Amidst the increasing pressure on opera singers to cultivate an attractive physique, I propose that we vocal athletes regard our physical appearance in much the same way that other athletes do: it will be the natural result of our training. Swimmers, basketball players and gymnasts develop their physiques as a natural consequence of their sport; while they train movements, not aesthetics, the result is often very beautiful. If we cultivate strength, coordination, flexibility and stamina in the service of our art form, the likely result is that the grace and beauty of our singing will be reflected in our physical appearance. An exercise regimen that promotes optimum alignment, dynamic breath management, ease of movement and vocal stamina will usually have the happy side effect of aesthetic weight management and muscle tone.
That was my opinion when I wrote about fitness and singing in 2005, and I remain convinced that this is the healthiest approach a singer can take when considering their appearance.
However, in the years since soprano Deborah Voigt transformed herself after having been famously released from a Covent Garden contract over her appearance, the opera world has only become increasingly image-conscious.
HD screenings in movie theaters are attracting an ever-wider audience for our beloved art form. This can only be a good thing.
But that means that there is an ever-increasing number of film cameras pointed at our stages, and they aren't going to go away. Opera singers, you'd best get ready for your close up.
The truth of this has led to some serious growing pains for members of our community (no pun intended). There are two very important distinctions that most everyone seems to be missing.
Distinction #1: What you do to physically optimize your instrument is one thing; what you do to enhance your brand/image is something else.
I'm really looking forward to participating in tomorrow's panel on Keeping Fit & Staying Sane, but I always find it very difficult to get singers to focus on the topic of how fitness can improve their instruments. It immediately becomes conflated with how and whether they should alter their appearance to become more professionally competitive.
If you vigorously address yourself to physically improving your instrument in accordance with the recommendations in my previous post, it will likely have some pleasing side-effects for your appearance.
Whether or not you should alter your appearance is something I'll address in Distinction #2 below. Here I want to emphasize the difference between a diet and fitness regimen designed to optimize your instrument versus one that takes expedient aim at a visual result. You can create a very effective routine that enables you to pursue both goals simultaneously, but you must at all times prioritize what is best for your voice and assess your progress accordingly.
Difficult questions arise when you look at this from the opposite perspective. A student recently asked me, "Would losing weight be good for my instrument?"
I've been pondering the question since. In the absence of a meaningful study that addresses this, I'm about ready to conclude that it just isn't a useful question. If your doctor says you're at an unhealthy weight, then losing weight will be good for your instrument because it will be good for you, period.
Failing that, weight confers both advantages and disadvantages on the singer. As I discussed in a previous post, increased weight often provides significant assistance with breath management (you can of course develop good breath management skill at any weight, but you get a free boost when you're heavier). Disadvantages include lower overall VO2 max leading to decreased physical stamina, as well as greater effort needed to maintain good alignment and carry out stage movement as a consequence of just having more stuff to hold up and carry around.
But I can see no reason why a heavier singer could not optimize their instrument in accordance with the recommendations laid out in my previous post.
It's possible to be radiantly healthy and sing exquisitely well at any size. What you do to optimize your instrument is distinct from what you do to alter your appearance.
Distinction #2: The role that physical appearance plays in the careers of film, television and stage actors is one thing; the evolving role that physical appearance now plays in the careers of opera singers is something else.
Anyone in the biz can tell you that you need to “know your type” and play towards it, especially when you’re starting out. I know that my type is the big girl and I embrace that.
If you're a film, television, or stage actor, it's a given that your appearance is a big part of your overall package. You will be hired to embody characters that you closely resemble. Your age, height, weight, gender and overall look are all integral features of your brand. If you want to be a working actor, you need to know your type and treat it like the asset it is. Fortunately for actors, there is such breadth of storytelling and variety of work out there that whatever your type, you're likely to find productions that will have need of you, assuming that you're good at your job. With a few exceptions, you find your niche and you stick to it.
Opera singers simply do not have physical types and niches. You have fachs. Your vocal range and repertoire specialties determine what roles you will be hired for.
Once you've been hired for a role, it's the job of the production team to help you physically embody that role as closely as possible. Because composers rely on vocal quality rather than appearance to define things like age and gender, in opera we will always have women playing men and vice versa, as well as singers embodying characters that may be quite a bit older or younger than they are. We will have humans portraying ghosts, animals and monsters without benefit of CGI.
But with the cameras zooming in ever closer, that production team does want you to be as physically convincing as possible. Which means it's part of your job to be a blank slate that can be easily transformed to suit any appearance they design for you.
To be an opera singer, you do not have to look like a Hollywood star.
However, it would behoove you to become as fit and flexible as you can possibly manage.
If you're slim, they can make you look fat. If you are nimble, they can direct you to move as though you're ancient and arthritic. But the reverse is simply not the case.
There are rare exceptions. A portly bass who specializes in buffo roles makes the costume designer's job easier rather than more challenging. He's an opera singer with a niche. But the more innovative our directors and production designers become, the fewer physical archetypes you are likely to see appearing on the operatic stage.
Singers and opera lovers alike bemoan what seems to be an unfair prioritization on appearance over pure vocal majesty. Many still feel that singers should be appreciated and hired based solely on their artistry, with little regard for their appearance.
But just as Wagner's vision of opera as Gesamtkunstwerk forever transformed the way performances are staged and the advent of Verismo contributed brutal realism to the ways emotions and musical storytelling unfolds, the ubiquitous presence of film and television in our culture now wields a strong influence on the visual component of opera production.
Like it or not, it is now it's part of the opera singer's job to be fit and flexible, easily transformed to suit the production team's vision for your character. The voice is still paramount, but given a choice between two equally competent singers, the one who can be more easily transformed will get the job.
Yeah, it's frustrating.
Now allow that frustration to motivate you to see how a new fitness regimen can optimize your instrument, with the happy side effect of making you more fit, flexible, and marketable.