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  • Abi Levis

Leg day and Opera are not Related

*NOTE* - The topic explored in this post is a sensitive one. I use the word "fat" never in a derogatory or pejorative sense, but rather as an adjective. Many have expressed to me the desire to reclaim the word, and I agree that by avoiding the word or substituting it with more palatable ones, we allow the negative stigma surrounding body weight to fester. As I am not describing any one person in particular, I have decided to use the word outright in my writing.

Thank you.




A few months ago, I posted this picture of myself on Instagram/FaceBook.



I mean...I don't skip leg day....soooo

I received many likes and nice comments, all of which managed to stay within the bounds of non-offensive and non-creepy. However, as the day went on I began to think and realized that what I posted is problematic.


My intention was to poke fun at the weight lifting stereotype of "skipping leg day", which is all well and good, for those who got that reference.

The problem is that I was in a costume for my job as an opera singer, and I hashtagged accordingly. The caption, combined with the professional reality of my outfit, could be interpreted as "I look like this, and that's why I get to wear the sexy costumes and work.", or, more crassly "I'm skinny and ripped, so I win. Fatties need not apply. If you don't look like this, you have work to do."

For this, I apologize. It was not my intention, but I understand that it was likely an outcome of my action.


I don't want young singers to see my posts and further internalize the idea that they have to make it on the catwalk in order to make it on the stage.

I don't want people working through body issues to look at my posts and further internalize the idea that their body is undesirable if it doesn't look a certain way.

And frankly, I want compliments about my performing and compliments about my looks to remain separate - at least until we reach a point in this business where it isn't ingrained, both explicitly and subtly, that it is the performer's duty to fit into a prescribed view of beauty.

When one considers the climate of the operatic profession over the past decade, it is very, very important that we talk about this a lot and loudly. It is important that I call myself out and that I use this moment, hopefully, to further the conversations. It is important that I apologize and try to do better going forward.

I also have a lot of feelings so here we go....



Costumes:


I was very lucky that the production pictured above was created with me in mind. The mounting of it was part of a prize I won, and the opera was picked and designed around me and my artistry. I knew well in advance (six months) what the production concept was and was asked privately by the designer if I was comfortable wearing a bikini on stage. I told them clearly what I would need in order to make that work for me, and we went from there. All in all, it was a dream.


It was also a situation which is far, far from normal.


In the United States, the production time of an opera typically lasts three to six weeks. In Europe that time is more likely to be six to ten weeks. In either case, however, the singer will find out what they are wearing within the first days of the rehearsal process. On the first day of a production we will sit in a room and find out what the director has in mind for the show and we will be shown beautiful watercolor illustrations of the costumes. Within the next three days or so we will be called into the costume department to try on the the first iterations of these costumes, which, more often than not, look only vaguely like what we saw in the pictures. The only contact we will have had prior to this experience will have been to send our measurements to the costume department. This is often a chore conducted by our agents, who keep our measurements on file.


The more I think about this, the stranger it seems. Opera seasons are planned two to five year in advance. Singers, conductors, and directors are usually contracted at least a year in advance, and - if the production is a remount - the sets and costumes are predetermined.

Why then are the performers not told in advance what to expect? Honestly, I often don't even know if the show is a remount until the first day of rehearsals.

Why in this age of social media and instantaneous communication is there such a lack of communication between the people creating the concept and the people executing it?


Why are most experiences the complete opposite of the one I had during this Bikini-clad production? It seems like it would be so simple to email or DM a singer and say "this is what I'm thinking, how do you feel about it?"

It would alleviate not only the stress of each new gig, but it would avoid last minutes issues that the long suffering costume departments of the world are left to solve.


Last summer, Kathryn Lewek clapped back when a critic body-shamed her in what should have been a review of the performance itself. Some then responded that they found it odd that Lewek would choose to wear a revealing costume if she was going to be so sensitive about what people said about her body.


Pretty much every singer in the world who saw this exchange laughed out loud.


Because we have little to no choice in what we wear on stage.


Many of us have gone to great lengths to fit into the reigning trends of costuming - be it dieting, countless hours in the gym, postponing pregnancy or even plastic surgery. Let me make it clear, unless you are Renee Fleming or Anna Netrebko level famous or the costume department is particularly strong willed, the singers are at the mercy of the director/designer's concept. Also, to suggest that a person deserves to be publicly humiliated because of the clothing they wear while on stage is despicable. It is only a shade or two less despicable than insinuating that if someone doesn't want to be harassed in the workplace, they shouldn't wear tight clothing, or asking an assault victim what they were wearing on the night of the attack. This is the sort of thing that we as a society are trying to leave in the past. This is the sort of thing that activists are working so hard to throttle, chop into tiny pieces, and bury in a shallow grave in South Jersey. It is the wrong side of history, and if you are currently on it, you need to smarten up quick by backing away from the victim-blaming and slut-shaming.


