I was having a bad day. I was having a bad day and I wanted salmon. I wanted baked salmon, crisp on the outside and pink and soft on the inside. I wanted vegetables or starch with that salmon. It didn’t matter what else I paired with it. As soon as I could, I made my way to Turner’s Seafood and Grill, the popular seafood restaurant in the center of town. The restaurant was a family owned business, and it had a raw bar, a fish monger’s case with fresh fish, and a full sit-down restaurant.
The hostess looked at me expectantly.
“One for lunch,” I said, eager to see what they had on the menu.
Once she got me seated, I began to sift through the menu to construct my meal. It was cold out, so I immediately thought of soup. Chowder. No – lobster bisque. I love the lobster bisque here. A cup, not a bowl. The bowls are too big. There were a few salmon dishes on the menu.
“Hi, my name is Amanda, and I’ll be your server today. Can I start you off with something to drink?”
It was five o’clock somewhere in the world. It was about 12:50 pm here. “I’d love a glass of water… and a glass of sangria!” I gave her a conspiratorial smile. She blinked, wrote down the order and sauntered off to the bar. No judgment on her part. 100% judgment on mine. I was going to have the sangria anyway. Why not? It was a Wednesday. Wednesdays deserve sangria.
I flipped back to the menu. Maple salmon with mashed potatoes with a touch of mustard. Vegetable of the day. The specials sounded good, but I was here for salmon. I knew it. My stomach knew it. It was time.
When the meal and the sangria reached the table, I was elated. The sangria was delicious, the meal was comforting, and the soft lighting of the restaurant made me so happy. Nothing beats that feeling. I put my phone away. I looked out the window at the red brick wall from the store next door. I was sated. I was me, all at once. The salmon wasn’t exactly what I was imagining, but it was good. It was salmon. Requirement met.
There’s that old line about opera: “It’s not over until the fat lady sings.”
There is some truth to that in the historical opera performances. Back then, opera singers were only hired for the beauty of their sound. Looks didn’t matter if the singers could execute the intensely athletic singing well. You had large dramatic sopranos that could be dressed in a breastplate with a shield, a horned Viking hat, and a spear (Cue the Elmer Fudd from “What’s Opera, Doc?”: “O Bwunhiwdaaaah! How I wove you!) or in a coquettish Alpine shepherdess’ outfit. For the operas that required huge singing, these women and men would “park and bark”. Everything was about the sound. Everything was about the resonance. Audiences lived for it.
Young people with half-baked voices couldn’t sing Wagner or Verdi. Opera singers came into their prime in the thirties and forties. It didn’t matter if the character was 16. You needed singers that could be heard over giant and lush orchestras. A massive King Henry VIII-sized Pavarotti would be hired over his peers, because of the glory of his trademark sound. You can’t fake that sort of voice. It poured out of Pavarotti like liquid gold. Heroic. Tender. Deft. All the emotion was baked into the sound.
Nowadays, the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts their operas in HD movie theaters around the country. It was a savvy move on their part, making the art form feel accessible and (hopefully) less elitist. As a result, the visual look of the shows and the actors needed a more of a glamorous Hollywood feel. Audiences didn’t necessarily want to see a lumbering Brunhilda in HD. Singers had to read well on camera, and decent acting chops became as important as the singing. Modern operas were movies as much as they were musical experiences.
Svelte, buxom sopranos like Anna Netrebko have become the norm. There are so many singers vying for so few roles that opera houses can afford to be choosy about the look of the singer. Voice, body, and energy became the performance metrics for a hire. Unless the singer in question had a particularly superb sound, they were going to choose the woman who looked as well as sounded the part. Weightism has been a hot topic in the opera community, as that Hollywood mentality was starting to creep into our “sound first, everything else second” world. Opera had always been about gender bending and hiring the best singer for the job – more progressive than a lot of the performing arts in its casting – so it’s been a shock to the system.
Health and fitness are important for singers, as their body is their instrument. Without strength and endurance training – especially in the core muscles – a singer couldn’t do multiple hour operas without exhausting themselves. Conditioning is as important as recovery time, and you can’t do your job if your voice is sick or compromised. Fitness plays into that.
However, it’s frustrating for those of us who have put the work in on our technique and voices to be passed over for the more conventionally beautiful singers. We get it, but we don’t have to like it.
