"It' ain't over till the fat lady sings." We have all heard this popular allusion to the folly of rushing to judgment, and its accompanying image of the overweight soprano in braids and horned-helmet in the role of Wagner's Brünnhilde. It's commonly believed to refer to Wagner's Siegfried, where Brünnhilde doesn't appear until the final scene of a very long (5 hrs. 20 min.) opera. The stereotype of the over nourished opera singer reflected the reality of what past generations of opera-goers had been accustomed to seeing on the stage. Countless reasons for this phenomenon were offered up, but the most popular seemed to be that large girth is necessary for producing big sound.
Things began to change in the middle of the last century. Artists began to demonstrate a new commitment to delivering performances where the dramatic content was as outstanding as the vocal delivery. This was new -- singers had been accustomed to delivering their lines with static dignity, and a world of new possibilities began to open up. Maria Callas experienced a much-discussed period of weight loss in the 1950s, and brought a level of glamour and dramatic conviction that was a revelation to opera audiences.
Current audiences have come to expect much of our opera singers. Vocal standards are higher than ever, and while delivering the most demanding music, singers must engage in sword play, physical assaults, and other challenging stage direction. Today, in order to get through a complete opera, especially in a lead role, singers must be as fit physically as they must be vocally.
The growing prevalence of the media, including television and DVD recordings, requires singers to be almost as concerned with their appearance as with their voices. Especially in Europe, opera stars grace the pages of fashion magazines often. Marie Claire Italia recently ran a story on the five sexiest men of opera, which prompted a Facebook post by Florida Grand Opera asking which singers had been left out. The result was a flurry of comments that led to this very blog post.
The fact is, today's opera stars, men and women alike, must have the whole package. They need to be as convincing in their appearance as they are in their singing. Here is a slideshow featuring some of opera's most striking singers -- each a world-class voice and a rewarding sight to see on stage.