Skinny Privilege:


I have never in my entire life been fat. I am naturally slender, and any work I do in the gym is to build mass, not shed it. I am genetically predisposed to looking like Kate Moss and David Bowie had a love child.


I have Skinny Privilege, and I come by it naturally.


Unlike White Privilege, Skinny Privilege can be earned, so if you don't believe me that it is real, please feel free to ask a friend who has lost a lot of weight if people treat them differently. I'm sure they will corroborate the existence of Skinny Privilege.

Also, read this article.

And watch this video.

I have never walked into a store and had to worry if their clothes would fit me off the rack. I have never gone to a gym and had people wonder why I'm there or had anyone make condescending comments about what I'm ordering at the restaurant.

And while I have dealt with my share of body image issues and unfair stereotyping within the operatic business, it is nothing compared to what fat people deal with daily. It is nothing compared to the barrage of negativity that our society and our industry sends towards women who wear an American dress size with more than one digit.


Now, before you run to the comments section telling me how you once weren't hired because you are skinny....let me explain that the term "privilege" does not erase the struggles you have faced. It seems to be a uniquely American tradition to fetishize our struggles and show that we, just like our forefathers, have leaped hurdles and pulled up our bootstraps to earn what we have. And in many instances, you probably did. But it is also important to be grateful for the things for which you did not have to work. I believe Religious people like to call them blessings? Those. Privileges and Blessings are similar things, but the word privilege asks you to take a moment and realize that other people DON'T enjoy the same blessings as you AND that they have had to face a few extra hurdles as a result. There is also the added idea that things that give you Privilege shouldn't be considered blessings, like Whiteness. because that would imply that not-whiteness is *not* a blessing, and that's inherently f***ed up.

Again: no one is saying you don't deserve the things you've achieved, but wouldn't it be cool if the number of hurdles was equal? And isn't a big part of compassion saying "I don't understand this because I've never been through this, but I'm here to listen and to help in the ways you suggest."? A big part of privilege is admitting that you cannot fully understand the specific situation because you've never been there, and in some cases never will.

I have never been fat. Ergo, I cannot understand what it's like to function in this society as a Fat person. I would have to undergo an experiment the likes of "Black Like Me" (read this book) in order to get that perspective and I just don't have the time or resources for that.


I do have the time to hush up and listen to my Fat friends in this moment. I do have the time to help where and when I can, as my colleagues prescribe.


God, I have said and typed some stupid sh*t in the past - about who should be playing certain roles, about what certain body types are capable of, about how if people are truly unhappy with their bodies they should just go to the gym. And looking back on those things fills me with shame. But I've grown and I'm trying to help by helping other people grow on this subject as well. And while I find it frustrating that people sometimes assume that the reason I am successful is because of how I look I understand that those assumptions are a byproduct of a larger conversation that needs to be happening, and I trust that in time those assumptions will go away. I also have enough confidence in my work to know that my singing and acting speak for themselves. And while I don't think that it's a particularly large part of why I get hired, I acknowledge that my looks help.

I acknowledge my privilege in the hopes that one day it won't matter.


Fitness:


My relationship with exercise is no one's business but my own. I choose to share some of that relationship on Social Media because I choose to do so.

Basta.

If someone else does not want to lift weights or cross a half-marathon off their bucket list, that is their business. They do not need to disclose to me that it is because they have arthritis, or because they were once sexually harassed at a gym and don't feel comfortable there. They do not need to share with the world that they are dealing with severe body image issues that render them emotionally unwilling to subject themselves to working out in a public space. They do not need to justify why they just don't feel like getting on the bike today.


It is their own business. I don't care if performers are public entities. They are also humans and are entitled to privacy. And frankly, if you are that obsessed with why someone isn't as fit as you seem to think they should be, may I suggest that you get a hobby and some therapy, ASAP.


Rant over.


The Answer:


PSYCH!

I don't have it.

Wouldn't it be amazing if I did?

I'd probably be Knighted as Opera Oprah or something.

No, I don't have a cure-all for the deeply complex issues that face our industry today, but I do have some suggestions:


  • For myself: I'm going to stop posting photos with captions that conflate my body type and my career. It sends the wrong message and I need to do a better job of policing that. That means keeping my captions specific as well as my hashtags.

