight:

Eaglen doesn’t fit the stereotype of a reigning superstar. In this age of marketable singing actresses who pride themselves on being nimble and trim, the thirty-eight-year-old Eaglen is a throwback to an earlier age of Wagner sopranos, resplendently zaftig and virtually immobile onstage. She acts with her voice, not her body. And she’s proud of her appearance, making no apologies for her weight, arguing that as long as she’s healthy, it’s no one else’s concern. If a director won’t work with her because of her size, she says, that’s his problem, not hers. Such candor and defiance are refreshing, if controversial.

Additionally, I highly recommend this article, which is surprising fat-positive, and textually sneers at shallow producers and directors who are trying to turn opera into yet another plastic veneery low art form. The article was written as an angry (yet classy) response to what happened to Deborah Voigt.

Jane Eaglen, performing

Jane Eaglen, performing

These stories hit close to home for me. Growing up, I always had an extraordinarily powerful voice. My grandmother and grandfather sang semi-professionally during the post-WWII years before they had children, as a way to make a little extra money. My grandfather was English — a broad, tall man with power — and my grandmother was German, a petite, yet broad-framed woman whose voice could knock your socks off. My Italian grandfather on the other side of my family had perfect pitch and was an extraordinarily tall, broad-framed man.

Those qualities all came together in me. I inherited large lungs, a large frame, a voice that could knock your socks off, and perfect pitch.

For a while, it was obvious that I was going to do something with singing, as a career, that is. But I kept losing leads to more petite, prettier, wispier voiced bodies. Frustrated, I concluded that the world of performance was inherently fatphobic and began turning my attention to other pursuits.

Only recently has my voice changed yet again (one’s voice changes constantly, and in a good way if you maintain it, until well past 50). I’m singing parts I could never quite handle right before. My voice is so powerful that my neighbors can hear me singing even when all the doors and windows in my house are closed (and my house is well-insulated!). My perfect pitch means I can practice without accompaniment…and I’ve begun to write music again, namely, operatic music.

Accepting a body that is widely unacceptable in a particular culture or society is one thing. Your main battle is with hate: banish hate and disgust, and you will be able to reach that place of acceptance.

However, my fat, tall, broad body allows me to produce uniquely beautiful music I would be unable to produce in a different body. Fat acceptance, for me, is not enough. I need to revel in my fat. Love my size. Appreciate it the way women today are told to appreciate a rock-hard stomach. It allows me to do things I wouldn’t be able to otherwise do. It adds to my abilities rather than, as we are taught to believe about large size, takes away from them.

Appreciating and loving your large size, especially in an age that would have you revile it, is, in my humble opinion, the hardest step of fat acceptance. But for many singers who have profiles similar to mine, part of what we can do is defined by that size (and I hate to say it, but WLS-induced bulimia cannot be good for one’s voice, ultimately).

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5 comments on “Fat Ladies Singing

  1. shinobi42 says:

    Yaay for other fat singers! I also have a pretty powerful voice, though, I really need more training (and I don’t have perfect pitch like you, LUCKY)

    I’ve been mostly not bothering to do anything with it because of 1. money and 2. no one wants to hire fat singers anymore, so why bother. But y’know, if I somehow find another 200 bucks a month for voice lessons, it’s totally on.

  2. bigliberty says:

    Lol, I was definitely lucky to get perfect pitch…thanks, Grandpa! 😉

    I would go for the voice lessons, but you can learn a bit on your own, too, until you can afford the lessons. What’s your voice part, and what songs have you worked on? I might be able to suggest some things for you to work on if you’re a soprano, in the interim.

    About the no one wants fat singers anymore, I must say that the reactions I read to Voigt say otherwise. The opera community was generally horrified that she was bullied then capitulated to lose weight. Most opera professionals know particular kinds of bodies are suited to particular parts, and they abhor the move in *some* areas of opera towards the Hollywood look. The fact is, you can’t fake opera. You can’t fake a voice. Lots of people can act to the degree the average B+ movie requires, so it’s easy for Hollywood to pick only the thin ones — but singing the classics is an entirely different ball of wax. The composers didn’t compose for the look of their singer — they composed for the completion of their musical vision, and singers had to live up to that or plain fail.

    When it comes down to it, these fat discrimination stories in opera get high billing, but opera is still regularly employing fat singers, regardless, because when it comes down to it, you can’t fake a voice.

  3. Charlotte says:

    Yay for fat vocalists! I studied music in college, and my main area of study was voice. I mainly sang classical and opera. I’m a soprano, although in one of the ensembles I was in, I sang alto (yay for having a big range!). Thankfully, I never encounted any type of size discrimination while I was at school; I think people paid more attention to the size of my voice (Big!) than the size of my body.

    The Wagnerian soprano thing makes think of something that happened in one of my voice lessons; my teacher was trying to draw a bigger sound out of me on a particular song, so she said “pretend you’re a Wagnerian soprano!” So I pictured myself singing something from The Ring Cycle, and it worked! The rest of the day I went around calling myself a Wagnerian soprano. 🙂

  4. shinobi42 says:

    I knowthat opera is still pretty willing to accept singers of all sizes. But then there are places like the Chicago Opera Theater that pretty much explicitly state on their YAP stuff “hawt singers only plz” which is sad. (Obviously I don’t go see their shows.) And I do read some singer forums and they are not at ALL size positive, which is depressing. (goodbye sanity points!)

    My voice part is something that’s never been fully nailed down. The most qualified person who has heard me sing said I would probably end up as either a Dramatic Soprano or Contralto. (My last teacher had me singing Lyric Sop rep, uhm. Not really?) I pretty much need to start from scratch with building up repertoire because the few arias I do know are not that appropriate for my voice. I have a book of Handel songs and of basic italian soprano arias that I am working my way through just for something to do.

    I am also in the chorus of a production of G&S’s Utopia with a community group right now, which is fun. It’s nice to be singing.

  5. It’s true. You absolutely can’t fake a voice and honestly, a lot of the ‘young, nimble’ types we’ve seen appearing as principals in recent years have been making up for lesser voices with exceptional acting skills. Thing is, audiences aren’t there for the bloody acting. It’s a bonus but really —

    When you hear Kiri Te Kanawa or Susan Graham for real you can’t help but be moved. You see the world through the prism of their voices and that is one of the most beautiful things I can imagine. Damn sure I wouldn’t miss it for a dress size or two!

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