Opera Buff (Vogue)
Now more than ever, it’s not over till the slim lady sings. Angelo Ragaza sneaks backstage and reports on American opera’s shrinking trend.
The last time I saw Denyce Graves—the mezzo-soprano hailed as the greatest Carmen in recent memory—it was hard to miss the delts and triceps popping out of her Empire gown onstage. Being a singer myself, I found the image jarring. Not only does fat continue to be synonymous with opera, but my own voice teachers discouraged me from working out. Running dries out the vocal cords, they claimed; weight training constricts the neck muscles. But clearly, Graves had both a beautiful voice and a beautiful body. How does she do it? I wanted in on her secrets, and so I tracked her down and asked her about her fitness regimen. To my surprise, she cheerfully invited me to work out with her in the gym at the Essex House, which she calls home when she’s performing in New York. How could I refuse?
When we meet for the first time, La Graves is in Reeboks, navy tights, and a black Nike sports bra. She flashes the smile of a conqueror, shakes my hand, and gets right down to business, shoving a table into a corner so we can do some twisting and stretching.
While we’re at it, she tells me about a weight-loss contest she had with Placido Domingo—every syllable crisp, mellifluous and loaded with gravitas. “We went to see a nurse, and she told me I was crazy to think I’d win, that men lose weight faster than women,” Graves recalls. A little street sass then slips into her prima donna diction. “I was like, nuh-uh. We cannot have that.”
At the time, Graves and Domingo were getting ready for a new Metropolitan Opera production of Samson et Dalila. The show would be telecast nationally, so stakes were high. Graves worked out intensely with one of her New York trainers, Marque Black, doing weights and 40 minutes of cardio, five days a week. By opening night several weeks later, Graves, in Dalila’s body-hugging, emerald-green gown, was the victor, both onstage and off-.
I’m no triathlete, but after working out four times a week for five months, I thought I was ready for the Denyce Graves workout. After stretching, we head to the treadmills, where we walk for a few minutes at a steep incline, weights in hand. So far so good. But when Black instructs us to pump up the incline as well as the pace, Graves puts me in my place. “OK, Angelo,” she says, pressing her speed button up to running mode. “Here we go, baby!”
By the twentieth minute, I’m sweating and heaving. Graves is swatting the air like Rocky. It occurs to me to try to mimic her, but I’m afraid I’ll fall off the machine. When Black finallly gives us the sign to cool down, Graves does it charging at four and a half miles an hour while I crawl at three.
“I thought training Denyce was gonna be like this,” Black recalls, caricaturing little prima donna steps. “But Miss Denyce was getting me in shape.”
In the apparently fitness-prooof world of opera, tae-bo and personal trainers have become industry buzzwords. To be sure, well-upholstered singers like Jane Eaglen and Luciano Pavarotti still abound on the opera stage. But a new breed of young, mostly American artists is emerging from the wings: performers like Susan Graham, Patricia Racette, Nathan Gunn, and Richard Bernstein, for whom keeping the body beautiful, whether through exercise or diet, is serious business. “Denyce is leading the charge,” says opera ballet choreographer Daniel Pelzig, who works with Graves at the Los Angeles Opera. “But there’s a whole generation of American opera singers who believe in inhabiting the complete physical life of a character, and are aggressive about being physically fit.”
“Opera companies are becoming almost fanatical about singers looking the role,” says Ken Benson, an agent at Columbia Artists Management, Inc. While no record execs will admit that appearance is a criterion for signing artists, they concede that being beautiful and a size 6 certainly doesn’t hurt—recording artists like Angelika Kirshschlager, Hei-Kyung Hong and Barbara Bonney are all testament to that.
Many observers blame television and stage directors for opera’s growing obsession with fintess. At a time when symphony orchestras and chamber ensembles are struggling for an audience, telecasts like the Three Tenors’ concert have made opera more popular than ever and enabled the CD sales of artists like tenor Andrea Bocelli and mega-mezzo Cecilia Bartoli to approach those of pop stars. But with the scrutiny of video cameras and younger spectators, companies and directors are skittish about trying to pass heifers off as heroines. Seattle Opera general director Speight Jenkins once told a singer he would yank her from the cast of Wagner’s Ring if she didn’t lose weight—and he kept his word.
That won’t happen to Denyce Graves. At the free weights and Cybex machines, she’s digging into the grueling, four-exercise triceps circuit that keeps her in couture both sleeveless and strapless. An opera star pumping iron, with her teeth clenched and delts glistening with sweat, is so at odds with the image of the stereotypical diva—coddled, fat, and physically inert—that I wonder how fat ever became so ubiquitous in the opera world in the first place.
As singers and managers attest, the operatic lifestyle poses numerous hurdles to staying in shape. Constant plane travel, hectic schedules and the lack of gyms in many European cities are just a few. But the killer, singers agree, are the postperformance dinners. “Most singers can’t, or choose not to, eat before a performance,” observes Graves. “You certainly don’t want to burp in the middle of an aria.”
So for an eight o’clock curtain, many singers will eat their last meal at around four. An operatic performance is like a marathon: Singers expend superhuman amounts of energy and adrenaline until they take their final bows at 11:30. By that point, they are literally starving. “So what do you do?” Graves confesses. “You go out to eat, and then you go home, and you go to sleep!”
