The Opera Stereotype

November 15, 2007

We’ve all seen the stereotypical opera singer portrayed in cartoons, comic strips, and skits as a man or woman in Wagnerian costume with Viking-style horns protruding from their metallic headgear. And always, of course, they are people of very generous proportions.

The stereotype may endure, but it appears this image may be changing in our health-conscious society. The singer who enjoys better cardiovascular health may not only be in better condition in terms of breath support and vocal endurance, but may also be better able to handle long rehearsals and closely coordinated movements on-stage.

The Boston Globe recently featured an article on Noah Van Niel, a Harvard University student who possesses two talents rarely seen together football player and opera singer. Van Niel feels there is a strong correlation between his twin pursuits: “It’s rehearsing a set of skills and then going out and performing. There’s pressure and there’s an audience and there’s nerves#149;” Just as in choral or opera performance, athletics require quick thinking, teamwork, perseverance, and nerve control. However, there are additional musical benefits from playing sports that beyond developing discipline and team-building skills. There is the dividend of being in top-notch physical condition which could help the musician perform at peak levels on a consistent basis over a long period.

An interesting article at www.theregister.co.uk is titled with the question “Why are Opera Singers Fat?” The author suggests some intriguing answers, including the theory that fatty tissue around the larynx increases resonance, leading opera producers to seek out larger singers for dramatic effect, and that singers gain weight due to increased appetite resulting from lung exertion. The end of the article, however, points out exceptions to the notion of the heavy opera singer, noting legendary tenor Jose Carreras is a man of average height and build.

It makes perfect sense to encourage students to take care of their bodies as well as their singing voices in order to help them maximize their musical abilities. The renowned cellist Janos Starker of the prestigious Indiana University School of Music (my alma mater), is a regular swimmer and has encouraged his students to swim as well. I believe that we may be seeing more singers in the future who are following Starker’s lead and working to stay in excellent physical condition, which could eventually erase the image of the rotund operatic singer for good.

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