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Covent Garden's Music Director Calls Deborah Voigt's Notorious Little-Black-Dress Tale 'Rubbish' (But Evidence Suggests Otherwise)

By Matthew Westphal
04 Apr 2007

Antonio Pappano, the music director and chief conductor of the Royal Opera House (Covent Garden) in London, has described as "a bunch of rubbish" the notorious story of the company's canceling its 2004 engagement of soprano Deborah Voigt in her signature role because she was too fat to fit into the production's costume.

The conductor made his comments today during a question-and-answer session at a press conference announcing the Royal Opera's 2007-08 season. The subject of the so-called "little black dress" arose because the production, director Christof Loy's staging of Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos, is being revived next season — this time with Voigt, now nearly 150 pounds slimmer, in the title role. (Her re-engagement by the company was revealed last July.)


Deborah Voigt

photo by Joanne Savio
For nearly a decade now, Voigt has been the world's reigning Ariadne, and when the news that she had been replaced in the role hit the wider media in 2004, it caused a worldwide uproar. (The fact that the episode offered headline writers a chance to play with the old "opera ain't over 'til the fat lady sings" cliché surely helped.)

With today's formal announcement of Voigt's appearance as Ariadne next season, it was only natural that the question of her previous engagement arose at the press conference. Asked about the now-famous story, Pappano said (as quoted by the Press Association UK), "That's a bunch of rubbish. It had nothing to do with the dress. The dress was not that small. It was a wonderful bit of publicity."

Asked if he was saying that Voigt had lied about the matter (according to MusicalAmerica.com), Pappano went on, "Deborah is a wonderful singer and we are very happy to have her here. She says it was about the black dress but that's not true. The production was conceived in a certain way. When you hire anybody to sing a role you do need to take into consideration what they look like, how they act. It's not as simple as saying someone is too heavy for a role. It's a whole consideration of things. We have the right and prerogative to cast the way we want.

"Deborah has gone on to lose weight. Read into that what you want. She was never even announced (for the original production). I think it's very naughty to make a big thing about something we had not announced yet. She is wrong."

A look at media reports from 2004 indicates that, while making a point of avoiding words like "fat" and "weight," Covent Garden management basically confirmed the story as Voigt told it.

The soprano first disclosed the incident in a February 2003 interview with andante.com, saying, "You know, I believe this attitude towards heavy people is the last bastion of open discrimination in our society. Get this: the management of Covent Garden just released me from my contract for Ariadne auf Naxos in 2004. They simply said I was too fat! It makes me so angry."

But it was similar comments Voigt made to London's Sunday Telegraph the following year, while in the British capital for a recital, that drew worldwide media attention. "I have big hips and Covent Garden has a problem with them," she said. "Or at least their casting director, Peter Katona, has the problem and he's made it clear that I won't be singing in his house as long as he's around. Which is sad. In fact, it's been a legal issue between us, because I was booked for Ariadne but then he cancelled my contract on the grounds that I wouldn't fit the context of the production." (The paper added that the Royal Opera would reimburse her for lost earnings.) Voigt's UK manager, Michael Benchetrit, told the Telegraph, "This was a very simple matter of the Royal Opera House wanting to keep a little black dress in the production that did not fit Deborah. The producer said that the black dress had to stay and that the woman had to go. In this day and age it seems that the producers matter more than the singers."

In reaction, a spokesperson for Covent Garden told The Guardian in 2004 — in language similar to that Pappano used today — that it was "ridiculous" to say that she was replaced because she didn't fit into the costume as designed. "It was a question of the whole style and look of the production, and it was just felt that Deborah Voigt was not right for it."

However, Katona himself had told the Telegraph (for the same report which quoted Voigt and Benchetrit) that "Although Ms. Voigt is a wonderful singer the costume and type of production made it not such a fortunate suggestion that she should be in it. Normally Ariadne is presented on a stylised Greek island with the singers wearing toga-type clothes, but we wanted to present it in elegant, modern evening dress. In making these kinds of decision it is not just a question of how someone looks; it is also how they move on stage. We had to make it theatrically convincing."

The Royal Opera's casting director went on to say that he believed many opera singers use their art as an "excuse" to overeat: "They say, 'In order to be able to sing well I need to eat a lot.'"

Katona did tell the paper that Covent Garden wouldn't mind working with Voigt: "If we have the right role and project for her she would be welcome here with the greatest pleasure."

He then added, "She should get over a hump like this and not make too much out of it."

In the wake of the incident, Voigt had gastric bypass surgery and subsequently lost an estimated 150 pounds. She has always declined to reveal her exact weight before or after (pointing out that one does not ask a lady such questions), but she has said that she went from dress size 28 or 30 to size 12 or 14. She has always maintained that the decision to have the surgery was for her health and well-being, not her career: in January 2006 she told CBS-TV's 60 Minutes, "I certainly didn't do it because of the Royal Opera House. I did it because I wasn't feeling well, because my knees were hurting, because I would cross the street and feel as though I wasn't going to be able to catch my breath. Because, 'Oh my lord, I might have to sit in that chair at dinner and there are arms on it. And will I fit into that chair?'"

Voigt was not available to comment on Pappano's remarks today, as she is preparing to sing another Strauss title role, in Die ägyptische Helena, tonight at the Metropolitan Opera. But her spokesperson, Albert Imperato, told PlaybillArts, "I don't agree with Mr. Pappano's comments whatsoever and wish that Covent Garden had simply responded 'We don't talk about the little black dress anymore!' when asked at the press conference to comment on Deborah Voigt's return. I really don't think it would have hurt the reputation of their wonderful opera company if they had simply admitted — back then or even now — that replacing Ms. Voigt in the production [in 2004] was a mistake."




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