Fat-shaming. Bullying. Is Anyone Protecting Our Young Singers?
By Zach Finkelstein
Content Warning: Eating Disorders, Dysphoria.
Note: For fear of retaliation, some singers in this article have requested to remain anonymous. Middleclass Artist uses full names for singers that agreed to go public and pseudonyms for the remaining interviews.
Annette, a rising young mezzo-soprano, won entrance into the 2015 Aspen Opera Theatre summer festival. In a class devoted to “audition technique and professional orientation,” she sang two arias for teacher Diane Zola and then attended a private feedback session. According to Annette, Ms. Zola stared at her for an “uncomfortable amount of time” and said, “well, the good news is, you’re only a little bit fat.”
Annette “frantically” tried to justify her body to Zola. “Actually,” Annette said, “I’m the smallest I’ve ever been. I whittled myself down to a size 12, eating yogurt and carrot sticks.” Annette says Ms. Zola replied, “I’m sure you can work harder.”
Looking back, Annette saw it through the best of intentions: “I think it was her trying to be nice and encouraging, “you just have to be a size 10, you’ll be fine, you can do it.” It felt to Annette like, “Diane thought she was doing us a favor by being honest.” But at 23, the feedback for Annette was devastating.
Conservatory and the Young Artist Pipeline
Zola is one of hundreds of gatekeepers in the Opera Pipeline, the “prescribed path to success” for North American classical singers (Varga, 2020).
The Pipeline begins with an advanced degree in vocal performance at an elite conservatory, where young singers take on immense levels of student debt (Finkelstein, Varga, 2020). In these early years, singers must win international competitions, pay to apply to audition for low-income apprenticeships and unpaid summer festivals (Finkelstein, 2020), and attract agents connected to top opera houses (Finkelstein, Varga, LaBonte, 2020). Only by making it through the pipeline to work consistently at A-level companies like Houston Grand Opera and the Metropolitan Opera can full-time American singers hope to attain financial solvency.
At every step of the pipeline, singers encounter conductors, voice teachers, coaches, and administrators with the influence to open the next door- perhaps a summer festival upstate or an audition for a local impresario.
At the top of the pyramid are elite gatekeepers like Ms. Zola, powerbrokers at all four stages of the young artist pipeline. They dominate top conservatories like Juilliard. They operate and judge major international competitions, run prominent apprenticeships and summer festivals, hire each other for guest teaching and professional audition panels, and wield significant influence over hiring and firing singers and music staff at A-level houses.
Elite gatekeepers provide holistic guidance, from the conservatory to the mainstage, following and tracking talent for decades.
That guidance often includes practical, subjective advice on aesthetics: how does a singer make themselves more appealing to the people hiring them? How should they present themselves professionally to give themselves the greatest chance of success?
In the best of cases, elite gatekeepers open doors for young artists who follow their advice, accelerating talent through the Opera Pipeline to create once-in-a-generation stars. For example, the list of over 100 graduates of the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development program, founded in 1980 by James Levine, includes A-list stars Lisette Oropesa, Sondra Radvanovsky, and Dawn Upshaw, to name only a few.
But for plus-size singers, advice can quickly turn toxic. Feedback might include faulty assumptions about a singer’s health, associating weight with an indolent lifestyle and poor vocal technique. It can dictate appropriate clothing for fat bodies. And it can tie future career success with body size, that the only thing holding singers back from an opera career is their BMI.
Shaming professional singers for their weight, particularly women singers by male critics, is a long-standing opera tradition. In an insightful article about men evaluating women singers’ bodies, Anne Midgette traces back to “the 18th-century critic Charles Burney’s assessment of the diva Francesca Cuzzoni: 'short and squat, with a doughy, cross face.' ” In 1996, according to a Guardian report, conductor Sir Georg Solti told dramatic soprano Deborah Voigt, “if you lose weight by the time I see you for Beethoven’s Ninth, you can have the job.” (It was a CD recording session.) And most recently, in 2019, Die Welt critic Manuel Brug referred to world-class soprano Kathryn Lewek’s post-partum performance at the Salzburg Festival as “fat women in tight corsets spreading their legs.”
