Charlottesville opera company celebrates soprano in Fat Pig
Miriam Gordon-Stewart is not surprised that the world of opera has attracted some heavy performers. The creative director of Charlottesville’s Victory Hall Opera says it takes a certain body to produce the big sound associated with that art form.
“Singers are so often larger than normal people. Their bodies are built to create this super human sound, and quite often that comes in a big package,” she explains.
But Tracy Cox, a soprano and fat activist, says fewer singers are appearing on the opera stage. “That’s kind of the stereotypical idea that we have of the opera singer – the fat woman with horns, but in the repertoire there is nothing explicitly calling for fat singers, and there have actually been fewer and fewer opportunities for us as the industry has shifted towards a more cinematic kind of casting.”
Which is why she was thrilled to get an e-mail from Gordon-Stewart, inviting her to star in an adaptation of Neil LaBute’s play, Fat Pig.
“Helen, my character, a fat woman, and a man, Tom, in a normative body fall in love, and there’s essentially fat phobic pressure on the relationship. A character named Carter says, ‘If she lost 80 pounds, she’d be stunning.’”
Cox says this is the first opera about a fat woman in a romantic lead. “She’s the kindest, she’s the calming force, she’s the most likable, and you as an audience member begin to really root for her, to really care for her and to be really upset when she faces anti-fat bias or cruelty.”
There are, she adds, light moments in the story of a mid-level corporate guy and the first woman he’s really loved.
“She’s a librarian, and it has the kind of meet cute of the romantic comedy. It really catches you right at the beginning kind of rooting for these people, because it’s really charming and easy and fun and funny to watch.”
But Tom cares deeply about what other people think, and the story takes a tragic turn for Helen.
“It’s looking like they’re going to break-up," Cox recalls. "Helen says, ‘Your love has been so important to me, it’s been so healing, that I would do literally anything to keep it from ending, and she has this stark, devastating aria where she says over and over again, ‘I would cut, I would shrink, I would staple.’"
Gordon-Stewart wrote the lyrics for this first-of-its-kind opera, hoping to create a conversation about this subject in a society that is, increasingly, obese.
“Often in opera we’re asked to play characters that are pure fantasy or that not many current-day people can relate to. It’s like characters that are kings or queens, or characters that are mythological beings," says Gordon-Stewart. "In this case we’re dealing with characters who all of us can recognize. At Victory Hall we always try to bring contemporary stories to the stage.”
The show will debut in the theater of Piedmont Virginia Community College with performances on January 21st and 27th. Cox hopes they will sell out:
“Producers across the performing arts are not convinced that audiences want to see people who look like them, and that’s something that I believe is just fundamentally not true. I honestly believe that this piece really could be a door-opener for other pieces written by fat people for fat people. People will buy tickets to see themselves on stage.”
She adds that the music alone, composed by Matt Boehler, is reason to see Fat Pig.
“You know this is my first time having a role written for me, and Matt Boehler is -- I don’t throw this word around – is truly a genius. He’s an incredible singer himself and a wonderful composer, so the role in just right in my sweet spot."
Fans may also delight in the performance of Troy Cook who has sung at opera houses around the world, but with COVID keeping many opera buffs away from theaters, Victory Hall is planning a film that will make this story available to anyone, anywhere online.