Opera is theatre on steroids. Take a play, make it three hours long, add some incredibly taxing musical requirements, a chorus, and a full orchestra, and you have the beginnings of an opera. Terry Pratchett, in his novel Maskerade, words it quite truthfully: “Opera happens because a large number of things amazingly fail to go wrong… It works because of hatred and love and nerves. All the time… If you wanted a quiet retirement, Mr. Bucket, you shouldn’t have bought the Opera House. You should have done something peaceful, like alligator dentistry.” (Pratchett, P. 68)
This is a quote based on a stereotype, but stereotypes are often based in truth. Opera has been around for a long time, and the truths about the opera world have slowly morphed into cliches as popular entertainment leaves opera behind. The culture is not, however, dead. The remaining opera singers who love the extreme passion of an increasingly niche artform are forced to sit back and watch as others mock their passion. These mockeries come together to form a single image.
“It’s not over ‘till the fat lady sings.” This phrase evokes an image of a gargantuan woman with a large horned hat topping her blonde braids, her jaw hanging open as she blasts out a high C with glass-shattering intensity.
This image is not entirely conjured from imagination. Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen is a cycle of four epic operas based on Norse Mythology. If all the operas were performed back-to-back, it would be a 15-hour spectacle. The music is demanding, forcing all of the singers to be vocally very powerful, and a large rib cage fits more easily in a large woman. The horned hats were actually worn as a costume.
However, Wagnerian singing takes up a very small section of opera. I happen to be a slim opera singer. However, films and tv shows have created such a strong idea of the opera singer as stout at best. I end up getting a lot of comments along the lines of “Aren’t you too small to be an opera singer?” A Night in at the Opera: Media Representations of Opera explains this stereotype well. “The prevailing image of an opera singer is buxom, fat and female. While opera has always had its fair share of corpulent performers, their shapely colleagues have somehow been erased from the collective memory, facilitating the useful cliche of the overweight, difficult diva.” (Tambling, P. 42)
A much more strongly negative stereotype (as well as one that is more harmful to me) is the diva. The diva is rude, self-centered, and incredibly vain. Minnie Driver plays Carlotta, the “prima donna” in the 2004 film interpretation of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s The Phantom of the Opera.
The story takes place in a fictional French opera house, the Opera Populaire. Phantom tells the story of a mysterious Opera Ghost who controls the cast and crew of the Opera Populaire. The phantom falls in love with a young girl, Christine, and teaches her to sing. She becomes a rival for our diva archetype, Carlotta.
Carlotta is not a talented woman. Janitors at the beginning of the film are shown putting earplugs in during rehearsal, shortly before Carlotta begins to sing. She warbles through her aria and scolds others for their performance. The woman is, to put it nicely, unlikeable. However, she is famous and a fixture at the Opera Populaire, so the owners are forced to woo her back onstage after another of her many dramatic departures due to imagined slights. Her role in the show ends when the Phantom causes her to sing like a frog onstage. He is expressing his displeasure that Carlotta was placed in a role which he wanted Christine to play.
Christine is the ingenue in the dramatic tale. She is suddenly promoted to a star after Carlotta storms off near the beginning of the show. Her magical singing immediately captivates the audience, which includes the viscount Raoul, a childhood friend who now wishes to court Christine. She becomes embroiled in a love triangle including the Phantom. She handles the whole experience fairly well for a 17-year-old, albeit a little wide-eyed and naive.
In Terry Pratchett’s Maskerade, a humorous novel directly parodying Phantom of the Opera, among other things, Christine is not so well put-together. Christine is young and excitable. Every sentence she utters is punctuated by one or more exclamation marks, and while Christine is beautiful, she is not very smart. However, the owners of the opera house desire a beautiful face, so Christine is given lead roles and told to sing very softly. She is svelte and lovely, but utterly talentless. This is playing into the stereotype that a good opera singer must be fat.
Fat and talented comes in the form of Agnes Nitt, an unbelievably huge young lady who comes to the city to pursue her dream of becoming an opera singer. She blows away the panel at her audition with an impossible voice. Agnes starts singing Christine’s roles over the other girl’s softer singing after she switches rooms with Christine and ends up being accidentally tutored by the Opera Ghost, who is in no way, shape, or form inspired by the Phantom .
Let us move our eyes now to twenty-first century South Korea. In the opening scenes of 2011 KBS Drama Dream High, Go Hyemi sings a duet with real life opera superstar, Sumi Jo. They trill their way through Delibes’ flower duet from Lakme. It is revealed that Sumi Jo has been a mentor to Hyemi, who is a high school student. Hyemi is very talented and driven, and has a definite future in opera. She has been accepted at Juilliard, which is a high school for the purposes of this TV Drama. However, she is a diva.
This is revealed in the scene after the duet, when Hyemi meets up with her friend Yoon Baek-Hee outside the concert hall. Baek-Hee is dressed to look just like Hyemi, and shares with her pictures she took of the concert. Hyemi is cold and rude with her friend, brushing her off and making rude remarks. However, she defends Baek-Hee from verbal assault when two other girls claiming to be Hyemi’s friends harass Baek-Hee and insult her.
Throughout the course of the show, Hyemi would grow to be the most well-rounded and developing portrayal of a female opera singer. Emphasis on would. Unfortunately, she gives up opera to become a Kpop star after being forced to go to a Kpop high school. To me, this feels like a slight to opera. Watching this girl with a strong future in opera fight for the small chance to succeed in the much more fiercely competitive world of Korean Pop music because that’s her “real dream” portrays opera as dull. It couldn’t possibly be what someone wants. They try to paint it like she was only into opera because her parents wanted her to be.
Each of these characters seems to share a trait with another, despite each story being written by someone from a different country. Hyemi and Carlotta are divas. Carlotta and Pratchett’s Christine are untalented. Carlotta and Agnes are unattractive. Agnes and Hyemi are talented. But each and every one of these characters lacks a trait of the elusive truly positive portrayal of a modern opera singer: Beautiful, talented, smart, and kind. There is only one character I know of who embodies all of these elements.
And she is blue.
Diva Plavalaguna is a revered opera singer in the 1997 American film The Fifth Element. She is mysterious and alien, and she sings Il Dolce Suono from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor to a sold out audience before breaking into a popera creation to accompany the fight scene. She is kind to Leeloo, the main character of the film, and turns out to be the guardian of an important plot device. Diva Plavalaguna ends up dying in true operatic fashion after her performance, a necessary part of advancing the plot of the film.
It saddens me that Diva Plavalaguna is the most positive portrayal of an opera singer I know of since she has little screen time and fewer lines, but I am grateful that a portrayal of a pleasant, talented, and smart woman who sings opera exists.
The majority of popular media out there simply refrains from mentioning opera at all. The art, once a common form of entertainment, has been placed on a pedestal to be referred to as High Art. I suppose I should be grateful that there is any reference to my life’s passion in popular culture, but it stings that the portrayals are few and inaccurate. I feel that a good story about an opera singer, whether it be historical drama or simply a tv show about a young singer’s journey, would inspire more young people to learn about the art form I have chosen to devote my life to.
Or perhaps I should say it has chosen me.