I’ve just had my costume fitting for Don Giovanni here at Vlaamse Opera, and it’s good news – I’ve lost weight. I’m thinner than they were expecting me to be, and that’s always good for the ego. Yay for me!
Problem is, they must have been working from some seriously outdated measurements. I know for a fact that I am heavier now than I have been in the past 2 years. Admittedly, that is still considerably lighter than I was for most of my twenties and thirties, but still, it makes this morning’s costume fitting something of a Pyrrhic victory.
In my heart (over-strained as it was for many years) I have always been a Barichunk. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, this is much like a Barihunk, just fatter. For a Barichunk, abs are something that other people have, instead of beer bellies. If I was wanting to pick a fight, I would say that we’re generally much better singers too, but that would be disingenuous. Some of my best friends are Barihunks. Honestly.
The weight issue is a thorny one in the world of opera. It’s something that is frequently spoken of in hushed tones, but about which nobody actually wants to go on record. Calling a singer fat to their face is akin to calling your mother Hitler, singers tending, as they do, to be a little bit touchy about such things.
But we can’t get away from the fact that, for the average Joe, an opera singer is either a hefty soprano wearing a horned helmet, or a big Italian bruiser with a beard and a handkerchief. These days, that’s a bit of unfair reputation. Most singers now are pretty good about watching their weight. None of us are ever going to be size zero catwalk models, but equally, with every passing year, there are fewer and fewer operatic Heffalumps torturing the boards.
The reason for this is simple. We live in the visual age.
Unlike literature, where so much is left up to the imagination of the reader, all our modern entertainments are visually based. In television, movies, and even computer games, the looks of the characters have all been pre-determined for us. This had been going on for so long that we now accept the ridiculous. Think about it – pretty much every leading man on television is almost comedically perfect. Seriously, does your doctor look like George Clooney or Patrick Dempsey? Do lawyers really look like Gabriel Macht? And be honest now, does your ad-man dad actually look anything like Jon Hamm? Even Hannibal Lecter has been upgraded from scary Welshman to Scandinavian hottie.
And that’s just the men. There’s no need to go into what modern media has done to the female image. Airbrushing, retouching, and even surgery, are so commonplace that nobody bats an eyelid at the clearly fake and unrealistically perfect people plastered all over magazine covers and television screens. And, now, thanks to Game of Thrones, I’m even starting to believe that every medieval woman had a smoking hot body and a Brazilian. Of all television’s modern stars, only Girls creator Lena Dunham is genuinely flying the flag for normal-bodied folk.
Over the last 25 years, this phenomenon has wormed its way into the world of opera. Ideally, it shouldn’t matter a jot what a singer looks like. Nobody would criticise a javelin thrower for their looks. Who cares, as long as they throw the projectile further than the next person? How ridiculous would it be to criticise a snooker player for his looks? All we want is to see them make a maximum break. We accept Wayne Rooney as a great footballer, despite his somewhat, er, elusive charm, don’t we?
The big difference is that with these examples, we’re not really watching the sportsperson, we’re watching their skill. That’s a pretty tough thing to observe in an opera singer. In fact, the very best singers look as if they’re barely exerting themselves at all to produce that wonderful sound. It’s the lack of obvious skill that is admirable. It’s only natural then that when the people attending opera nowadays can’t see the skill, they will want something pretty to look at instead, therefore it’s becoming more and more important for singers to look as good as they can.
Nonetheless, I cringe when I hear people talking about this or that singer being hot or sexy. I’d much rather hear people admiring their singing and artistry, but I have to accept the fact that as many people now turn up just to see Jonas Kaufmann as to listen to him. (And do, please, give yourself a treat – shut your eyes and have a listen. It’s glorious.)
As much as I dislike this trend, I have to accept it. The simple fact is that opera has to embrace this visual culture in order to survive. People who can sit at home, grazing on their couch as they admire beautiful people on the idiot box, are no longer going to settle for opera singers who look like the gable-end of a house. Directors are placing ever more pressure on casting departments to find singers who “look the part”. This is much tougher than it sounds, because they still have to find someone who can actually sing the role, and who is both available and affordable.
My last two jobs have been Wotan (“leader of the Gods”), and Balstrode (“a retired merchant skipper”). I would venture that the ideal look for both those roles differs considerably from what one might reasonably expect of a Don Giovanni. Nobody really knows what Don Giovanni should ideally look like – Mozart and Da Ponte only gave us the brief description of “a licentious, young nobleman” to go by, rather inconveniently missing out “a bit like that hot, blond vampire from True Blood”.
However you cut it, though, I’m sure Don Giovanni needs to be a little more svelte than Wotan, and considerably lighter on his feet than Balstrode, so it’s back on the wagon, and the rabbit food, for me.