[Dixielandjazz] When The No Longer Fat Lady Sings

Steve barbone barbonestreet at earthlink.net
Sun Mar 27 05:58:28 PST 2005

Not OKOM, by a good read for folks who are weight challenged or otherwise
losing gigs because of appearance prejudices.

Deborah Voight, you might recall was the subject of a thread about
"appearances" a year ago. She lost a gig in London UK because she was too
fat for the producers. Well she did something about it, going from dress
size 30 to 14, losing 100lbs and intends to lose 30 more and get to size 12.
Voice, according to all reports, was unaffected. Way to go Debbie.

Does this signify hard times for "Red Hot Mamas?" :-) VBG

BTW, she is one of, if not "THE" finest operatic soprano singing today.

Steve barbone



With Surgery, Soprano Sheds a Brünnhilde Body

Deborah Voigt, arguably the leading dramatic soprano singing today, has a
gleaming voice that easily soars over the largest Wagnerian orchestra. But
big voices tend to come in big bodies, and Ms. Voigt, to her dismay, long
fit the stereotype of the oversize opera singer.

Last spring her weight became international news when word spread that she
had been fired from a production of Strauss's "Ariadne auf Naxos" at Covent
Garden in London because the director deemed her too large to look right in
a sleek black dress that was crucial to his staging concept.

What few knew at the time was that Ms. Voigt, who has struggled with her
weight since adolescence, had already decided to undergo the most drastic
treatment for obesity - gastric bypass surgery.

On Tuesday, she disclosed in an interview that last June 7, when she would
have been singing at Covent Garden had she not been let go, she had the
procedure, at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York. She is now 100 pounds

Ms. Voigt, 44, said she knew that surgery could be "extremely dangerous" for
a singer. Opera singers who lose significant amounts of weight have been
known to lose vocal luster as well, Maria Callas being the most notable

But she was willing to take the risk. "I had no choice," Ms. Voigt
explained. Over the years she had tried everything to lose weight: crash
dieting, liquid fasts, a gastric bubble and, worst of all for her, the diet
pill combination fen-phen, which she said gave her bouts of manic energy.
"I'd be up cleaning out my closets at 3 in the morning," she said. And like
many overweight people, she eventually regained whatever pounds she had

For Ms. Voigt, who acknowledged she was a compulsive eater, gastric bypass
surgery, which involves creating a small pouch out of the top of the stomach
and connecting it to half of the small intestine, is "a blessing," she said.
The tiny capacity it leaves takes away the choice about eating.

"You will comply," she said, "because if you don't, you're going to be very,
very ill." 

Ms. Voigt, who resumed performing just seven weeks after surgery, has been
encouraged by the strong critical reaction to her singing since then. She
said she was going public now because everywhere she goes people ask about
her new look. "I felt it was time to talk about it," she said. "I don't want
to be dishonest."

She is, though, reluctant to be too specific about her weight. She will say
that at her heaviest she wore a size 30 dress. Last week at Saks Fifth
Avenue, the 5-foot-6-inch soprano proudly bought her first size 14. Her goal
is a 12, which will mean, she estimated, losing 30 more pounds.

During the interview, at an apartment near Lincoln Center where Ms. Voigt,
who lives in Florida, is staying, she sat in a narrow living room chair and
bragged of now being able to cross her legs comfortably. Audiences in New
York will have a chance to see the slimmer soprano on April 4 when she sings
the role of Amelia in the first of eight performances of the Metropolitan
Opera's revival of Verdi's "Ballo in Maschera."

To face up to her fears, Ms. Voigt sought information and soul mates online
(at obesityhealth.com). She has also continued working with her therapist on
longstanding emotional issues. By talking about her surgery, she said, she
hopes to draw attention to the problem of obesity and advances in surgical
treatment for it.

A decade ago, there were fewer than 20,000 operations a year for obesity in
the United States, according to Dr. Marc Bessler, the director of the Center
for Obesity Surgery at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital. Last year there were
150,000, he said, of which 75 percent were gastric bypasses of the type Ms.
Voigt had. 

As with all invasive surgeries, there are risks. But the risks for a singer
seem especially high. Most people assume that fine operatic voices emanate
from the throat and a wondrous pair of vocal cords. It would be more
accurate to say that the voice passes through the throat and vocal cords,
but emanates from the diaphragm, which supports the column of sound.

So wasn't the thought of a surgeon cutting into her abdomen terrifying?

"I wasn't worried about the poking around in my abdomen," she said. "I was
worried about the effects of anesthesia and about having a tube put down my
throat." To minimize potential damage, her surgeon used the narrowest tube

Ms. Voigt has never accepted the notion that only supersize singers can have
supersize voices. Birgit Nilsson, one of the greatest Wagnerian sopranos of
the 20th century, is "a big woman with a big cavity," Ms. Voigt said. But
she was not obese. Ms. Nilsson, who was born in rural Sweden, has the
physique of a hardy country gal. A soprano can't be a slip of a thing and
sing Brünnhilde. But she need not be enormous, either.

Still, as Ms. Voigt explained, since her surgery she has had to make
adjustments in her singing. "There is no question that I have to think about
my technique more than I did," she said. "The sort of automatic engagement
of the abdominal muscles from the excess weight doesn't happen anymore."

So far she has been pleased with the results. In November, she sang the role
of Elisabeth in Wagner's "Tannhäuser" at the Met to great acclaim. This
month, in a review in The New York Times of a concert performance of
Beethoven's "Fidelio" at Carnegie Hall, Anne Midgette wrote that Ms. Voigt
took a while to hit her vocal stride but eventually began "to bloom and
shine forth." 

In the interview, Ms. Voigt said the Covent Garden episode was double-edged.
She was comforted by the good will she felt from fans and a sympathetic
public. Still, though the company honored the contract and paid her in full,
being fired was humiliating. "I felt like I had to do something drastic,"
she said. But she had decided to pursue surgery well before the black dress
incident. She was experiencing weakness in her knees and worried about
developing high blood pressure and diabetes.

"I thought of having this surgery when they started doing it 20 years ago,"
she said. "But it was an extremely dangerous procedure then, with a high
mortality rate."

Paradoxically, Ms. Voigt was long an advocate of the principle that body
size does not determine whether an opera singer can be dramatically
compelling. Will she now be seen as an artist who caved in to the increasing
pressure on singers to look conventionally attractive? Though she insisted
that looks were not her primary consideration, she acknowledged that her new
body was already benefiting her career.

"I'm doing many more Toscas than I ever thought I would," she said of
Puccini's glamorous Roman prima donna. (Some of those "Tosca" performances
will be at the Met next season.) And down the road, Ms. Voigt, a renowned
Strauss singer, hopes to achieve what she called a "personal triumph" by
singing the title role in a production of Strauss's "Salome." She has sung
the role only in concert.

The opera's climax is Salome's seductive "Dance of the Seven Veils." Ms.
Voigt used to joke that her Salome would have to do the "Dance of the 77
Veils." But now she can't wait to take it on.

Though her excess weight caused her great emotional stress, Ms. Voigt said
that her life before the operation was full. "I've had love affairs and a
marriage in my life," she said, "and I've never been without some sort of
relationship." She has been blessed with loyal fans. "I felt their support
and love and admiration 100 pounds heavier," she said. "The great part about
this is that I'm going to get to show them something they haven't seen - a
different way of moving on stage, a more compelling and believable

The harder part of the adjustment is emotional. "I really still think of
myself as a very big woman," she said. "My mind hasn't had the opportunity
to catch up with the progress my body has made in a short amount of time."

More information about the Dixielandjazz mailing list