It’s been a very close call for me — and more than once over the last 20 years. But one thing I know for sure now: I’m never going to be The Fat Lady!
I’ve been asked many times about fat and slim opera singers. Rather a thorny issue, that one… Also, I’ve been asked many times how I keep in shape, people want to know what kind of sport I do, which always makes me smile… I sing, that’s it! In my very-good-shape phases, I’ve even been asked if I wasn’t too light to have a voice. So here goes! This is the food journey of a singer who’s been studying nutrition and constantly experimenting with it over the past 17 years and who’s doing her best to fight off colds and to keep fitting into her pretty concert gowns.
There are many overweight opera singers with fabulous voices — there always were — but being a good opera singer and being fat doesn’t necessarily go hand in hand.
Up until very recently many people still believed that a big body gives you a big sound. Nothing could be further away from reality. Fat itself does not resonate and does not affect your voice in any positive or negative way whatsoever. It doesn’t give you more breath either, your lungs don’t get bigger because you gain a metre of circumference on the outside of your ribcage. If you’re very thin, people will think you don’t have the strength and stamina it takes, but that’s not necessarily true either.
I will never forget a Rheingold I saw at Rome Opera at the very beginning of my vocal training, where Hanna Schwarz was singing Erda. A really delicate, light creature came out of the depths of the Earth, and when she began to sing I simply couldn’t believe it: a huge, dark, low voice, the voice of a goddess, with an amazing shine and power. The lady might have weighed 52 kilos if that. From my own experience and from what I observed in many singers of both past and present times, your body weight does not particularly affect your voice.
The thing in our modern, hyper-visual era is, that fat singers often don’t get the nice jobs anymore because of their looks. Often if they have to choose, theatres prefer engaging good-looking singers to great-sounding ones… We tend to think in a more realistic, cinematic way nowadays, and we find it hard to accept a young warrior who weighs 160 kilos or a tormented young beauty who weighs 120. I’m a little bit guilty of that myself, I must admit. I just noticed I said that I SAW Rheingold, not that I HEARD it… But then on the other hand, when I have to choose a singer, I’ll always choose a great-sounding one, no matter what they look like.
The exact opposite happened the time I heard (!!!) Walküre, at Rome Opera again, in concert version, luckily enough. In walked Alessandra Marc, probably the biggest person I had seen so far — that was about 28 years ago and we weren’t used to seeing people like that in Italy at the time. She was moving slowly, wearing a pair of big open sneakers and a huge amount of cloth somehow wrapped around her whole body, I remember being quite shocked by her appearance. BUT! When she started to sing… her voice was simply heavenly, I was nailed to my seat and forgot to breathe. Also amongst my friends and colleagues, I work with, there are some astonishing voices in huge big bodies as well as in really thin ones.
I never got really big myself, but I have been overweight at times, up to 20 kilos over my ideal weight and I never noticed the slightest difference in my voice throughout these big fluctuations.
I am the kind of person who is ALWAYS — I’m not joking or exaggerating, I am just bloody always — hungry. I would be 130 kilos and counting if I ate the way I’d like to. Those incredible Italian 14-course wedding meals were never a problem for me… not only would I have all 14 courses without leaving a single crumb on my plate, but I’d also have a second helping of one plate or the other… And, believe it or not, I could have done that every day. Even now, when someone asks me if I’m hungry I usually reply in a civilised way but my instinct would be to scream: AM I HUNGRY??? ANY MORE SILLY QUESTIONS??? AM I BREATHING???
I remember feeling a constant knot in my stomach and only being able to drink a small coke on nights out when everyone else was having big meals.
I was a somewhat chubby child, not too fat, but just enough to feel ugly and insecure. My childhood and early teens were ruined by that. When I was 17, I went on a diet for the first time. I was away from home all summer, on a holiday with friends and I had the freedom to do what I wanted. I ate very little and tried to learn something about calories and it worked. Then from that moment until I was 21 I was so overwhelmed by the things happening in my life – dropping out of school and preparing for my A-levels on my own, attending evening courses at the French Culture Institute where I was the only teenager, getting into social life for the first time, interacting with adults only, learning to drive, traveling, meeting my first boyfriend – that I was simply too nervous to eat. I remember feeling a constant knot in my stomach and only being able to drink a small coke on nights out when everyone else was having big meals. I was very slim then, looking good for the first time in my life. I was able to wear pretty things for the first time and that was such a thrill! Also, it made me much more confident.
