Fat Shaming in Opera

Fat Shaming in Opera

The subject of fat shaming in opera has, in recent months, come to the forefront of industry awareness. Here singers share their experiences as well as the ways they bolstered themselves and how they continue to advocate for change within the opera world.


Recently, Zach Finkelstein of The Middleclass Artist stirred up quite a bit of conversation in his ongoing attempts to highlight this issue. Finkelstein, who has received both praise and criticism for his work—particularly for naming powerful people in the industry—says the purpose wasn’t to target anyone: “It really started about the Met competition. People wanted change but couldn’t [enact it] because of a judge who had power.” He says that in competitions, guidelines for judges are private and need to be structured and made public.

The resolve to cover this issue, in spite of the threat it poses to his own career as a singer, came from Finkelstein’s belief that it was his duty to “use his privilege as a wrecking ball.” As a white male who still performs regularly but doesn’t rely on a career as a performer or arts administrator for his main source of income, he felt the risk was mitigated and worth taking as “not everyone has the same shield. There will be less backlash [for me]. [Other] people get way less opportunities than I do—and when they do speak out, they’re more penalized.” 

Finkelstein lambasts opera administrators who push to uphold discrimination and defend bullying and harassment. This thinking, he says, rests in the false idea that discriminating against fat people is somehow doing a service to the industry by upholding a standard. “‘I’d rather have inequitable excellence’ is quite a toxic argument.”

For singers like Victoria Davis, this work is important. Davis, who had her first experiences with fat shaming as a performer even before college, lives at the intersection of various marginalized communities: being Black, being a woman, and being deemed overweight. Davis found safety at her predominantly Black arts high school in Washington, DC—Duke Ellington School of the Arts—but remembers a few traumatic incidents that still affect her to this day. One of those times was in preparation for a solo performance on the Kennedy Center Millenium Stage, when the costume designer mumbled to herself about how Davis and another student were too big and told her that in “the real world” she’d be fired for her size—all in front of other students. The experience stays with her. “Anytime there is a show that involves costumes, I always think of that moment. It’s anxiety inducing.” Entering Oberlin Conservatory as the only Black girl in her class often made her feel unsafe. “I was overly conscious of how much space I held in a room, why I held that space, and how they viewed me.” 

Zach Finkelstein

She recalls a teacher who made comments when her weight changed, telling her “you need to work on that” if she had a noticeable weight gain. Davis, who is in her late twenties, is working toward creating a “place to hold space” for singers who deal with this kind of fat shaming and bullying. She says people need to have an accurate conversation about history, including padding being added to clothing and full figures being associated with health and wealth. “Opera singers are not historically skinny.”

Weight affects every aspect of many singers’ careers, including repertoire. For marginalized people—read: people who aren’t white, cisgender, and thin—suspension of disbelief doesn’t exist. Often, what best suits a singer’s voice is thrown out in favor of what those in charge of casting believe suits their bodies. “I’ve heard the whole ‘nobody wants a fat Violetta,’ I’ve heard the whole ‘nobody wants a fat Marguerite.’ I learned that role at Mannes and I remember thinking it wasn’t realistic,” said Davis. “Even when I think about my audition package…they’re like “Oh my God, Wagner!’ And I’m like I’m not supposed to be singing Wagner right now. But I’m a big girl and I’m Black. Nobody wants to see a big Black girl singing these [other] roles.”

Educators play a huge role in shifting the conversation and culture. Many students note that their shaming came from their own teachers or that their teachers watched them be mistreated and didn’t defend them. Davis said she needed educators to have honest conversations about fat shaming, not play politics and not choose the same people repeatedly for opportunities—people who most often weren’t fat. While doing a summer program at the age of 19, she was called out during a talk-back session by a clinician, who she didn’t want to name, and told in front of the others that she needed to lose weight.

Victoria Davis

“The responses from teachers in the stories I’ve heard has been a huge disappointment,” said Finkelstein. “They are supposed to guide us, but they are often the people contributing to the problem. He says teachers “should challenge masterclass teachers. [They should say] ‘excuse me, that’s my student and it’s not OK.’” He says the silence of educators is especially hard for students and other young singers, often causing their education to be a dark and even depressing time. 

Noting the importance of community, Davis hopes younger singers will speak up in a way she didn’t have the confidence to when she was younger. “I would love to be able to talk to young women who deal with issues regarding their size and how they love themselves. I’m blessed because I have a support system and a loving partner.” But she acknowledged the difficulty: “You can speak up and do the right thing, but in doing the right thing it’s like you become a martyr.”

