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Medical Myths Medical Myths

Do Big Voices Need Big Bodies?

October 23, 2012

By Robert H. Shmerling M.D.

Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center

Here's a question that came up over dinner the other night.

Is it true that opera singers are usually overweight or obese because their excess weight helps them become great singers?

My dinner mates and I agreed that female pop singers are usually attractive and skinny. I suggested that the ones that looked less like models might have had outstanding voices but were less likely to become stars. Call it discrimination based on sex appeal.

But my dinner mates pointed out a glaring exception: Great opera singers. It's undeniable that some of the greatest opera performers carry or carried excess weight. They are rarely thin. Luciano Pavarotti, Ben Heppner, Jane Eaglen and Deborah Voigt are recent examples.

And that led us to talk about whether opera singers need to be overweight. (After all, there are exceptions: Jose Carreras and Denyce Graves are not obese and are also considered among the greats.) If so, how does excess weight improve one's ability to sing opera? And, does losing weight impair an opera singer's voice? (Read more about how the voice works.) I'm no opera expert — our friends were the real opera fans — but I could not think of an anatomical or medical reason that big voices needed to come from big bodies.

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What Do the Studies Say?

There is no obvious physical reason that an overweight person should be a better opera singer than a thin person. So, I searched the medical literature for evidence about the effect of weight on an opera singer's voice. I was sure researchers had studied this topic.

In fact, I could find almost nothing written on opera singers at all. What scant information I found had little to do with weight. For example:

  • A 2001 study found that when singing with the greatest projection, opera singers reduce the amount of air exhaled. This suggested increased efficiency. In addition, the loudest singing was associated with an expanded rib cage, (especially from side to side) but a slight decrease in abdominal girth.
  • Neck muscles are particularly active among classical singers when singing in a high pitch.
  • A 2005 study found that "auxiliary breathing muscles" — those around the rib cage, abdomen and neck — are more active among opera singers than among non-opera singing students.
  • A 2008 study used lasers to measure vocal folds. It found that they are longer and wider among baritones compared with sopranos. This makes sense. It's the same reason that base strings in a piano are longer and wider than the strings producing high pitched notes. And we know that the vocal folds get thicker and longer in boys as their voices deepen during puberty.

These studies provide insight into how opera singers do what they do. But none of these findings preclude a well-trained singer with a "normal" body mass index from becoming an opera superstar. Yet, such body types have long been rare among opera's elite.

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A Few Theories, But Little Evidence

I could be wrong, but it appears that no one knows why most opera singers for many years have been overweight. But, I found several theories:

  • People with excess fat overall also have increased fat around the larynx. This increases resonance.
  • An "ample" chest cavity and large body mass contribute to a more powerful diaphragm, which is needed to project one's voice (without the help of amplification) in opera concert halls.
  • Lung "exertion" actually triggers hunger due to hormones released by lung cells. If opera singers are hungrier, they may eat excessively and put on weight.
  • Opera singing causes the rib cage to expand, making singers look fatter than they are.
  • Opera singers believe that their size will help them, so larger singers are more confident and give better performances.

There is little direct evidence to support any one of these theories. In fact, they could all be wrong.

Do we expect opera singers to be big and consider smaller opera singers to have inferior voices? If so, maybe this is a form of reverse discrimination that favors those who carry extra weight. And I could find nothing (other than anecdotes) about the effect of weight loss on an opera singer's vocal projection, pitch or tone.

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The Downside of Excess Weight

Obesity-related health concerns are not the only way that excess weight can hurt opera singers. Just ask Deborah Voigt. She was dropped from an opera at the Royal Opera House in London in 2004 because the casting director felt she was "too big for a little black dress." She was replaced with a slimmer singer.

Soon after this incident (but reportedly unrelated to it), Ms. Voigt had gastric bypass surgery and lost 135 pounds. Reviews, including one from New York Magazine, commented on a change in her voice since the surgery. Yet Ms. Voigt remains among the top opera singers in the world. Maria Callas' weight swings and dieting were blamed by some for her vocal decline. However, it's not clear in either case that diet or weight was responsible for a change in voice.

One more point: For many people, opera is not just about the voice. It's also about theater, where appearances matter. When Pavarotti's weight limited his mobility during some of his farewell performances of Tosca in 2004, critics thought it affected his dramatic performance.

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The Bottom Line

We may never know the reason that opera singers are often overweight. But I, for one, think it's an observation worth studying, if for no other reason than because the singers' health is at risk. Just as boxers or wrestlers try to gain or lose weight to gain an advantage in the ring, opera singers may believe — rightly or not — that they need to maintain an unhealthy weight for their craft.

My guess is that opera singers do not need to be overweight and that over time we'll see fewer obese opera divas and, for better or worse, opera singers and pop singers may begin to look more and more alike.

My opera sources tell me that it's already happening. Many of the most successful opera singers currently or recently on stage are neither heavy nor large, including Natalie Dessay, Renee Fleming, and Juan Diego Florez. Also, there's been interest in recent years in attracting a younger audience to opera. So, many opera companies have suggested casting younger singers who appear more fit than the stereotypical overweight opera diva. Perhaps that's the reason the number of non-obese opera singers seems to be increasing in recent years.

For the health of these wonderful singers, I hope this is a trend that will last. It seems clear that you don't have to be overweight to be an outstanding opera singer.

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Robert H. Shmerling, M.D. is associate physician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and associate professor at Harvard Medical School. He has been a practicing rheumatologist for over 20 years at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. He is an active teacher in the Internal Medicine Residency Program, serving as the Robinson Firm Chief. He is also a teacher in the Rheumatology Fellowship Program.


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