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Sounding off on growing opera 'look-ism'
By Scott C. Morgan | Daily Herald Staff

Deborah Voigt


Nathan Gunn


Nicole Cabell plays Musetta in the Lyric Opera of Chicago's 'La Boheme'


Mariusz Kwiecien as the title seducer “Don Giovanni” for Seattle Opera in 2007.


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Published: 11/1/2007 2:47 PM

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Everyone knows the unflattering American catchphrase, "It ain't over 'til the fat lady sings."

But nowadays several overweight opera singers are nervously eyeing a rising crop who are garnering more publicity (and more importantly, more work) based upon their amazing looks and acting abilities in addition to their singing skills.

This season, Chicago hosts many prominent and rising opera stars who embody the debate in opera where purists insist that the voice matters above all else versus audiences who want singers who are sexy and can sing.

"People have always wanted you to look like your part," said Gianna Rolandi, a former opera singer and current director of the Lyric's Ryan Opera Center for young artists. While Rolandi says there have always been skinny opera singers who can act, she does feel that there is a greater emphasis on "look-ism" in opera nowadays.

That pressure is felt by many Ryan Opera Center fellows. Rolandi revealed that several are on Weight Watchers.

Some of the increased push for singers to act and look good can no doubt be tied to the proliferation of opera on TV, DVD and the Metropolitan Opera's live high-definition simulcasts in movie theaters, which literally make big-screen stars out of opera singers.

"There is no denying the influence of the mass media culture of today on opera, but I think it's naïve to think that the idea of 'glamour' is nothing new to opera," said mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, who starred as Rosina in a Met HD simulcast earlier this year of "The Barber of Seville."

"Look at all the old diva photos from the 1920s and '30s and you see many svelte, sexy ladies at the height of their powers."

What annoys DiDonato is the double standard where women in opera get more harshly judged than the men. Still, she notes a change with more of opera's men being pushed to be "buff and go shirtless at every possible moment." In fact, Argentine tenor Marcelo Alvarez was recently panned by Bloomberg critic James Arnott, who praised him for his vocal performance, but criticized his "expanding waistline."

Whenever the opera weight debate is brought up, Illinois native and dramatic soprano Deborah Voigt inevitably comes up. Voigt is famous for the media frenzy that broke when she revealed London's Royal Opera House fired her for being too large to play the title character in a 2004 revival of "Ariadne auf Naxos" -- despite the fact that Ariadne was a signature role that Voigt had previously triumphed in at many of the world's great opera houses.

Using the money the Royal Opera paid to buy out her contract, Voigt later had gastric bypass surgery, a fact she disclosed as a health measure in profiles in The New York Times and on "60 Minutes," even though it could have affected her singing voice. Since then a much slimmer Voigt went on to have artistic and personal triumphs, particularly when she starred as the teenage sexpot "Salome" last season at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Voigt, who stars this month in a new production of Strauss' "Die Frau ohne Schatten" ("The Woman Without a Shadow"), understandably declined to be interviewed yet again about this subject of appearances.

American baritone Nathan Gunn, who will star at the Lyric as "The Barber of Seville" in February, also declined to discuss the topic, despite being constantly cited as one of the hunkiest opera singers out there. In fact, New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini once quipped that Gunn, "if he were not a baritone, could be modeling underwear professionally."

For opera director Diane Paulus, having singers who are attractive and amazing actors helps to elevate opera into great theater.

"If there's any way to dispel the 'fat lady' myth of opera, it's important to do that because opera can then compete with other forms of entertainment that compete for our attention," Paulus said. "If there's any way that we're going to grab a new and a younger audience, it will be with people like Danielle [de Niese]."

Not that Paulus is demanding film star looks from singers or for baring opera star skin for skin's sake. If it's dramatically appropriate, like many of the seductresses de Niese typically plays, Paulus feels a singer's attractiveness can be a great theatrical tool.

The physical fitness of an opera singer is also increasingly more important nowadays.

"Someone actually said to me years ago that the days of 'parking and barking' are over," said Darren Stokes, an American Ryan Opera Center bass-baritone, who says stationary singers of old couldn't have done all the exhausting slithery moves he had to execute as Neptune in Paulus' production of "The Return of Ulysses" last season for Chicago Opera Theater.

Canadian-American tenor Joseph Kaiser (a Ryan Opera center alumnus who has been labeled on some opera fan sites as a "hunk-en-tenor") felt pressure about his figure when he was cast as Tamino in Kenneth Branagh's soon-to-be-released film version of Mozart's "The Magic Flute."

"They never pressured me to work out, but they did remind me that it's a movie and it's going to be around forever," Kaiser said, adding that he took steps to look the best he could. Still he doesn't want himself and other opera singers to constantly obsess about looking good.

"Essentially if you can be healthy about being healthy, that's the balance to find because there's a lot of unhealthy ways to be 'healthy,'" Kaiser said.

Maintaining appearances on a jet-setting opera career is difficult. Soprano Nicole Cabell, a Ryan Center alumna and the Lyric's current Musetta in "La Boheme," says she has to pack yoga and other exercise DVDs with her when she travels since there aren't as many guaranteed gyms in Europe as in the United States.

But for Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien, who stars in the title role of "Eugene Onegin" at the Lyric this season, all these questions about "look-ism" in opera got him quite perturbed.

"We look like what we look like!" Kwiecien said about opera singers, insisting he doesn't work out and that he's "not an extremely good looking guy," despite some opera fan Web sites that have labeled him a "bari-hunk."

"When I sing 'Don Giovanni' I sometimes have to take my clothing off," Kwiecien reasons about some fans' perceptions of him. "But I'd rather speak about singing because that's my job."

DiDonato both agrees and disagrees with Kwiecien.

"Let's not be naïve -- opera is sexy and we want that," DiDonato said. "But again, I will fight to my last note to make sure that we don't forget the vocal aspect, and this is something that I worry greatly about. Can't we have it all?"

Featured artists in these articles at the Lyric Opera of Chicago:

Nicole Cabell stars in "La Boheme," sung in Italian with English surtitles. 7:30 p.m. Nov. 9, 17, 21 and 23, 2 p.m. Nov. 14

Deborah Voight stars in "Die Frau Ohne Schatten (The Woman Without a Shadow)," sung in German with English surtitles. 6:30 p.m. Nov. 16, 20, 26 and 30 and Dec. 4, 8, 12 and 20; 2 p.m. Dec. 16

Joyce DiDonato and Nathan Gunn star in "The Barber of Seville," sung in Italianwith English surtitles. 7:30 p.m. Feb. 16,19, 22, 26 and 29 and March 3, 15, 19 and 22; 2 p.m. March 6, 9 and 12

Mariusz Kwiecien stars as "Eugene Onegin," sung in Russian with English surtitles. 7:30 p.m. March 17, 21 and 24; 2 p.m. March 27 and 30

Each opera at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Dr., Chicago. Phone for ticket availability for each of these operas.

Tickets run $31-$187. (312) 332-2244, ext. 5600, or

For Chicago Opera Theater:

Director Diane Paulus' "Don Giovanni" plays the Harris Theater for Music and Dance in Millennium Park, 205 E. Randolph Dr., Chicago. Sung in Italian with English surtitles. 7:30 p.m. April 30, May 3, 6 and 9; 3 p.m. May 11. Phone for ticket availability and prices. (312) 704-8414 or