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Last Updated: Wednesday, 7 April, 2004, 08:42 GMT 09:42 UK
How talent became an issue of weight
By Tom Bishop
BBC News Online entertainment staff

Deborah Voigt
Voigt was due to sing in the Royal Opera House's Ariadne auf Naxos
When soprano Deborah Voigt was sacked after being told she was too large to wear her Royal Opera House stage costume, it sparked a furious response.

The renowned opera star was "hurt" by its decision to replace her with slimmer singer Anne Schwanewilms in Ariadne auf Naxos at London's Covent Garden.

But jokes about the show ending "before the fat lady sings" obscured the fact that weight has now become an issue in opera - an area of entertainment that previously avoided such concerns.

"I always thought it was wonderful, and paradoxically rather progressive, that opera represented one of the only high-profile worlds in media and entertainment where there did not exist a blatant prejudice of size," said tenor Luciano Pavarotti.

"Why should a leading lady have to be a perfect size? Voigt sings beautifully and is a great artist. Many beautiful singers happen to be slim. And many beautiful singers happen not to be."


Unlike opera, Hollywood has always been preoccupied with weight, its lead actors expected to squeeze larger-than-life performances from slim bodies.

During the 1940s MGM studios unwittingly helped actress Judy Garland become a drug addict by giving her sleeping pills and barbiturates to keep her energy level high and her weight level down.

Sixty years later, ex-child star Charlotte Church was denied a role in the Hollywood movie Phantom of the Opera after refusing to lose weight.

Charlotte Church
Church refused to diet to appear in a film of The Phantom of the Opera
"I think if I'd just fitted in with everything that everybody told me to I would have been in rehab aged 12," Church said.

This obsession spread to the world of dance and last year Anastasia Volochkova, one of Russia's best-known ballerinas, was sacked by The Bolshoi Theatre, which said she was too heavy for her partners to lift.

"Her physical form is definitely a serious problem," Bolshoi director Anatoly Iksanov said. Ms Volochkova's spokesman responded by saying the ballerina was 169 cm (5 feet 7 inches) tall and weighed 50 kg (110 pounds).

"They should remember that height is not what makes a ballerina great," Ms Volochkova added.


Male performers have traditionally been less susceptible to such demands, with Oscar-winning actors such as Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando enjoying continued success regardless of their expanding size.

Men are beginning to feel the pressure, however, with Leonardo DiCaprio reportedly told to lose 8 kg (20 pounds) in preparation for his role in 2000's The Beach.

At the other end of the spectrum, Coronation Street actor and former pop star Adam Rickitt admitted battling with bulimia before becoming a teenage pin-up.

And recent Oscar winner Renee Zellweger was exasperated when her performance and pitch-perfect English accent in 2001's Bridget Jones's Diary attracted less general interest than the fact she had gained 13 kg (30 pounds) for the role.

Miriam Margolyes
Fatness is not a state of mind and must not be allowed to become so
Miriam Margolyes
But while our preoccupation with appearance may undervalue raw talent, it seems a performer cannot achieve long-term success through weight-control alone.

Miriam Margolyes was awarded the OBE for a lengthy career playing large ladies in Vanity Fair, Blackadder and The Chamber of Secrets among dozens of films, plays and TV programmes.

She said of her figure: "Fatness is not a state of mind and must not be allowed to become so. I'm not fat inside. I'm a little darting thing with quick movements to match my quick mind."

And overweight 23-year-old Michelle McManus won the majority of 10.2 million public votes on ITV talent show Pop Idol thanks to her strong vocals and confident performance.

Soprano Deborah Voigt, 43, said she received many letters of support after her Royal Opera House dismissal, as she prepared for her Carnegie Hall recital debut and the release of her first solo album.

Nevertheless she concluded: "I would give my right arm - well maybe not my right arm - but I'd give something pretty significant to not have this issue be a part of my life."

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