For young pre-professional singers engaged in long-term study with gatekeepers at conservatories or apprenticeships, fat-shaming can escalate over time, to comments about their outfits outside of work or the food on their plates at a gala dinner, always framed as career advice from someone who knows best. And among the handful of gatekeepers who control advancement at every level of The Pipeline, they are essentially correct — those who don’t follow their advice may be less likely to reap the benefits of their support.
Middleclass Artist’s investigation will tell the stories of nine singers affected by body-shaming feedback from Diane Zola, one of opera’s most powerful gatekeepers for young artists and, considered by at least one singer interviewed, “one of the most frequent perpetrators of fat-shaming in the industry.” Currently the Executive Director of the Lindemann Young Artist Program at the Metropolitan Opera, Ms. Zola joined the Metropolitan Opera in 2018 as Assistant General Manager (Artistic). The stories to follow will cover Zola’s tenure at all levels of the Opera Pipeline: her audition masterclasses at Rice University and the Aspen Opera Theatre summer festival; her leadership as the Director of the Houston Grand Opera Studio for young artists and the Director of Artistic Administration at Houston Grand Opera; and her presence in audition juries for several international competitions, including the Metropolitan Opera National Council (MONC) Auditions.
Four of the nine singers agreed to publish their names and six of the nine singers agreed to audio-video recordings of their interviews on Zoom. Several offered additional supporting documents, including an audio recording and transcript of a Diane Zola feedback session, emails with competition staff discussing Zola, a copy of the Met’s Non-Discrimination and Anti-Harassment policy, and audio-visual materials relating to the investigation.
These interviews will show a pattern of body-shaming and bullying of young singers dating back more than a decade, behavior that occurred in plain sight of other powerful gatekeepers, who did nothing at the time to stop it. The interviews will also show Ms. Zola may have violated the Metropolitan Opera’s feedback guidelines to judges addressing body-shaming provided by the MONC Auditions Executive Director, Melissa Wegner.
Note: Middleclass Artist reached out to Wegner for an interview to discuss Zola’s behavior at the 2021 competition and clarify the judges’ guidelines. She responded: “Thank you for your email, and I am glad you’re aware of MONC’s feedback best practices, which have been part of our process of judges giving career advice. At this stage, the Met has no additional comment.”
Middleclass Artist also reached out to Diane Zola for an interview, who declined and
said, “at this stage, the Met has no additional comment.”
The earliest interaction with Diane Zola, among the singers to follow, occurred more than a decade ago at a feedback session with soprano Elisabeth Rosenberg Ray.
Elisabeth Rosenberg Ray and Kevin Ray (2009-2015)
Elisabeth says she first encountered Diane Zola at the 2009 MONC Auditions in New Orleans (Gulf Coast Region). In a feedback session with two other judges present, including the Director of Opera Studies at Rice University, Ms. Rosenberg says, “the first thing Diane told me was that my necklace was too big and that I needed to wear more supportive undergarments because she could see my rolls underneath my dress.” But according to Elisabeth, Diane complimented her dark hair color and how it contrasted with her skin color- “It’s so striking on stage.” Elisabeth says Diane told her to lose weight, find a good voice teacher, and keep working.
Ms. Rosenberg’s initial reaction to the feedback was, “she’s an incredibly powerful and experienced administrator in opera, so she must know what she’s talking about. I better get my ass in gear and lose weight and follow her advice.”
The following year, Elisabeth attended Rice for her graduate degree. She started on a professional diet plan, 1200-calorie-per-day “directly based on what Diane said,” spending money “she didn’t have.”
Diane lectured as a guest frequently in Elisabeth’s second year at Rice, and Elisabeth sang in masterclasses with her throughout the year. Elisabeth says Zola told her repeatedly in the public masterclass that “your biggest issue is your weight.” At that point, Elisabeth had lost 15 pounds since her first encounter with Diane. Diane always voiced, according to Elisabeth, “something very critical, followed up by a very positive comment.” At the time, Elisabeth felt that it was “fair and balanced” feedback.
Elisabeth stayed in Houston after she graduated. She sang three masterclasses with Diane, who, Elisabeth says, became “more and more pointed” with Elisabeth about her weight. It made Elisabeth feel extremely self-conscious about her body.
