Most people are probably familiar with the quote in the title of this post.
However, it’s usually written “It ain’t over till the fat lady sings”. While metaphorically, it means, “don’t assume anything has ended till it’s actually ended…” (which I suppose is a pretty meaningless tautology), it’s rooted in the stereotype of an overweight opera singer, an often referenced image being from Wagner’s operas, particularly Brünhildes’s final tome that ends Götterdamerung (which itself completes Wagner’s four opera Ring Cycle).
Rosa Sucher, Bavarian soprano as Brünnhilde, in Berlin
Being an opera singer/scientist (specifically with a physiology background), I get asked the following questions A LOT*:
- Does being “fat” help you to be a better opera singer?
- Why are/were so many famous opera singers “fat”?
- Did Maria Callas’ voice ‘go south’ because she lost so much weight?
I’ve put “fat” in inverted commas, because currently, I think we have a messed up view of what “fat” is, what “healthy” means and far too often both of those terms are morally, socially and psychologically loaded, so “fat” will be in reference to an amount of adipose tissue (the fancy science word for “body fat” as opposed to say, muscular tissue), over a threshold, that can start to put one’s health at risk for diseases and physical complications.
Are we all OK with that definition? Good, then read on…
So that you’re not left in suspense, the simple answers to the questions above are:
- No. Nope, nyet, non, nein, no.
- Too many factors to arrive at a singular, simplistic answer and
- Probably not, no, though it makes great urban legend…
A specific amount of fat, in either direction, or rather one’s dress/suit size in and of itself has absolutely no benefit or detriment to the technique of classical/operatic singing, none, not a sausage. To be a technically proficient singer, you must first learn, among other techniques, to control the breath, most specifically exhalation and maintaining breath pressure during singing. Then you have the formation of pure vowel sounds followed by an endless checklist of skills around musicianship, stage craft, languages, movement etc..
Breathing is nothing to be sniffed at, it’s fundamentally the core of good of any good technique and requires a host of muscles working in virtuosic coordination, while letting other muscles (both involuntary and voluntary) remain ‘neutral’ (i.e. not get in the way of the muscles doing the work). It’s simultaneously simple and like patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time, in rhythm, and in Russian, or something.
Without going into a lengthy explanation of breathing technique, it boils (no pun intended) down to muscularly applying Boyles Law to breath control. From a muscular perspective, we’re primarily concerned with rapid engagement and disengagement of muscles of the torso, which requires both strength and balance. This “control” and subsequent flexibility, is what is referred to as “appoggio“, (from the Italian appoggiarsi a, ‘to lean upon’, this in itself is often misinterpreted in execution, but the fundamental principle is sound) which came into technical prominence during what’s called the Italianate school of Bel Canto.
While we are obviously breathing into our lungs when talking or singing, we are controlling the flow and pressure of those respiratory gasses muscularly. The use of these muscle groups can be helped or hindered by things as simple as posture and alignment, but it essentially is the thoracic and abdominal muscles which must (as we say in the biz) work like stink. The muscles we’d be most concerned with for singing (simplistically, in this instance), would be the obliques and the transverse abdominus (specifically that last puppy).
As you can see from the diagram (which also appears in one of the BEST books on physiology anyone could own, it was my undergrad bible), the transverse abdominis is three layers deep, this is NOT a superficial muscle that will get you an enviable six pack as seen on what are called Barihunks. Instead this muscle is key in both thoracic and pelvic stability, which for a singer will contribute to a feeling of expansion and a kind of groundedness minus a feeling of “pushing”. This muscle also needs to stay flexible to adapt to rapid intake of air while maintaining the established expansion for “support” (now you can see where the patting head/rubbing stomach comes in).
So how does your body size come into this equation? Well, it does and it doesn’t. Because the muscle you need the most is quite deep, you do need to be able to feel it working, if you are a larger person with a less-toned abdomen, that may not be as obvious, depending on how you’ve been taught to experience “appoggio”. You may also find that because you don’t have a particularly “muscular” frame, you feel it more easily as the movement of this muscle should be flexible and rapid (try panting like a dog with your hands in the region of the transverse abdominis and see what you feel).
I’ve heard singers say “you can’t sing well if you have a six pack”, that’s flat out incorrect. As with the example above of having fat over the transverse abdominis, as long as the transverse abdominis has flexibility and stability, the superficial muscles should not preclude good technique. If the muscles are too tight, then yes, that can inhibit the range of motion for the transverse abdominis, but then you’re not training yourself correctly.
One thing I feel is VERY important (and I say this as a singer, voice teacher, and qualified fitness instructor and breath specialist), if you gain or lose a significant amount of weight, or change your muscle mass drastically, YOU MUST RE-TRAIN VOCALLY AS THIS HAPPENS. It’s tempting to think singing is all about the vocal cords, but it’s imperative that all singers take on the mantle of ‘the whole body as instrument‘, not in terms of looks (though that can play) but because every muscle matters and your neurological connection to language and movement is paramount to your craft.
Barihunk, Nathan Gunn via Philly Mag
When you lose or gain large amounts of weight (or muscle mass), you are fundamentally changing your instrument and your technique must adapt to those changes, you can’t assume everything will fall into place. with your new bod. Your instrument is now different, and you must learn work with it and most likely re-train it.
This is also the more likely reason for what some say was a decline in Callas’ singing as she went from “zaftig” to “svelte”. Do we know if she was re-training during what was a drastic and rapid weight loss (tapeworm induced or not)? The truth is, we’ll never know the exact reason, and in fact, to some it’s no more than urban myth that she got worse as she slimmed down. Now this is a whole other post for a day when I feel like torturing myself, but the legend of La Divina ruffles feathers like few other issues in the opera world, however she’s credited as doing her “best work” at nearly every size that she ever was!
So, no, being “fat” or not has very little bearing on whether or not you will be a good singer. Many teachers will say a general level of fitness regardless of size, is far more important. Some singers who have had successful careers and have also been what would be considered very overweight have taken drastic measures to slim down.
Most recently American soprano, Aprile Millo spoke on her facebook very candidly about how being obese has affected her career and well being. There was also well meaning, but incorrect, Dame Kiri te Kenawa who stated that “singers need a bit of beef on them” in order to sing. While this is not factually correct, this is probably more an example of reactions to the sizeism that continues to plague opera.
There’s nothing that physiologically should stop a slim and trained woman singing, let’s say, Brünnhilde, but I do agree with Kiri that NO ONE should be altering their body and therefore their voice to look a certain way for a role.
Like I said before, your body is your instrument. Treat it well!
A singer should be well trained, and healthy whatever their size. The fact that this has become controversial in opera in recent years, well, that’s another blog post, innit…
In closing, here’s me talking with the outstanding Naked Scientists a bit more about the science behind singing.
And because I’m feeling generous here’s an amazing takedown by the Goddess herself on why size in opera is, well, bollocks, I give you the amazing, inimitable, formidable, larger than life and fabulous (yeah, I”m a fan) Jessye Norman.
*DISCLAIMER: NOTHING in this piece is meant to serve as vocal instruction, medical advice, or fitness advice. This is an exploration of a popular myth that won’t die and some facts about physiology to back up my observations. Do what you will with that information…