Then when I got used to all of these challenging situations and my comfort zone had stretched far enough to include all of that, the knot in my stomach disappeared one night and I suddenly found myself back at square one. I was eating like a monster, I did for years, together with my boyfriend who was a real gourmet and who kept telling me I was beautiful exactly the way I was — sweet… but men are no help for that matter…
Nine years later, after a few failed attempts at losing weight, I was 20 kilos up. So I got a book on calories and started counting again, without telling anyone because I had noticed that whenever you say you’re trying to lose weight, the whole universe starts conspiring against you. After six-and-a-half months of an inflexible 1200-calorie regime, I was back, 20 kilos down and looking good again.
That’s when I met my first husband. It didn’t take too long before I started putting on a little weight again, then a little bit more, then a little bit more, nothing too dramatic, but still, I had lost my shape again. I was cooking a lot, just for the two of us — men are always dangerous when it comes to food! — and very often for friends, plus we were traveling and eating out a lot.
Then during the hugely hot summer of 2003, one day I stopped eating carbs because they made the heat worse for me. My body reacted really well to that, and just a few weeks later I stumbled upon the Atkins diet. I found the book a bit extreme, but it was definitely proving me right and I kept it up my way, with enough vegetables, a lot less fat than he suggests but lots of protein and no carbs apart from my beloved red wine. I kept this up for years. For the first time in my life, I was feeling a lot less hungry, I was eating enough to be (more or less) satisfied and I was not putting on any weight, quite the opposite!
Then another interesting thing happened: I started suffering from reflux at night, nothing too bad, I probably wouldn’t have noticed if it hadn’t affected my vocal cords. I used to wake up with a really rough voice, so bad that sometimes I couldn’t face a practice session. I read up about it, discovered that many singers suffered from it and got many welcomes to the club… So I started skipping supper and going to bed with a completely empty stomach – apart from my sacred glass of red wine. I got used to this, and needless to say, it got me into even better shape, I went back to my ideal 60 kilos and kept that up for several years.
When my marriage ended, this otherwise terrible thing did not affect my eating habits and my weight in any way. By then the reflux had gone for good. But the problems started again when I met my second husband — I’m telling you ladies, men are always the problem! — and started cooking for him… You don’t really make steamed fish and salad for that incredibly gorgeous man you just met. Rather, you make him all the big classics of your Italian tradition, and they’re all 90% carbs and 1000 calories per forkful!
That was 14 years ago now. Over these 14 years I went up and down a few times, sometimes 2 or 3 kilos I guess, sometimes a bit more, then quite a bit more — I didn’t weigh myself once over all those years — but in April of 2018 after I saw the video of a concert I had just done and for which I had to buy a new gown that would fit me, I didn’t recognise myself anymore and I jumped on the scales. Total panic, I was a whole 17 kilos above my ideal weight. That’s when I decided that this was going to be the last time in my life I’ve been out of shape. So I went back to my old, healthier habits, banned all grains and potatoes and pulses and sugar again and it started to work. At the same time, I did a great programme called WildFit that made me take the last missing step and that is, banning all dairy. I had done that once before, during a 4-month vegan experiment, but I didn’t really take notice of the benefits of that back then… probably because I was clogging up my system with too many carbs at the time.
After I read the Atkins Diet 17 years ago, I started reading a serious number of books on nutrition over the following years, many about the modern food industry and all the chemicals it uses, many on the way it manipulates us into believing that we need its products. So I instantly banned all preservatives, colourings, flavourings, sweeteners, and glutamate, and I went from getting two cases of flu and four colds per winter to maybe three bad colds over all those years.
I also read many books on different theories like the Raw Food Diet, the Macrobiotic Diet, the Blood Type Diet, the Cretan Diet, various Keto diets, Food Combining, I must be forgetting another ten… That was all very interesting. Some of it made sense, some didn’t, but it all contributed to my awareness, and also, I experimented with many of these ideas to see how they felt. For example, I stopped eating meat for 4 years, then I tried the vegan diet I mentioned earlier, but both experiments resulted in serious weight gain. Not because you cannot maintain your weight on a meatless or vegan diet, but simply because back then I was replacing the missing animal foods with carbs instead of vegetables and fats…
At some stage I read books about the unimaginable benefits of whole germinable grains, the idea made 100% sense, so I started ordering whole germinable grains online and got myself an electric stone mill. The stuff tasted wonderful but there again, big weight gain and bowels in turmoil, no matter how many amazing nutrients were said to be in there.