Helena Brown, a singer and professor, who also has a certificate in labor relations, has experienced this reality and believes it’s time for it to end. “We should be enjoying our successes now. We should be mapping the way for ourselves and the next generation. I don’t think we have to be martyrs. Look out for your fellow people, but look out for yourself. You didn’t have to suffer. The suffering isn’t going to suddenly pay off when you’re 70.”

She says the work is urgent. “We have this thing in history where we tell the stories, we do the work, and then we wait for the next generation to take over. But the thing is, that’s not sustainable. We don’t have the luxury to wait.”

Finkelstein says comments need to be constructive criticism—not about hair, weight, or things that may not be in a singer’s control in the moment and are no one’s business. He offers advice on how students can empower themselves: “Students have to say in the moment. ‘I appreciate that criticism, but I don’t think that’s constructive. Do you have anything to say about my singing?’”

What is the purpose of this kind of discrimination? Is this what audiences want? The answer seems to be a resounding no. People want to see people who look like them and who look like the world around them. And with two thirds of the U.S. population and one third of the world population considered overweight, that would include seeing fat people.

Helena Brown

Brown says the donors set the tone, not audiences. “The real people who show up in the sleet and the snow, who worry about what to wear, who worry about their friend who has a solo because they’re sick—those people who put on their good sweater or their good black dress to show up and support these artists—I don’t think they really care. I think they care about the story you’re telling them. I think it would be worth actually talking to the audience and seeing what they really think and feel about some things.”

“It doesn’t bear out in the numbers, either,” says Finkelstein. He says companies making discriminatory casting decisions are burning through money. “Why is it that we accept that they’re doing the right thing when they can’t balance a budget year to year?”

Julie Grady Heard—director of diversity, equity, and inclusion at Cincinnati Opera—agrees that the numbers tell the story. “We already know, if you go look at all the statistics, inclusive companies are the highest performing, and the customers, the audience, reward them for that,” she confirms. “More and more you hear people continually say that to be inclusive is to have people on the stage who look like [them]. That can be race and ethnicity, but that is certainly also size. Cinderella doesn’t have to be a [size] zero.”

So, how do we protect singers from a form of discrimination that’s easy to document through anecdotes but hasn’t been something the industry has shown interest in addressing? Educators, artists, and administrators have to know that this is ethically wrong, but also that it won’t be tolerated and isn’t necessary for success. Heard says that a complete evaluation of harassment policies needs to take place in all spaces, and that most companies who aren’t dealing with fat shaming responsibly likely aren’t dealing well with other issues either.

She says a unique challenge presents itself in the arts because so many people are coming and going, so it’s imperative that companies have clear policies and are making personnel who work for or with the company in 

all roles—including singers, directors, advisors, and even agents—aware of the expectations and protections. 

Companies have the power to stop working with artists who engage in harassment, discrimination, and bullying. When personnel are coming in and out, Heard says people must be held individually accountable, and the company must create a culture in which people hold each other accountable. Heard says equity professionals must make sure that those in power understand that they are responsible if people are not protected. They must recognize that individual actions “require an organizational response.”

Finkelstein believes change starts with AGMA (the American Guild of Musical Artists). “Because fat people are not a protected class, there may be no legal repercussions. AGMA has to do something. Houses have to take it seriously.” He argues that companies need to find out what would happen if they would actually invest in singers who don’t fit normative standards of beauty, rather than continually marketing and showcasing the same thing. Marketing a certain type of person continuously because you believe you have to hire those people to sell tickets, he says, is a sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

Helena Brown

In a statement provided to Classical Singer, Len Egert, national executive director of AGMA vows that the union “stands with our Artists in demanding workplaces free of body shaming, harassment, toxicity, and bullying.” He advises that members can confidentially report harassment or discrimination of any kind by reaching out to their AGMA staff representative or their local AGMA delegates, or by reporting their claim at reporting@musicalartists.org.

“This systemic belittling, demeaning, and abusive behavior in the opera, choral, and dance worlds needs to stop. We continue our commitment to ending this vicious workplace abuse and any form of complicity in these matters, beginning with putting our companies and the industry ‘gatekeepers’ on notice. AGMA believes and supports our Artists and all members of the Performing Arts who have had to withstand such intolerance and ignorance. The addition of antidiscrimination and harassment provisions in our contracts will add another layer of protection for our Artists, something we continue to demand at our bargaining tables,” he promises. 

