October 28, 2005Times 2Why the fat ladies singWarwick ThompsonSinging predisposes the body to put on weight, research suggests
The idea of fat sopranos — and let’s not be sexist, fat tenors as well — has been causing mirth for years. Where else but in opera could you find an athletic young warrior portrayed by a man whose love-handles flew south long ago? Or see a delicate geisha who looks as if she does sumo wrestling?
But the time for joking may be over. Peter Osin, a consultant at the Royal Marsden Hospital in London and long-time opera fan, suggests that opera singers put their waistlines, and possibly even their health, at risk every time they fill their lungs. It’s all due to a substance called leptin, one of the “main suspects” in the development of human obesity. According to his research published in the American Journal of Physiology, alveolar (lung) cells have a unique ability to release hormone-like substances, including leptin, in response to mechanical stress. Dr Osin’s hypothesis links this evidence to the lung stress caused by singing. “It is likely that the physiological mechanism responsible for weight gain is ‘built in’ to the act of singing,” he says. “The intriguing question is: why aren’t all singers fat?”
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One possible answer is because some of them are genetically lucky, and less susceptible to hormonal influences. Another is that some of them work like the clappers to keep trim. They have to, because the issue isn’t only one of biology, as Dr Osin acknowledges. Singers also lead notoriously itinerant lives chequered with long stretches of hotel-room loneliness. They face the constant temptations of comfort eating and big after-show dinners. The sensible ones diet, exercise and devise eating strategies to keep their weight stable. And they do it in the face of a biological imperative which tells them to be fat.
The response of one singer questioned about this double bind was fascinating. Well known and newly slim, she recalled previous gibes from critics, and politely declined to comment. It was an insight into just how sensitive a topic this is for the singing profession.
Then I put Dr Osin’s ideas to John Treleaven, the clarion-voiced Cornish heldentenor who’s just been singing Siegfried at the Royal Opera. He’s lost 26 kg (almost five stone) since I first saw him singing another Wagner role in Nice a few years ago, and looks terrific. “My God, this is dangerous!” he explodes. “It’s an excuse for us all to get fat!” Had he slimmed down because of pressure from directors? “No, not directly,” he says. “But I realised I needed to keep myself marketable. The things that were acceptable visually in opera 25 years ago aren’t any more.”
He says he lost the weight by following a Weight Watchers’ programme “illegally” and exercising in the gym at least twice a week. It’s a regime he still maintains. Is it worth it? “Undoubtedly. I’ve got so much more energy and, I think, more voice as well. I used to be totally kaput the day after singing the role of Siegfried, and now I’m not. I feel I’m in touch with my physical being in a much better way.”
I begin to understand that it’s a topic singers frequently discuss among themselves. It was another singer who tipped him off about Weight Watchers, for example. Yet another, the dramatic soprano Deborah Polaski, gave him the name of a tasty low-fat salad dressing. And since he’s lost his excess baggage, other performers have been begging him for advice.
Treleaven says he didn’t face any external pressure to lose weight, but then he’s a heldentenor. He’s one of a rare breed. Sopranos aren’t so lucky. Just think of Deborah Voigt. Her name was splashed all over the world’s press when she was dropped from a production of Strauss’s Ariadne at the Royal Opera for being too large. And Rachael Tovey, a performer who has just received a Best Singer nomination in the influential German opera magazine Opernwelt, was told by Coburg Opera that she was too large to sing Senta in Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman. (She’s since lost 23 kg, and Coburg has expressed interest again.)
Is it fair that we demand a beautiful sound from singers and expect them to overcome the biological cost as well? Some singers bravely defy the straitjacket of svelteness. The large and gorgeous-sounding soprano Christine Brewer has gone on record to defend her size and to fight the trend to impose slimness on singers. Others take a more practical view. “Four years ago I would have said no, the situation isn’t fair,” says Jacqueline Bremar, a soprano who is also Rachael Tovey’s teacher. “But now I’m not sure. Yes, there’s a problem with the influence of TV and film. People expect more realism in opera, and they want to see a consumptive Mimì and a vulnerable Butterfly. That’s tough. But on the other hand singers also owe it to themselves to be healthy.”
So the battle with biology goes on. But if Dr Osin’s hypothesis is correct, it’s not just a personal battle but an occupational hazzard for the whole singing profession. Perhaps it’s time opera houses stopped punishing fat singers, and started finding ways to support them in their fight to control their weight. This is one debate that certainly ain’t over.
It’s not over: the fat lady slims
When the American soprano Deborah Voigt was relieved of her contract at Covent Garden because of her shape she decided it was the final straw.
In the month when Voigt would have been performing in London she instead underwent a gastric bypass. Since then she has lost 7st (45 kg), going from a size 30 to a size 14.
Result? “I’m going to show the audience something they haven’t seen — a more compelling and believable approach,” she said this year. “And I’m doing more Toscas than I ever thought I would.”