Le Damn aux Camélias (oooh snap, I can write bad headlines in TWO LANGUAGES Y’ALL)

One more note  about operas and fat ladies (see what I did there? With the note? Because it’s like music, get it?)
Soprano Daniela Dessi walked out of the role of Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata when director Franco Zeffirelli--you’ll remember him from the Romeo and Juliet we all saw in junior high with Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting– said she was too fat to sing one of opera’s most famous consumptives.

THIS is La Dessi (with friends):

la dessi

What
a
COW.

By the way, that is EXACTLY what I wear each morning as my favorite houseboy attends to my toilette (in my head).

Now for those of you who aren’t familiar with La Traviata or La Dame aux Camélias the Alexandre Dumas fils novel (his daddy wrote The Three Musketeers which incidentally has 30% less fat than other classic French adventure novels) on which the opera was based, it’s your tried-and-true Consumptive Parisian Hooker with a Heart of Gold story à la Moulin Rouge except for, you know, not awful in every conceivable way (I’m sorry it just IS and not even Ewan McGregor’s hotness is going to change the fact that Baz Luhrmann directs like a coked-up housefly with electrodes on his balls.)

Marguerite, renamed Violetta in the opera, was based on courtesan Marie Duplessis with whom Dumas fils had a torrid affair before she died at 23.

marie_duplessis

She’s seen here wearing a white camellia. Apparently Duplessis wore a white camellia when she was available to entertain guests  and a red one when she was having her Special Lady Time, which I suppose is a lot more elegant than MY tell which involves taking the safety off my .38.

So if Zeffirelli –who has always been for realism in casting– wanted to cast a sickly-thin 23 year old in the role, then why didn’t he? Is his Google finger broken? Because a quick image search showed me exactly what La Dessi looks like.  MAYBE it’s because it’s nearly impossible to find someone that young who can carry a principal with meaning and artistic flair and even LESS likely to find someone capable of singing that role who doesn’t weigh at least a buck fifty.

In fact, the only one I know to have done a credible job –and I’m not saying there aren’t others– is Beverly Sills when she sang Violetta in 1951.  The “youngest prima donna in captivity” was 22 and although she was a good bit slimmer than Dessi, no one was going to confuse Bubbles with a consumptive waif.

Bubbles in 1951

Ms Dessi says:

‘I can accept criticism before I put pen to paper but not afterwards. I was working well with the conductor of the orchestra but the problem these days is that theatrical directors have too much say.’

Ms Desi [sic] added: ‘I’m stunned. I still can’t believe what I heard him say. I am 1.60 metres tall, weigh 65 kg and take a size 44. There – that’s the first time I have given my vital statistics in public.’

So basically this woman  is 5’3″ and wears about a size 14, she had the role and had been rehearsing. Then Zeffirelli calls her “too portly to perform” and Dessi walks out, as does her husband who was playing the male principal and the show went on with two lesser voices.

Perfect!

I mean, I’m not super bright, but isn’t a big part of opera the singing? Because I kind of think it is.  Like,  if  it was just a bossy woman with a great rack and interesting taste in headgear  yelling at people for three hours  then I feel like I’d be offered more roles than I am, instead of the current number which is –let me rummage through my datebook– exactly zero.

Shout out to Sarahbyrdd for being the first reader to bring this to my attention!

14 Responses to “Le Damn aux Camélias (oooh snap, I can write bad headlines in TWO LANGUAGES Y’ALL)”

  1. evilsciencechick January 11, 2010 at 10:48 am #

    “which I suppose is a lot more elegant than MY tell which involves taking the safety off my .38.”

    you just made me spit out my coffee – good one!

    Didn’t this happen within the last year or so to another opera singer? Or maybe it was a ballet dancer? Or maybe it just happens all the time now because OMG THE OBESITY EPIDEMIC!111!!!11! KILL TEH FATTIES!!11!1

    bleargh.

    Brava to Ms Desi, and to her husband, for proving themselves INFINITELY more classy than the director, and the producer for allowing it to happen.

  2. Mifty January 11, 2010 at 12:07 pm #

    There is a lot being written at the moment about opera’s new “emphasis on the visual,” which is to say the same stupid obsession with appearance over ability that has done so much damage in other performing arts.

    But I guess if you’re going to mount crude, hypersexualized productions that disrespect the music and make the libretto nonsense, you may as well have attractive people to make fools of, right?

  3. Twistie January 11, 2010 at 1:10 pm #

    Mr. Twistie read the rant and said: “doesn’t the old saying go ‘it ain’t over ’til the consumptive waif sings?'”

    Have I mentioned that I love Mr. Twistie a lot?

    As a long-time opera fan, I can guarantee you that most sopranos aren’t ready to head a major production of Traviata before they hit thirty-five, and most of them don’t weigh in the featherweight division. I’m okay with that. I’m going for the music. Does she sound good? Then I’m more than willing to suspend disbelief over her waistline, and from a few rows back chances are I can’t tell her real age, either.

    If Sarah Bernhardt could keep playing Joan of Arc into her seventies with only one leg, then I say bring on the fifty-year-old Violettas!