In the Fall of 2012, Elisabeth started working in the Houston Grand Opera (HGO) chorus and started dating Kevin Ray, a tenor in the HGO apprenticeship program. She was a regular ‘+1’ at gala dinners, Opening Night events at HGO, and other celebrations. Elisabeth says that Diane would “always come over to check out what was on my dinner plate. She would always evaluate it. And always look me up and down. All she ever seemed to care about was how fat I was. She would come over to say hi to Kevin and the other studio artists and donors at our table and say, 'how’s your dinner, Elisabeth?' And I’d always tell her it was very good. I went out of my way to get more salad and fruits than carbs and meats because I thought she would notice and identify it as fat people’s food.” Elisabeth says she couldn’t wait to get home to eat something after these events- she was afraid to eat with Diane watching.
Diane’s presence was “constant” for Elisabeth at HGO: “the fat-shaming and emotional bullying didn’t end after grad school.” Whenever Diane was in the building, Elisabeth says that “a lot of girls would go into the bathroom, fix their hair and their makeup.” Elisabeth also saw Diane “take food out of people’s hands before they had a chance to eat it.”
According to Elisabeth, Diane Zola encouraged a dress code for women: “for auditions, your arms had to be covered if you had larger arms. The hem of your dress had to be below the knee, sheer black stockings, and black shoes. Or, if you wanted to match your shoes to your dress, you could go buy dyeable shoes at wedding dress shops and have the shoes custom dyed to match your dress.” “Proper” support garments, Elisabeth says, were “always a point of discussion.”
Elisabeth felt “tremendous pressure to look the way Diane wanted”: “I could wear my dark rinse jeans, but not my light rinse jeans. I could wear my closed-toe flats, but I couldn’t wear open-toed shoes of any kind because she told me, ‘no-one wants to look at your toes and ankles.' She said I need to cover up my arms.” Her whole time at HGO, Elisabeth “tried to make an impression, all the while not understanding how much abuse I was enduring from her. I was constantly seeking approval from someone who would never give it to me.”
During that time, Elisabeth hated her body.
According to Elisabeth and her now-husband Kevin, Diane started fat-shaming Kevin at the HGO studio. Kevin says, “I never found a way to have a relationship with Diane where I wasn’t completely terrified of her all the time.” For example, one day, Kevin says that Diane spotted him drinking Diet Coke and eating cookies at 9’o’clock at night studying in the common lounge. Kevin remembers she told him, “we need you to get some sleep. We need you to be healthy. Don’t be drinking caffeine or eating cookies out of the vending machine late at night.”
Elisabeth blamed herself for how she says Diane treated Kevin: “I thought it was all my fault. I thought he was guilty by association when we started dating. That conclusion came from a culmination of guilt and shame, and depression. It was as if you’d been given a homework assignment, you complete it plus the extra credit, but you still can’t get an 'A'. And you can’t do anything about it, because she has a problem with your physical person. She has a problem with your body.”
Elisabeth still can’t talk about her experience with Diane without feeling “high breaths and anxiety.” Still, the soprano has had several good years where she says she “hasn’t given any mental space” to Diane in her singing.
Elisabeth feels that “the people who really took her [Diane’s] advice hook, line, and sinker are the ones that have careers with the most visibility and access to higher-level jobs.”
Diane Zola’s feedback always had, Elisabeth says, a “kernel of truth in it,” but that “ultimately, it was very hurtful and toxic for me. Telling me, I need to lose weight is not going to convince me that I need to lose weight. It’s not a revelation for me. I don’t know anybody who is plus size who hasn’t had a similar interaction with her or hasn’t contemplated leaving the business because they’ve been convinced there isn’t a place for fat people to fall in love publicly on stage.”
Elisabeth looks back at pictures of herself in Houston and says, “I looked straight size. Probably a size 14/16. I looked healthy. I looked happy. But on the inside, I was a very sick person who believed that losing weight would be the only way to have a career.”
Elisabeth says Diane is one of several people who is “completely in control and in charge of who she makes examples of, and who our community celebrates. And when you have someone of her prestige making a case for looking a certain way, it somehow validates the feedback she gives and normalizes it. In my head, it was all rational.” But, according to Elisabeth, it’s “the ultimate gatekeeping: she is in charge of everything. She owns the company that makes the gates, she’s the gatekeeper, and she owns the parking lot outside the gate. There’s a powerful group of people who belong to a specific generation that engage in fat-shaming, racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, all of that, and they are all part of the game making up the rules as they play.”