Finkelstein says that’s why he will continue to tell these stories for as long as he can. “You have to hit these companies in their wallet. Unless they see they have to [change], they’re not going to. They’re responsible to their boards. As long as those people have the same values, nothing will change.” Heard agrees but says it goes beyond legal protections. She points to other types of discrimination and marginalization that haven’t always been prohibited legally: “Because of people with disabilities, there could be specific instances in which it’s protected. I’m not [only] concerned with whether the consequences are covered under a legal act: “Have you poisoned the culture? Are you an inclusive company?”

Julie Grady Heard

Constant education is required to shift culture. There can never be an assumption that enough has been done or that people will get it on their own. In addition, intersectionality is key. Companies can’t assume that because a person is marginalized in one way that they won’t marginalize others, and Heard suggests that companies engage in regular, company-wide training—including for those who are contract workers. “I do wonder how many of the companies actually spend time on an orientation or are having the artist contractors sign antiharassment statements.” She says she’s always looking for action items, and these are things AGMA or organizations like Opera America can examine and advocate for.

For Brown, it’s personal. She recalls trying to wear things that others deemed flattering, being told roles she auditioned for went to smaller singers because it was “more believable,” being admonished by her teacher for eating more than half a sandwich, and a particularly traumatic experience at Chautauqua Opera. While performing at Chautauqua, constant pain and uncontrollable bleeding due to an ovarian cyst led Brown to a hospital stay. “I had so much guilt about going to deal with a medical issue because I was already under so much pressure, being the bigger one who they worried about costuming.”

Brown says that while she received support and assistance from an administrator, the artistic director was not empathetic and instead used the moment to fat shame her. After returning from the hospital, an administrator brought her a piece of cake from a company celebration to cheer her up. Upon finding her eating the cake, the artistic director confronted her, saying, “‘I can’t believe you’re here eating this.’” 

“I will remember this for the rest of my life. He didn’t even ask me, ‘How was the hospital?’ ‘Are you OK?’ ‘What do you need?’ No, it was ‘When are you coming back to rehearsal?’ Luckily, after about five days the pain subsided, the bleeding calmed down. But, still, to go through that when I’m dealing with a cyst and bleeding internally, and you talk to me like that. And judge me like you know my entire diet.”

Len Egbert

These experiences have caused Brown to reevaluate how she treats herself and how she allows others to treat her, especially when she’s employing them—and she encourages other singers to do the same. She has fired abusive coaches and, when asked, given honest negative reviews to others about working with them. “We have to reframe our positions. Singers are not victims. We regularly employ other musicians, and sometimes those musicians abuse us.” 

Davis’s conversations with her current teacher are no longer about how she looks, but about what she can do, no matter her size. “My teacher’s way of mentioning it is healthy: ‘Can you get down gracefully and get back up? Can you handle this for three and a half hours? If your answer is no, then you need to strengthen your body’ versus ‘You’re too big—why are you singing?’”

She has her own reasons for wanting to lose weight, but acknowledges the trauma she’s still working through that comes from the outside voices not focused on health or the ability to do a job, but on not liking how a fat body looks. In order to stop this, the entire industry must speak up. Brown speaks on the difficulty of watching colleagues who work with named abusers and the people who defend them remain silent. “Silence is violence. I really do feel that way.” 

Finkelstein says the same in response to criticism that he’s not going about it the right way or going after the wrong people. He says it’s everyone’s responsibility: “Those people are not just mouthpieces. People above them may be setting the policy, but they are inflicting the trauma.”

 The solutions and the ability to shift culture comes down to a need for policy changes. But to make that happen, there has to be pressure on institutions. People have to speak up, and that includes singers advocating for themselves. In graduate school, Brown was asked by a teacher if she would die for this career. “Absolutely not,” she says. “I’m devoted to this, absolutely. I have a story to tell. But I’m not going to martyr myself for it. I’m done trying to pay my dues by enduring abuse.”

Brittani McNeill

Brittani McNeill is an operatic soprano, cross-genre performer, writer, and equity consultant who lives in Baltimore, Maryland. She holds degrees in communication and music from East Carolina University, Morgan State University, and the Peabody Conservatory of Johns Hopkins University.