Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Numbers

Specifically, numbers on artist contracts.

These numbers aren't the ones you'd expect to see. You're probably thinking dollar signs. Or perhaps dates. Not so. These are the numbers you see when you step on the bathroom scale.

It's not a new phenomenon at all, but I wonder if its prevalence is on the rise. First you fight for/audition for a role, and prove that you can sing (and act) the #*&% out of it. You are offered a contract, but with a catch. In order to retain the gig, you have to weigh in. And if you can't hit and sustain the goal, you might just be out of work.

Athletes are no strangers to this. Actors (I would guess, especially those on the big screen) are probably completely used to it. And this isn't exactly news to opera singers. But even though the opera business is getting more and more fixated on physically attractive singers, I still have trouble wrapping my mind around (virtually) stepping on a scale before you're allowed onstage. Debby Voigt's little black dress notwithstanding.

Mind you, the recent conversations I've had on this topic do not concern obese people. This is about getting down to a fighting weight that can stand the scrutiny of a camera. It's about trying to make opera singers competitive visually with the rest of the celebrity circuit. And it's terribly confusing.

As someone who's fought with her own scale for over 4 decades (my first diet was at age nine), I'm just glad I'm not on that side of the footlights. Yes, singers should be fit and healthy, and excess weight does no one any good. But it's so odd to quantify it as a stipulation of employment in a different way than any other factor. (Does anyone make you sing the high C the minute you arrive, before they decide if you're allowed to keep working?) Then again, are there so many good singers that it doesn't matter if we siphon off the percentage that don't look like movie stars? (No comments, please; I don't really believe this. But it's worth stating it out loud.)

I love it when sheer vocal talent and prodigious musicianship line up perfectly with a body type that fits the character. In opera, as in life, what I want is for everyone is to occupy a physical space that doesn't impede their goals. But I've seen lots of women who aren't size 6 who are fit and comfortable enough in their bodies to be agile, versatile, and sexy onstage. And some of them are so riveting that it is we, the audience, who would have been poorer had they not been allowed to perform.

No answers here, just observations and open-ended questions. Discuss amongst yourselves.

10 comments:

Cindy said...

Kim, thanks for these observations. As a working singer who's had a career as a fat person, I've been one of the lucky ones. My Fach accommodates a variety of body types. But I've also been limited to motherly roles. Now that I've lost well over 100 pounds and am still losing, I am about to face my first audition season in many years as a non-plus-size singer, and it will be interesting to see what, if any, different reaction I get.

What I find sad is that these extremely narrow Hollywood standards of airbrushed perfection as beauty increasingly finding their way onto the opera stage. We need to think carefully about what this says about art in general. Fashions come and go, but how shallow, how limiting to be fixated primarily on looks (and a narrowly defined standard of beauty at that) in an art form dedicated to passion, sound, drama, humanity. Humanity comes in all shapes, sizes, and colors. Fat people fall in love and have passionate, fulfilling sex lives. So do ugly people. Beautiful is nice to look at, but it does not automatically equal virtue or talent and it's not necessarily the most interesting thing, either. I think that those of us who love and respect opera as an art form should defend it from homogenization and plasticization. Vive le differance!

Anonymous said...

Have there been any tests regarding the legality of this?

Anonymous said...

Let's face facts. We live in a very image conscious world. Instead of whining about the weight issue-forget dieting-hit the gym like the rest of us. I'd kill to have a voice that opera singers have-and if it only meant working out all the time to stay toned...I would do that! Don't whine and cry...get MOVING! And sing!

Katherine said...

Kim, should we take this literally to mean that the singers are literally made to step on a scale upon arriving at Wolf Trap, or just if it looks like they have put on considerable weight since they sang for you last?

Kim said...

I was more incoherent than I thought in my original post...

Wolf Trap doesn't do this - I was reporting on recent discussions I've had with singers about engagement in other houses. Generally high-profile international-level houses.

Cindy said...

I'm curious as to why the second anonymous commenter would characterize criticism of image consciousness (or maybe I should say over-consciousness ... most people want to look nice!) as "whining" and "crying". There's a big difference between complaining and criticism. Also, please don't assume that fat people don't exercise or watch what they eat, or that all they have to do is work out all the time to lose weight. Weight loss is complicated physical and psychological issue. It has taken me many years to find the right combination of factors that work for me, and some people try all their lives and never find it. This does not make them lazy or undisciplined or somehow unworthy of a career.

Anonymous said...

Recently, I recently met the manager/producer of an opera company. I asked what is required to be an opera star/diva. He said, and I quote, "Today they want it all. They want the voice and the look. The days of just the voice are over. And the competition is fierce."

So there you have it, Cindy. It may be unfair, but it's the way it is. You can either change your weight or you can attempt to change society-good luck on both. This is the world we live in-accept it-and move on.

The only way-without neurotic dieting-or painful and difficult bariatric surgery- to lose weight-and keep it off- is to increase physical activity in conjuction with lower caloric intake. That's a biological fact. No one said it was easy, I think the discipline of opera is quite difficult, too.

Once again- no excuses-work out and sing like a bird-and how lucky you are to have been blessed with that. Do you even realize that???

Still wishing to be lucky enough to have a voice like a nightingale -if all it took was daily trips to the gym. I'd be there 6 days a week and singing my lungs out.

Cindy said...

Anon, there are so many issues with what you've written that I don't know where to begin. Let's just say that I don't think you've really responded to my arguments and that you've made an awful lot of baseless assumptions. Since I'm not sure whether Kim invites this kind of argument on her blog, I have chosen to respond on my own blog, www.thenext100pounds.com.

Kim, I hope this is appropriate, and if not, my apologies.

bellalyrica said...

I was toggling between the young artist application and this post when I noticed that, in order to apply as a young artist, I will need to disclose my height and weight.

Doesn't this provide an outlet for discrimination against a young singer before they've had an opportunity to even sing? I'm now reconsidering even applying, if what will stand in my way is a number.

Kim said...

In response to bellalyrica:

If you desire, you may bypass the height and weight fields in our online application. Feel free to leave them blank. Some singers have chosen to do so in the past.

We have never used those figures to discriminate, and we have cast singers of all sizes and shapes. We typically only turn to the height/weight information after artists are engaged - as a way of providing basic stats to our costume designers and directors before we are able to obtain detailed measurement sheets.