I'm going to do my best to call people out when they make inappropriate comments, even when they are veiled as compliments. I'm going to listen to my colleagues when they share their stories and do what I can to be a part of the solution.


  • For Arts Critics: Do not comment on the physical appearance of a specific person or group of persons. No mean comments or realistic comments, and honestly no nice comments either. People notice when you compliment the looks of everyone in the room and then say "well, you have a really nice laugh" to the one you don't think is pretty. When you gush over someone's physique in a review it furthers this false idea that SKINNY = GOOD FAT = BAD.

Don't mention their weight, their shape, their skin, or whether you find them attractive. Show your journalistic integrity and report on the acting, the singing, the set, the costumes, whatever. But my legs, her waistline, and his pecs are off limits. Got it?


  • For Casting Directors: Work on casting based solely on voice and acting. If that means you need to close your eyes for the first couple of minutes of the aria, that's fine. If you need to start requesting audio prelims instead of video, we won't mind. If you notice that you are "making your decision within the first 5 notes of the aria" then you aren't doing your job very well, and you need to regroup. Take that moment to ask yourself WHY you don't like this singer. If the answer is that they don't look the way you think they should - that their appearance makes you feel squicky - call your therapist.


  • For Artistic Directors: Challenge your audiences to expect the unexpected. Trust that they are smart and imaginative enough to accept an androgynous Carmen as sexy. Trust them to believe that teenage boys are sometimes chubby, that short men are capable of heroic feats, and that tall women are worthy of earth shattering love.

If your old white donors complain or make an inappropriate comment about the appearance of one of your employees, say something. You can do this. While you may not win every battle, you might be able to slowly challenge the prejudices of Sir McGillicutty III, esq. And isn't Art about expanding the horizons of the audience?


One of the first things I was taught in acting classes was to never assume my audience is stupid, and as a frequent audience member I find it insulting that the companies I patronize are making radical generalizations about what I want to see onstage. I am so tired of every Carmen looking like Selma Hayek's stunt double. I would give my left arm to see a femme-fatale sex-kitten who looked like me, and I'm sure my pre-teen step- kids would like to see a Cherubino with acne or baby fat. I bet that the short guy in the balcony would LOVE to see a Don Giovanni or Prince Charmant who wasn't wearing three inch lifts.


Don't tell me its not believable! If you can ask your audiences to accept that I am a man, than you can ask them to accept that fat people exist in every corner of the dramatic world. We have to stop pretending to be better than Hollywood while simultaneously committing it's worst sins.


  • For AGMA and Agents/Managers: Protect us. Hold the companies you work with to a higher standard. Require AGMA houses to inform performers of production details at least six months in advance. If I have to send my measurements to the house, then the house can send me the costume sketches and the director can send me the concept.

If a concept demands a performer to appear nude or in their underwear or swimsuit, we should be paid more and also allowed to say no without fear of retribution. That means if you, the union, get wind of a risque production you need to reach out to the performers privately for their take on the situation - did they feel pressure from the director or house to comply? Did they witness anything questionable? Did they feel all of their colleagues were truly comfortable with what they were asked to do? A singer should never be told in rehearsal "and this is wear you strip down" without prior knowledge and consent.


Remember who you're representing, and when push comes to shove put our safety above your paycheck.


  • For Educators and YA trainers: It's time to stop telling your students what to wear to auditions. It's time to stop telling them that they have to look a certain way in order to win the competition. Make it clear that it is not their job to live up to an unrealistic standard. Make sure that your students are more interested in their technique than their six packs; that they are spending more time in the practice room than at the gym; that they are focused more on sight reading skills than on counting their calories. Teach them that their body is their personal business, that their professional worth is in no way related to their BMI.

Empower them. Teach them to speak up for themselves. Teach them that part of professionalism is knowing yourself and your boundaries and standing by them. Make sure the things that you impart are not things they will have to unlearn ten years down the road. Ensure that the next generation of performers isn't as terrified of taking care of themselves as the current one.


  • For Audience members: Demand more from your local institutions. Make it clear that you want to feel represented on stage and are genuinely disinterested in cookie-cutter productions - that making opera more accessible has more to do with inclusivity than shallow sexualisation.

If you see a production that makes you feel represented and empowered, post about it! Tell your friends! Let the administration of your local company know that they are doing a great job.


It's gonna take a village to tackle some of these problems, and it's not going to change overnight. But I have hope, and I will try to do my part everyday to keep the conversation alive and healthy.


Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to practice.

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