    BTW, the other operatic trivia story I heard this week involved Verdi’s Otello. Apparently, for the first time ever, a black man has been cast in the titular role. I’m actually far more down with that bit of realism, as long as Otello doesn’t become the black male singers’ Aida (black sopranos could play that, but were typically passed over for other roles because of their color for decades).

  4. Toby Wollin January 11, 2010 at 1:36 pm #

    OK – I’m searching my overheated brain for a thin soprano. Thin. Thin? Nope. None come to mind. The smallest that I can recall is Maria Callas – and I don’t think she did La Dame – but she did play the TB-waif Mimi in La Boheme. There is an accepted size norm in opera based on, I think, actual vocal power which requires a certain size. And we’re not just talking Wagner either. If opera is going in the same direction as fashion models, 95% of the truly great voices of the 20th century would have been standing outside the stage door, both male and female. Ol’ Franco is an idiot.

  5. harveypenguin January 11, 2010 at 1:46 pm #

    Finally! Someone else hates Moulin Rouge! I thought I was the only one, even though it SUCKS SO BAD!

  6. Plumcake January 11, 2010 at 2:59 pm #

    It really, really does Harvey, and I even like Nikki Kidman.

  7. Janey January 11, 2010 at 3:33 pm #

    You and I will never agree on MR, but I will be first in line for the premiere of Telling You Things: The Plumcake Musical.

  8. SusanC January 11, 2010 at 4:49 pm #

    I’m lukewarm on MR, but I would definitely pony up the big bucks to go to Plumcake’s upcoming musical, as written by Janey. It doesn’t matter whether or not the lead can sing- heck, look how much Britney Spears makes for lip synching at her spectacles.

    Do tell us about your plans for the costuming, Plumcake!

  9. gemdiva January 11, 2010 at 5:44 pm #

    Plumcake, I sent a link to your Prada post last week to a “friend” of mine who is an opera aficionado. “Friend” may not be the right term to use after getting his response, to wit:

    “it’s been part of a trend at the met to bring in trendy directors and designers. it actually should be pretty cool since attila is a rather dark opera. a few years back at the royal opera house deborah voight was fired because the director thought she would look inappropriate (i.e. fat as a pig) in a sleek cocktail dress.”

    Here is a link to that story:
    http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601088&refer=muse&sid=aveB5IvP7

    When I pointed out that Opera should be about talent and not appearance his response was:

    “it’s now about design and a vision, and opera must compete with broadway and other forms of theater. people want to and expect to see when they pay lots of money, good looking people. and i don’t believe pandering is unique to opera; rather opera must catch up to the rest of the entertainment media.”

    I next pointed out where he could stick his libretto and advised him to remove me from his Christmas card list. It appears this is quite the operatic epidemic. Strange, I don’t recall anyone ever firing Pavarotti or Placido Domingo for being portly. I am disgusted in the extreme!

  10. All Women Stalker January 11, 2010 at 9:26 pm #

    When did this all start? It’s no longer about talent? Who wants to see skinny people who can’t act or sing? (Not that I’m saying there are no skinny people who CAN act or sing.) I don’t care what size, shape, or dress size you wear as long as you give a bad ass performance.

  11. boots January 11, 2010 at 11:18 pm #

    OMG, other people who hate Moulin Rouge! That’s so exciting! I thought almsot everyone else in the world loved it except me.

  12. Melissa M January 12, 2010 at 12:04 am #

    Gemdiva, I’m glad you pointed that out – that was a huge scandal in the opera world when Deobrah Voigt was fired for not being believable as “sexy” in a little black dress. She has since undergone weight loss surgery. I saw her perform in Vienna in the summer of 2007 (at least a year after the surgery, although she was still bigger than La Dessi seems to be), and she was, of course, fantastic.

    I think this topic merits more discussion, if not research and studies. Yes, it seems that many female opera divas are bigger women. However, there are many classical, but not necessarily opera, divas (typically soloists for symphonic works, oratorios, etc.) that are not big women. I know plenty of women who are vocally, but not physically, big.

    So is there really a correlation between body size and voice size?

    I would argue not. Vocal production has much to do with resonance and breathing techniques, not corset size. Jose Carreras, one of the famous Three Tenors, said:

    “OK, I am a small man, but you sing with the muscles, not with the fat. You don’t need to be big to sing. Size has got nothing to do with the voice.”

    And at the risk of appearing to not support my fellow big woman, I agree. However, operatic singing is not just about vocal production. There is a hell of a lot of physical stamina not related to vocal production involved. Perhaps this is where the size argument could be made more effectively.

    I think this trend of fat discrimination and shaming in the opera world is absolutely ridiculous. But I also think we need to truly understand the physiology required to sing in order to make our argument stronger.

  13. biscuit January 13, 2010 at 11:43 am #

    A couple of years ago I saw a televised production of La Boheme, and the soprano playing Mimi (another consumptive) was a Woman of Substance. Didn’t detract a bit from the beauty of her singing or the sincerity of her delivery. She didn’t really look like a starving artist, but so what?

    When Zeffirelli did the film version of ‘Traviata’ in 1983 he cast rail-thin Teresa Stratas as Violetta: I’m not trying to make excuses for him, but maybe he’s trying to replicate that casting somehow?

  14. Freddie Reighard February 3, 2010 at 11:55 pm #

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