When I first started singing seriously, I was at least 100 pounds lighter than I am now. It’s been a tough 8 years or so, and I developed habits that weren’t serving my body in any way. My husband and I were having trouble trying to conceive a child. I was diagnosed with bipolar II disorder and put on medication. My father passed away from complications with heart disease in 2013. We chose not to have children. My confidence was waning. Food became the anesthetic. Food became the safety net. Food became the defense against everything that was going wrong. Food fed on the excuses and the stresses.
Food became my enemy.
Over the past few years, I’ve been getting to know a friend who runs marathons regularly and who eats a limited palette of food based on her allergies and preferences. Eating meat isn’t her bag. She has to go to the emergency room if she eats any gluten. Dairy doesn’t agree with her either. She opts for whole foods, not processed foods and sugar. Her body is a temple, and she consumes food and commits to physical exercise in a disciplined and almost worshipful way.
She is a running coach and I am a voice teacher. We offered to exchange lessons so that we could see how the other lived. I met her at the track and we started to go for a jog. It quickly became clear that her running gait was going to be a lot faster than my jog. She walked alongside me as I puffed along. We shared our health stories. She is a recovering anorexic, who learned to feed her body in a loving way so that she could run. I am a compulsive eater. I was years away from regular exercise.
She made the observation: “You and I are a lot alike. We don’t listen well to our bodies.”
At first, I couldn’t imagine the similarities between us. Then I realized that we were flip sides of the same coin. One of us ignored signals of hunger, the other ignored signals of satiety.
I have a tough time leaving an empty plate. That’s a leftover kneejerk reaction from my childhood. “There are starving children in <insert country here>, and you won’t finish your peas?” “I hate canned peas.” “Eat your peas.” Preferences didn’t matter in a family of 7. You ate what was put in front of you or you didn’t eat. You grabbed the treats that came into the house as quickly as you could. Otherwise, your siblings ate them out from under you. An empty plate was a badge of honor.
My marathon running friend practices intuitive eating. It was through this method that she could identify what she truly wanted and how much her body needed to feel full. It’s a novel idea to me, taking the time to listen so that you understand what hungry and what full feels like. Also, it’s tough to trust that the body would find the right foods for itself. It’s funny to distrust a system that’s been regulating itself beautifully for thousands upon thousands of years. However, the addictive qualities of processed/fast foods and intense sweets make me question what I consume sometimes.
I look at that plate of salmon and I see the thing I want, the protein and healthy fats that my body needs. I didn’t need the sangria. I didn’t need the bisque. I didn’t need to eat the bread with the warm butter. But my body knew it needed the salmon.
With all the food that I eat above and beyond what my body needs, I’m not the size that I used to be. I have a tough time accepting that. I’ve lost my confidence for auditions. My voice sounds better than it ever has before, and yet I feel the worst about myself. It’s discouraging. The silver lining is that a lot of the roles that suit my voice type accommodate women of all sizes – mothers, grandmothers, sidekicks, witches, nuns, etc. Mezzos have a longer career track than most voice types.
I wish for once I could be a glamorous Anna Netrebko or a Renee Fleming. I know that beating myself up for having the wrong body type or size is unfair, but I’d love to be able to shop in normal size clothing stores. I’d love to be able to try an evening gown, the business suit of the classical performer, on in a department store and to be confident that it would fit. Self-love is crucial to performance, and I’m disappointed with myself for not practicing that with my interior voice. I give myself such a hard time.
Would I talk down to a friend like that? Would I give them a hard time if their jeans didn’t fit? No. Never. Now, why would I talk to myself that way? There’s no room for that on the stage.
Part of the problem is that I’ve internalized some of the voices from the other women in our family. Agonizing over weight issues has become a competitive sport for us, and the way that we talk about ourselves is downright shameful. Sure, there’s an unwritten social contract that says this is the way women bond, but I find it unacceptable. I have resolved never to talk about body issues or to insult myself in front of family members again. I’m not going to play the game anymore. Talk about healthy activities and choices? Sure. Beat myself up because it’s a family ritual? No.
For now, I’m going to have to be the big girl in the breastplate singing out the glorious high notes. I’m going to finish out the show. My hope, though, is that I’ll be able to find my way back to a place of health – not a body size – by eating intuitively and practicing self-care. Food is not the enemy. A more healthy relationship with it will ultimately save me and make me well again.