Caroline the Soprano (Anon) and Elly the Mezzo (Anon, 2014, 2017, 2020)
Another young singer, Caroline, asked to remove nearly all identifying details for fear of reprisal. She felt comfortable saying that she sang a “house audition for the Met and had a feedback session with Diane in her office.”
According to Caroline, Ms. Zola asked her in the feedback session, “what do you eat?” Caroline “felt attacked.” In a group session follow-up, Caroline says she was included in Diane’s comment that “some of you eat too much.”
Caroline says Ms. Zola had also told her that she should not have her arms showing in her audition and evening gown attire as they would be “distracting.” She says that singers who auditioned that day, who were of a different body type, did not receive similar comments.
Elly, an American mezzo, says she first worked with Diane Zola in 2014 at the Houston Grand Opera Young Artists’ Vocal Academy (YAVA). According to Elly, Ms. Zola gave a talk to the eight singers and stressed the importance of being physically fit, no matter your size. In Elly’s one-on-one follow-up meeting with Diane. Elly recalls her weight as a brief topic of discussion.
Elly’s second interaction with Diane Zola occurred at the 2017 Concert of Arias with Houston Grand Opera. According to Elly, Diane held a “dress parade,” in which singers would show Ms. Zola their dresses, and she would approve them for the concert.
While Elly was modeling her gown, she said Diane commented, “don’t you have a better bra than that?” Elly felt that Diane was “disgusted” with her.
Elly’s last encounter with Ms. Zola occurred at the Lindemann Program’s finals, the prestigious apprenticeship at the Met for young artists. She remembers “vividly” meeting Zola one-on-one before her audition. Halfway into the meeting, she says Diane commented on how Elly was smaller than the last time she saw her, in what Elly felt was an “approving tone.” But Diane further pressed her on her weight, asking what else Elly was doing to “work on it.”
When it comes to Ms. Zola, Elly has “learned to expect comments about her weight” any time she sees her. Elly added, “it’s just not a good feeling to know that no matter what you do, your appearance is going to be commented on in a way that is not affirming or positive.”
Elly didn’t report Ms. Zola’s behavior to the company: “I don’t think I’ve ever felt comfortable coming forward and saying anything about her because of her status and power in the industry.” Elly stated, “it’s a well-known fact that Diane does this, and there’s no easy solution for reporting it.”
The mezzo feels trying to appease people like Diane is “damaging in so many ways as an artist and person” and hopes things change.
Sara the Mezzo-soprano (Anon)
Sara, a rising star American mezzo-soprano with credits at the Glimmerglass Festival and the Washington National Opera, came into the opera world with a significant eating disorder. She’d been anorexic her whole life and struggled with disordered eating. And because Sara also started her opera career “late” and felt she “was constantly playing catchup,” she treated feedback from audition panels very seriously.
Sara says her first encounter with Diane occurred in a mock audition panel in 2009 at the Aspen Opera Theatre summer festival.
According to Sara, in a public masterclass, the first judge, the executive director of the MONC Auditions at the time, mentioned Sara’s sleeveless dress: “I like the Handel, but I don’t know about this dress.” Diane agreed, according to Sara, adding, “Yea, I think if you’re going to wear anything to an audition, you just need to make sure your arm fat isn’t sticking out.” Sara says the panel compared her and others directly to a “tall, willowy” singer who auditioned right after her: “we were all informed that she was the only kind of body type that should ever be allowed to expose her arms in an audition.”
At 21, that comment resonated “dramatically” for Sara: “I got this poison dropped into my brain that my body was never going to be good enough, even at my most controlled.” Her takeaway from that situation was that “we should all be terrified of Diane and other gatekeepers, go to the gym and put on Spanx and wear nylons and do anything to keep our unruly feminine bodies under lock and key in the audition room.”
