LONDON (Reuters) - Slimmed-down soprano Deborah Voigt, back at London's Covent Garden four years after bosses fired her for being too fat, says opera, like other forms of entertainment, is increasingly obsessed with looks.
The 47-year-old American accepted an invitation from the Royal Opera House to return to the same production she was dropped from in 2004 when the casting director felt she would not suit the "little black dress" he envisaged for the part.
The decision sparked heated debate in the world of opera and beyond about the importance of artists' appearance. Voigt shed 120 pounds with the help of gastric bypass surgery and is back as Ariadne in Richard Strauss's "Ariadne auf Naxos."
Until recently opera had a reputation for casting large and barely mobile men and women as dashing heroes and beautiful queens based purely on the quality of their voice.
The shift in recent years towards good looks as much as talent, epitomized by the popularity of the "popera" genre, reflected the broader world of entertainment, Voigt argued.
"There's no getting around the fact that the face of opera is changing," she told Reuters in her back stage dressing room after the opening night of 'Ariadne'.
"It would be very easy to say, well, it shouldn't matter and in a certain decade it shouldn't have mattered when we didn't have to think about television and there wasn't so much competition for entertainment dollars."
Opera would have to draw the line somewhere, however.
"I'm hoping that we don't go so far as to put microphones on soubrette sopranos and have them singing Isolde," she explained, referring to testing Wagnerian roles such as that in "Tristan und Isolde" that Voigt recently sang at the Met in New York.
"I don't think that would be the case. Nonetheless, I think it would be foolish to think that singers don't have to be more concerned about their physique than in decades past."
Voigt said she was initially upset at being dropped by the Royal Opera House, although she now understood she would have looked out of place in the stylized 'Ariadne' production.
To publicize her return, Voigt posted a video on YouTube (here) in which she confronts the infamous "little black dress" in a New York hotel. The Royal Opera House's Web site links to the clip.
"We didn't part on the best of terms," the dress says in a man's voice. "It just seemed at the time that we weren't a good fit ... I realized I was wrong. Size doesn't matter."
Voigt said the radical weight-loss program was more a health decision than a knee-jerk reaction to her rejection, and her subsequent weight loss has opened up new opportunities.
It does require new vocal techniques, however.
"It occurred to me ... that I hadn't sung Ariadne since I was 120 pounds heavier, and it does feel different and I have to adjust technically, muscularly to how I approach the role."
That will not stop her attempting more "heavy" roles in the future like Isolde and other female Wagnerian leads, she added.
"I'm taking on really heavy roles and they cost more. Doing Tristan and Isolde is a really expensive night in terms of what it costs you physically and emotionally," she said.
"There is certainly going to be much more of Wagner and dramatic repertoire in the future."