[Revised version] Weighing in…

…on the Fat Issue:

1. It’s common and reasonable to make casting choices based in part on how people look. Just last week I heard dance teachers at Juilliard say that students routinely lose out in auditions because choreographers think they’re too heavy. Someone at Juilliard’s opera program said the same thing happens at regional opera companies. This isn’t discrimination, in any legal or ethical sense. It’s art; choreographers and directors care how their productions look on stage. Regional opera companies are able to care, I should add, because they have no chance to cast stars so powerful that opera fans, at least, won’t care how they look. (Though people new to opera might care — and that’s a legitimate concern for opera companies that need to sell tickets.) And in movies or theater, forget about it! Of course looks matter, and not just for glamour. Suppose you’re directing Hamlet, and you think Ophelia ought to be petite (a thought reinforced, perhaps, because you’ve cast someone very large in the title role). So you only audition small actresses. Nobody will say you’re discriminating against tall ones.

2. Opera, at its highest levels, is a fairyland. It’s spectacle, not theater. Look at Juan Diego Florez and Olga Borodina in the Met’s current L’Italiana in Algeri. Both are fun, in different ways (and Florez is so fine an artist that even his recitatives are a treat), but on stage they have no relationship. They occupy space; they go through the motions of acting their scenes together. But you can’t believe they’re lovers, as the opera says they are, and it’s hard even to imagine they’d be friends. That’s why Baz Luhrmann’s La Bohème on Broadway was such a treat. The characters actually seemed to have relationships, presumably honed in rehearsals where it was possible — because there time enough, because the singers could have been cast with their relationships in mind, and because (or so I’d guess) they and Luhrmann actually cared about all this — to develop real interaction.

4. So if we want opera to be more than spectacle — if we want it to be real theatreical art — I’d like to see productions that, implicitly, at least, admit that fat singers are fat. Which does not mean that the fat singers have to look silly. Many large women are beautiful; many men go absolutely wild for them. So if we have a fat woman singing Tosca, why not stage the production so that Scarpia and Cavaradossi — the two men in the opera who want her — both like large women? Scarpia’s henchmen, meanwhile, could think he’s crazy, and could watch in disbelief when he makes his move. (Of course this would have to be staged subtly.) Or think of L’Italiana. Olga Borodina isn’t fat, but she’s a lot larger than Florez, who’s trim and slight. I once was at a club where large women — some of them very large — went to meet men. Some of the men were very small. To imagine one of the small men with one of the very large women was delectable, as much, I’m sure, for the parties involved as for an observer. In L’Italiana (though, again, Borodina isn’t fat), this could have been a tasty subtext, with Florez — or, rather, his character — visibly thrilled every time he got close to Borodina, dreaming that he’d be enveloped in her hug. Mustafa, the Bey of Algiers, whom Borodina wraps around her little finger, could have been crazy for large women, too. (Which might have been realistic. I once knew a quite large woman who went to the Middle East every year on vacation; men liked her there, she said.) All the women at his court could have been plump, which of course would have given Florez’s character a constant thrill, no matter how much he pined for Borodina. Though there would have been one exception — Mustafa’s wife could be slim, which would help explain why he wants to get rid of her (and, when, he tries to give her to Florez, why Florez shudders so much). Truth in casting — it could be lots of fun.

(I think I accidentally posted an unfinished version of this! Sorry for any confusion.)

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