She understands that opera is an “aesthetic business” and that “our society has decided that thin people are the best people, and our industry is echoing and underlining that. But we’re not taking into account that a skinny body is not necessarily a healthy body, nor is a larger body an unhealthy body, and we’re passing all these judgments on peoples’ sizes.”
The mezzo-soprano says she sang for Diane over the next decade, “probably four times directly, and she might have watched me audition another two or three times.” Diane and people like her, according to Sara, “have control of your whole professional life”:
Diane has an immense amount of control over the narrative of a young singer, and there are lots of people like her in those positions. We feel beholden to impressing them and taking their advice to heart. I changed my audition rep, I changed my dress, I changed my hair to adhere to the box I was told would get me to a living wage.
Sara feels Diane is a symptom of an “abusive, dysphoric attitude about bodies” in opera: “I don’t think she invented it. I think she’s just repeating the same patterns that we’ve been in since opera started.”
But Sara also respects what Diane Zola has done for American opera: “I understand she’s done great things for the art form in Houston- there’s a reason she’s been promoted at the Met. She’s preserving the art form. But she’s also preserving some of the toxic habits about how we treat people in the industry. And I would love it if she would just stop. Just stop talking about bodies.”
Sara quit the business last year and dropped off her agent’s roster. She’s not singing anymore. Diane and authorities like her are one of the reasons Sara left: “I can’t take this anymore. I put so much pressure on myself to be excellent. I love opera; I love art. How dare you come at me with something like that, so inconsequential to what I do.”
The MONC Guidelines
On October 13, 2020, the Executive Director of the MONC Auditions, Melissa Wegner, and the National Council Administrator at the Metropolitan Opera, Brady Walsh, hosted a webinar to provide logistical details about the competition and answer questions from young singers. The email sent to singers stated that “singers are protected by the Met’s non-discrimination anti-harassment policy (please find attached).”
Middleclass Artist obtained the full text of the six-page Metropolitan Opera Non-Discrimination and Anti-Harassment Policy, given to all qualifying singers. (The document is available here.)
The policy begins, “The Met is committed to a work environment in which all individuals are treated with respect and dignity. Sexual harassment and other forms of harassment and discrimination are against the law, and the Met will not tolerate them. Each individual has the right to work in a professional atmosphere that promotes equal employment opportunities and prohibits discriminatory practices, including harassment.”
In the Met webinar on October 13, the Acting Director of Human Resources at the Metropolitan Opera, Emma Batman, made several clarifying remarks on “harassment and inappropriate behavior.” Emma Batman stated that “grey area” comments about individual bodies are not a part of the Met’s “safe and inclusive environment” and that the Met would provide resources for singers to report an incident anonymously:
Something doesn’t have to be black-and-white egregious, what we consider quid-pro-quo…There are all of these grey areas in between, where someone makes a comment that feels unprofessional, someone says something about the way that you look that goes over the line of professional feedback and into a space that’s tied to something like expectations for gender expression, expectations for identity, these types of things that can start to push us into a place where its outside the boundaries of what we feel is promoting the safe and inclusive environment that we’re talking about.
We have a number of ways you can reach out if you feel like there’s anything happening in this space that has crossed a boundary, and you can go to Brady, Melissa is available, you can reach out to HR directly…we also have a hotline…[where] you can make an anonymous report…
Melissa Wegner followed this with a comment specifically addressing “body identity” and “body shaming” with clear guidelines provided to MONC judges of appropriate behavior:
Our judges have been very specifically instructed in feedback. This we started last year, it’s our second year with these feedback guidelines, and they are very specific in a few areas. That is, race and ethnicity, LGTBQ identity, gender identity, and also body identity and body shaming in particular. So, those are the areas in which we have asked our judges to be extremely specific. We’ve given them some guidelines to help them in the way that they speak in those categories specifically, which is tricky, it is tricky when you’re talking about singing. Singing involves all of these…it involves conversations about your physical being. However, I think that we can do better. I think that we can do this better that respects the integrity of every singer who is a part of this competition.
Annette, the mezzo-soprano who, according to her, Diane told was “only a little bit fat,” attended the MONC session and “thought it was admirable.” Still, Annette said, “They should have known when they hired Diane Zola that she has a reputation for saying these things.”
