The Fat Lady Sings?

La Bohème, both here and on Broadway, contemplates whether opera can carry its own weight.

LA BOHEME (playing at the Meydenbauer Center through Sunday, April 6; call 206-389-7676) is a timely choice for the Seattle Opera Young Artists Program's annual production. Baz Luhrmann's current hit Broadway staging of the Puccini opera has inflamed the old debate about opera's priorities. His slick Moulin Rouge-y touches the miking of the singers, the reduced orchestra, and, above all, his practice of casting singers for looks first and vocal skill secondhas alarmed believers in the traditional operatic ideal of conveying drama and emotion primarily through voice and the orchestra.

Luhrmann and his defenders argue that in our visual age, these values need to be rethoughtthe survival of the art form is at stake. Like it or not, they say, an opera singer's physical attractiveness matters to today's audiences. Considering the popular stereotype of diva girth (it ain't over till the you-know-who sings), weight is the main issue. Stellar soprano Deborah Voigt, a self-proclaimed "big girl," states flatly that she's been denied roles because of her size. Asked in a recent interview why she hasn't yet sung at Bayreuth, the mecca of Wagnerism, she admitted, "Because they think I'm too fat. It's officialI have actually been told that."

Seattle Opera's La Boh譥 director Stanley Garner is confident about the possibility of reconciling musical priorities and visual verisimilitude. "The music is the most important element," he says. "Generally, the best voice/musician is cast. The good news is that singers since the 1960's have gradually become better actors. The 'park and bark' type of opera production has become the exception rather than the rule."

Garner's production presents several powerful arguments in favor of the traditionalist view. First, there is Heather Parker's Musetta, an object lesson in bringing a character alive vocally. Her Act II waltz is the key: To her usual melting phrasing, Parker adds a steely tone and sharper-than-a-serpent's-tooth consonantsboth seductive and bitter at once, just the sort of acting-with-the-voice that is a good opera production's greatest strength.

Even more telling is Melissa Brezinsky's performance as Mimi. This is a central role in the weight controversy: The frail character dies of consumption, and Brezinsky has a figure that conventional wisdom says should disqualify her for the part. In Garner's view, however, a singer's weight shouldn't be a stumbling block for any thoughtful, imaginative director: "Costuming, makeup, lighting, and staging are all elements a director uses to make the performers look their best in any role. . . . I remember a production of Faust [in which] the singer of the title role weighed in at 300 pounds. I had to rethink a scene where I'd intended for Faust to kneel. You can get 300 pounds down, but it's difficult to get it back up again gracefully."

Suppose the zaftig Brezinsky had auditioned for Luhrmannwould he have shown her the door? If so, he'd have missed out on a marvelously subtle portrayal. Never coy or saccharine, Brezinsky gives Mimi a charming gentleness (she even comes across as smart, not an adjective usually associated with the role), presented with expansive, polished singingall you hear is convincing emotion. Russell Lamar Thomas, this cast's fine Rodolfo, is also stocky, a fact that brings to mind a hypocrisy in the opera world: Nobody cares if men are big. (Pavarotti's been the world's most popular tenor for 35 years, and when has he ever had to deal with the discrimination that Voigt has?)

As Seattle's limited-budget but intelligent and movingly vivid production proves, glitz is not the answer. Glitz won't sell operait only sells itself, instilling a desire for more glitz. It's what the music does that brings them back. The thought of Brezinsky, like Voigt, possibly not getting roles she clearly deserves is infuriating. Insofar as Luhrmann is contributing to this attitude, he's doing opera a gross disservice.

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