During the Olympic Games, the world's best athletes blow our minds with exceptional feats of skill and strength. This summer's games in Rio were no different: we laughed, we cried, and we watched in awe as records were smashed, history was made, and hearts were won!
As always, the athletes who achieved these remarkable feats came in all shapes and sizes; each individual's body is the realization of it's own optimal physique for the sport.
“You have to understand, everyone’s body was built to do something. I was built to do something, and that’s how I was built."
- Michelle Carter, 2016 Olympic Gold Medalist (and world record holder)
Women's Shot Put
As a singer, it's easy to see the parallels between elite athletic and elite vocal training. Both demand a lifetime dedication not only to the development and refinement of a primary skill-set, but to supportive regimens in fitness and body work, and to a holistically designed lifestyle crafted to enhance the primary skill.
But while a qualified athlete would not be dismissed from competition for superficial reasons like looks or age, aesthetic requirements can, for a singer, be the difference between being cast or not. They can even mean the difference between being heard in a live audition or having an application rejected.
Judging the abilities of opera singers is certainly not as clear-cut and objective as judging the abilities of athletes. Even discounting physical aesthetics, many of the elements that distinguish singers from each other - vocal color, artistry, interpretation - are highly subjective. Yet, these elements are fundamental to the execution of the primary skill for which we have trained.
" . . . if you’re going to tear me apart, tear apart my gymnastics. Tear apart the one thing that athletes can either defend or work on, that actually is part of our sport."
- Shawn Johnson, 2008 Olympic Medalist
If you replace "gymnastics," "athletes," and "sport" in the above quote with "singing," "singers," and "art," it could easily apply competing in the opera world. If you don't like a singer's voice, if you don't agree with their interpretation, by all means, cast someone else. If they are lacking an additional skill relevant to the production, find a singer who can meet that requirement. But while final casting decisions will most always come down to subjective preferences between qualified singers, they should be based on criteria that are consistently and objectively part of the art.
The other major difference between opera and sport is the context in which physical skills are applied. While, competitively, athletes' abilities are used solely in the context of their sport, singers' abilities are often used in the context of role interpretation. And we have to be "believable" in the role, right? Because opera is a hyper-realistic art form in which the audience is never asked to suspend their disbelief. There aren't any built in factors - the age of vocal maturity vs. the age of certain characters, music being written for a singer the opposite gender of the character they portray, literally everyone singing literally everything, for example - that preclude opera from seamlessly representing the world as it is.
Seriously, though, our voices, not our looks, dictate the roles for which we singers can even be considered in the first place. If believability is the goal, what is more believable than casting that reflects the actual diversity of the world we live in?
Some people's world class skills come in packages that meet society's preconceived aesthetic expectations. For others, those aesthetic standards can only come at the expense of their skills. But in singing, as in sport, it is our skills and not our looks that qualify us to be on the world stage. Our skills should be the priority.
“I may look like this, but I’m in the Olympics because of the way I am.”
- Sarah Robles, 2016 Olympic Bronze Medalist
Weightlifting, Women's over 75 kg