The MONC Auditions: Dani the Soprano (Anon 2021)
Dani, a young soprano who made it to the New England MONC regionals on February 21, 2021, drew Diane Zola as one of her three judges. Dani didn’t move forward in the competition and, at her Zoom feedback session, the judges asked how she thought she did. Dani answered honestly; she felt she sang well and in character. According to Dani, Diane said, “you don’t support…do you exercise? Do you run? Do you walk?” Dani felt she knew where this was going- she’d been fat-shamed before. The implication, according to Dani, was that she was not the ideal healthy size for an opera singer.
Dani felt upset and angry, telling Middleclass Artist, “why are we talking about this and not my singing or my voice? Because if she was truly concerned about my support, she could have asked, ‘what do you do for practice?’ or ‘what methods were you taught?' ”
On March 15, 2021, Dani called Melissa Wegner and told her what happened. According to Dani, Melissa said she was “aware of what’s going on” and wasn’t surprised. It made
Dani feel better that people were going through the same thing, and she wasn’t the only one. Since then, Dani has talked to two other singers at her regional round that had similar experiences.
Dani understands it’s “complicated” and feels bad for Melissa: “I really can tell she wants to help, but the one judge who’s causing the problems is above her.”
As for Zola’s role moving forward, Dani doesn’t want her to judge the semifinals or finals this year and hopes the Met will address Zola’s behavior: “This has been going on for so long. Fat-shaming should have no place in this industry.”
Katherine Eckard (2021)
As a plus-size adult in her 20s, mezzo-soprano Katherine Eckard is used to people in authority addressing her technical singing issues through the lens of her body.
In Katherine’s feedback sessions, Ms. Zola focused on her technical issues as a weight problem: “I think for me the biggest thing lacking is breath, again. And just getting the consistency of the breath in all the time. I don’t know if you are a physically active person, and if not, I encourage you to do so that you really get in communication with your body.” According to Katherine, Diane gestured to her chest and stomach area on the word ‘body.’ “It’s not just this”- Katherine says at this point, Zola gestured to her throat. “You know that. It’s not just here in your throat. And -because, I think those times when you were connected to the breath, especially in the Mozart, there were just some beautiful moments, and then I wanted to hear more of those moments. And would encourage you to find that and hold on to those and bring those to everything you sing.”
Katherine felt that Diane’s gestures and talking about the implied lack of physical activity, that “there was a strong implication based on performing two arias and looking at my body, she’s made a connection that I’m a sedentary person. And what convinced it for me was the additional gestures to my implied body as if she was like, ‘you get that, right?’ ”
According to Katherine, one of the judges’ eyes widened with an ‘oh no’ look at Diane’s comments, and immediately sent Katherine a private message complimenting her- “the work you did on those two arias in that amount of time was miraculous, you should be really proud.” For Katherine, it felt like a “conciliatory gesture to counteract the criticism she received from Ms. Zola.”
The mezzo-soprano felt sympathetic towards the judge that she says responded privately. Katherine knew this judge as an “authoritative figure in our world,” someone with a solid reputation with singers. But still, she wondered, “why didn’t he say it in front of Diane?”
Within 48 hours of the audition, Katherine heard from several singers who said they heard “verbatim” the same feedback and commentary. “It’s intriguing to me,” Katherine said, “how there’s a script happening here, used to skirt around some of the rules. They know there are certain things they can’t say, like ‘fat’ or ‘overweight,’ so they’ve found new passive-aggressive ways to address our aptitude via our bodies.”
On March 15, 2021, Katherine reported the action to MONC Auditions Executive Director, Melissa Wegner. Katherine stated that Melissa proved “very gracious and acknowledging.” Melissa, according to Katherine, agreed the comments were out of bounds and acknowledged it was unacceptable to body shame and that Diane Zola’s actions constituted body shaming. Katherine said, “Melissa took the time to validate why I was uncomfortable and made it a point to recognize that in speaking with her and reporting the commentary, I would not receive punitive actions.” After Katherine read the transcript, she says Melissa replied, “yes, I’ve had many conversations with Diane about this. We’ve been working on it.”
Katherine also spoke to Emma Batman, Acting Director of Human Resources at the Metropolitan Opera. According to Katherine, both Melissa Wegner and Emma Batman were “very pleasant,” “lovely,” and “validating,” but neither offered any concrete assurance of any action taken. Both did offer their information to pass on to other singers if needed.
