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I'm Too Sexy For My Fach

First published by Classical Singer.

Dear Erda,

This letter is a response to the article " It Ain’t Over ‘Til the Little Black Dress Sings" (May 2004). Weight Discrimination versus Age Discrimination- what is better?

Isn’t it a ridiculous question? However, dear Cindy, you are luckier than I am. At least you can DO something about your weight. You can lose it and you are "marketable" again. It takes a little effort, awareness, and portion control, but losing weight will only benefit you. You will be healthier, feel and look better. You have nothing to lose by losing the pounds. But I --- how can I take my years off? There is no diet for one’s age- now how SAD is THAT!



Dear Frustrated,

I don’t think it’s a question of what kind of discrimination is better. I assure you that people who are overweight and feel discriminated against are just as frustrated, and face just as many battles, as you do as an older singer. Losing weight is a very individual undertaking, dependent on many factors; and furthermore, overweight singers will also get older, and then face the same problems you do. So I’m not at all convinced that an overweight singer is “luckier” than an older one.

I’m also not convinced that there’s nothing you can do to “lose” your years, visually at least. It all depends on what you’re willing to invest, in terms of time, money, and personal sacrifice … just like someone embarking on a weight loss regimen.

First, you can take care of your health, make sure you eat right, get exercise every day (even half an hour of intense exercise will do it, experts are now saying; my trainer says you get more from half an hour in the morning and half in the afternoon or evening rather than one big push once a day), and enough sleep. Excessive alcohol and drug usage and exposure to smoke or sun ages a person. Stress ages a person.

There is an entire industry out there just dying (no pun intended) to help you look younger. Botox injections, chemical peels, face lifts, spider vein surgery, Retin-A, hair dye, contact lenses … they’re not cheap, some of them are drastic, but they are available. This pursuit of youth is not for everyone, nor should it be. However, most producers want good-looking performers. And in our culture, "good-looking" is rather narrowly defined as young and slim. If you think your looks are an impediment to getting work, perhaps you need to think like the Hollywood actresses do and invest in a little “work”.

I would venture to say that all of us in the entertainment industry --- and make no mistake, opera is entertainment --- now need to do all we can to look the best we can. It’s not all there is to operatic success, but it has become an element that can’t be denied. Is it fair? No. Is it an accurate reflection of society? No. It just is.

Notice that I’m not saying we all have to look like movie stars or twenty-year-olds, though it certainly helps. I’m also not advocating plastic surgery or any of these other techniques --- these are very personal decisions, based on many factors. But we do need to look our best, especially while we’re climbing the ladder or feel in danger of slipping down a few rungs. That means reviewing your wardrobe, hairstyle, makeup, and yes, waistline on a regular basis. It means that if you’re a guy and you sing barihunk roles, you’d better be able to take your shirt off with pride, and if you’re a soubrette, you’d better have a cute figure. This is the reality of the business today, and it’s not going to change any time soon.

But it’s not all about looks, not by any means. What if the age discrimination you’re battling has nothing to do with your ability to convince an audience that you’re young and in love? I don’t think a column goes by when I don’t advise someone that if you are not getting work, the first thing you have to do is evaluate yourself in the most stringent light. Having passed spring chickenhood, do you still have technical issues or have new ones developed? Does your voice sound youthful, are the high notes as good as ever? If your answers are “yes”, “yes”, and “no”, then the next things you need to be asking yourself are “How do I fix that?” and “Can I fix it quickly?”. The bottom line anytime, anywhere in this business is, are you a terrific performer who excites and inspires? Are you hirable right this minute?

All right, let’s say that you’ve done the sweep and you’re pretty sure that everything is on track. Perhaps you are a late bloomer, who didn’t begin to study or perform professionally until recently. You might have gaps in your resume, or very little on your resume, and it’s hard to get anyone to give you a chance. I tend to think of this less as age discrimination than an unwillingness on the part of producers to risk the success of an expensive production on an unknown who doesn’t yet have the resume or experience to back up their talent. Youthful singers face the same difficulty. It’s frustrating, but this is the hill you have to climb, part of the price you pay for arriving late at the party.

If you can’t get anyone to hire you, make your own work. Nudge your way up the ladder. Get people to come hear you. Network like crazy. Get people to make phone calls on your behalf. Nobody said it was gonna be easy, but neither is it hopeless. Cases in point: a friend who started off in the chorus where he started singing for fun in his 40’s is now performing all over Germany and many other European countries. (It didn’t hurt that he is a bass, an excellent musician, and fluent in several languages). Another colleague is a woman who looks every one of her sixty years but whose gorgeous voice is as fresh and youthful as a sixteen-year-old’s. She, too, came from the chorus. Hildegard Behrens is perhaps one of the most famous examples of a successful late bloomer. But all these people have something in common: they were quick studies, and ready when opportunity came their way. They were hirable. Right that minute.

What if you’re not a late bloomer, but a seasoned performer whose once plentiful work has now dried up like a seasonal spring? Then you might indeed be a victim of a type of age discrimination that is very hard to beat. In that case, my advice would be to make sure you look and sound as youthful as possible and perhaps rethink your repertoire and/or your venues. Perhaps you can’t get hired to sing Despina any more, but could you sing Marcellina? Or might you be hired to sing in smaller companies than have been your wont, who would be overjoyed to get a singer of your experience and reputation? How about more concert work? How about exploring the works of new or underrated composers? Can you reinvent yourself, your career? This is a bitter pill, but for those of us who aren’t superstars, it may be one we all have to learn to swallow. The question is how much do you want to continue singing? What are you willing to do without sacrificing your artistic integrity?

I have a dear friend who once had an international career as a soubrette. She is no longer in her tender years, and she’s been struggling with what to do with her singing career. The lady is one of the best singing actresses I’ve ever had the pleasure to hear, but to quote her, “Who wants a forty-year-old soubrette?”. She has, as I like to say, become “too sexy for her fach”. In recent years she has begun to take on some roles that once she might never have considered, such as a juicy character part written for very different voice type, but which she sings brilliantly. She also sings her old repertoire, with regional companies who are delighted to get such a consummate artist and are willing to flout convention to have an older, wiser, more cynical Despina or a Cunegonde who doesn’t quite fit the physical mold but thrills the pants off the audience with the brilliance of her “Glitter and Be Gay” and her clever skills as a comedienne. My friend is evolving, and slowly finding those things which work for her.

Ultimately, young, old, fat, thin, stunning or plain; whatever our vocal qualities and acting abilities may be, this is what each of us has to do to achieve a career. We must find what works for us, or we must make something work for us. When we do that, we become hirable.