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 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.
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).