“Plus, you’re in a high-stress situation,” I am later told by soprano Carol Vaness. “Singers are already very oral. When they get stressed-out, or fearful, they eat.” Indeed, tall tales about singers and eating abound. In her book Cinderella & Company, Manuela Hoelterhoff recounts one incident in which a soprano devoured Don Giovanni’s prop chicken before it had a chance to be wheeled onstage. Graves says she had one colleague who used to hide pieces of steak on the set. “He’d be, like, ‘Cover me for a minute, Graves,’ ” she says. “We’d work out the staging so I’d do a tap dance while he had his back to the audience, chewing on a piece of steak tartare.”
It doesn’t help much that most singers believe that being fat can make people better singers. “Many singers, coaches and voice teachers are of the opinion, perhaps rightly so, that extra weight can contribute to the suppport of your voice,” says baritone Rodney Gilfrey. As the theory goes, when heavy singers inhale, their weight is pushed upward and outward. As they sing, the extra weight can add to breath support with less work, and this results in a fuller-sounding voice.
Indeed, technical problems can arise when singers who’ve been fat all their lives suddenly lose a lot of weight. “The example of Maria Callas frightened people,” says Brian Kellow, executive editor of Opera News. “She had a very dramatic weight loss, and it was widely maintained that that had a great deal to do with the decline of her voice.”
Vaness went through just as precipitous a weight loss in 1992, when after a year of working out, she lost nearly 60 pounds and went down six dress sizes. She recalls that while some in the industry congratulated her, others panicked. “I never had so many inquiries as to ‘How’s the voice? Are you OK? Can you still sing?’ ” Vaness bristles at the Callas example,as it discourages singers who are dangerously obese from even trying to do a little to help themselves. “Did anybody see Maria at the gym, or power walking around any of those Greek islands?” she argues. “She didn’t back up that weight loss with any kind of rebuilding of the muscles. Those muscles didn’t know how to do anything but support fat. Without that weight pushing down on her system, how could she possibly support her voice?”
Vaness says that learning how to adjust her vocal support as she lost weight was a small price to pay for the freedom that being thin has given her. “It was practically the biggest thrill of my life to be able to walk into Armani in Milan, take a dress...and put it on,” Vaness says. “And if I’m playing Violetta and I have to die of consumption, I don’t have to totally fake the idea. There’s no putting my hands on the ground when I need to get up from a kneeling position. It makes a big difference.”
If fitness has enabled Vaness to move more convincingly onstage, it has qualified baritone Rodney Gilfrey to satisfy another demand that stage directors are increasingly making on opera singers: showing lots of skin. the first and only time I’d seen Gilfry perform, it was in the national telecast of André Previn’s opera version of A Streetcar Named Desire. Naturally, the tall, strapping Gilfry played Stanley Kowalski—not a role Pavarotti will be asked to play anytime soon, as Gilfry had to rip his shirt off, exposing an impeccable set of pecs. But that was demure compared to Florencia en las Amazonas, in which Gilfry flew in on cables wearing, as he describes it, “a crazy getup with big golden wings and a loincloth.” For another opera, director Francesca Zambello had him shirtless.
So I’m not surprised to learn that Gilfry’s regimen, developed with his trainer, David Robinson, is serious: six days of weights a week (chest, triceps, shoulders one day, back and biceps the second, legs the third, repeat), combined with cycling or running up to five miles at a stretch. When I ask him to put me through the paces of a workout, in a gym near his home in Rancho Cucamonga, just outside Los Angeles, he turns out to be a gracious but meticulous trainer. “I’ve stopped using barbells, because they limit the range of the movement,” he explains as he leads me to our first machine, a chest fly. I sit, take the handles, and press my hands together, contracting my chest. “Keep your rib cage expanded,” he coaches. Then he slides a finger between my shoulder blades. “Try to keep squeezing these together.” When I do, my sternum is so high, I feel like a toy soldier. But I do feel a more intense burn in the cleavage between my pectoral muscles—a crucial point on any man’s body.
Next, we head to the free weights, where we do dumbbell presses for the chest and shoulders, then reverse extensions for the triceps. I notice that Gilfry does his reps very slowly. “I’ve learned it’s not imporant how many you do but how much time there’s tension on the muscle, or T.O.M.,” he says, more earnestly than any trainer I’ve ever met. “You could be doing six reps, but if they’re three times slower than the next guy, you’re working that much harder.”
Three days later, I can still feel the effects of the Rodney Gilfry workout as I watch Denyce Graves in a rehearsal at the Los Angeles Opera. With her plush, powerful Rolls Royce of a voice, she obliterates everyone in the room. But as the director walks her through the great seduction scene from Samson et Dalila, I get a stirring reminder that having a voice is no longer enough to compete with a singer like Graves. Even in a tube top and slacks with her hair pulled back, she is so beautiful, I can’t take my eyes off her. And when she declares Samson her slave, it’s a searingly dramatic moment. All my disbelief is suspended until Gary Lakes, the massive tenor rehearsing Samson (he shares the role with Domingo, who isn’t due until the last minute), kneels at her feet, requiring an extra second and a kneepad to make it to the floor. But as soon as Graves is lounging on the chaise, luxuriating in her body, the magic returns. (Return to Samples of My Writing)