On Friday, March 26, 2021, Emma Batman responded to Katherine’s formal complaint in an email, stating that “they addressed her concerns directly in a manner we felt was appropriate and consistent with our internal procedures and policies.” Batman also, referencing what appeared to be multiple complaints about Diane Zola to the competition, said that “Diane asked that I communicate to the singers that brought these concerns, her deepest apologies.”
The email did not mention if Diane Zola would remain a judge for young singers in the MONC National Semi-Finals on May 9, 2021, or the Grand Finals concert on May 16, 2021.
Katherine found the Met’s response “unsatisfying” and is “disappointed by the lack of specificity” about what actions would be taken with Diane. The “ lukewarm apology from Diane” through Emma Batman seemed “insincere” coming from HR.
Katherine’s priority in coming forward is to ensure that body-shaming and bullying young opera singers doesn’t happen to anyone else:
The reason I am stepping forward and offering up my name is that I recognize there are probably dozens and dozens of people who have been really hurt by experiences like this and damaged who feel like they have too much to lose. If this materially hurts my prospects with another company, then I’m glad for it. I don’t ever want to work in an environment where they would condone this behavior.
I want to participate in a way that affects positive change. There is something about our industry that is systemic, that has gone unaddressed for too long, that goes beyond talking about people’s size, that includes conversations about ableness of body, texture of hair, color of skin. There are things we’ve allowed to become ingrained in our culture as young artists that have to change.
Taylor Comstock (2016)
Taylor, an emerging tenor based in Lexington, told Middleclass Artist of his experience with Zola at the November 2016 MONC Kentucky district auditions. He received two encouragement awards and attended feedback with his three judges, including Diane Zola.
According to Taylor, the first thing Ms. Zola said to him was, “I have to be straightforward. You are a tenor, and tenors often sing the roles of the lover in opera. If you are going to ever be successful in this business, you have to lose a significant amount of weight.” Afterwards, Zola complimented his artistry and interpretation, but to Taylor, “the damage had been done.”
Taylor is “well aware” he is an overweight singer, and his fight with keeping off weight is a “never-ending struggle.” He said, “I don’t need to be reminded that I’m overweight, especially by someone in such a powerful hiring position in the career I love so much.”
The tenor claims that “almost every fellow singer that day received some kind of inflammatory, disrespectful remark from Diane Zola, even the District winners.”
For Taylor, direct feedback from industry professionals is “always worth its weight in gold,” and aside from this incident, he’s felt “very grateful for the feedback from those professionals.”
Taylor feels that “Zola’s behavior violates what opera companies claim to stand for in terms of equity and absence of bias, and it directly violates the standards set forth by the MONC.”
Tracy Cox and the Future of Opera
Fat politics activist Tracy Cox, an established American soprano with contracts at the Metropolitan Opera until early 2020, says she faced intense anti-fat bias at every stage of the Opera Pipeline. From grad school to young artist programs to the working world, “nearly every mentor or teacher” she encountered criticized her body. They would provide her knowledge and training that benefited her, while at the same time telling her in “many different and traumatizing ways” that she “owed her talent a different body”, that she was not going to be successful in the industry until she “fundamentally changed her body.”
Years later, Tracy was still visibly shaken describing her young artist experience. In one example, an artistic administrator at an apprenticeship told her in her first coaching, “Go to a dry-cleaner and ask them to give you extra bags. Wrap yourself in plastic and wear your clothes on top. Walk the five miles from home to work every day, and you’ll be amazed at the difference.” These were, according to Tracy, the first words out of his mouth after she sang, said in the rehearsal room in front of his wife, the pianist, another artistic administrator, and a note-taker. At that moment, she remembers her eyes burning and thinking, “He’s right, I have to do this. Don’t cry. Just get out of the room and don’t cry.”
Ms. Cox sees fatphobia and body shaming as a pervasive, cyclical system-wide problem in opera with no one accepting responsibility.
Teachers at conservatories “inherit their role as a gatekeeper and perpetuate the stigma,” and “if you talk to a casting director, they’re going to say we’re trying to sell tickets and give the audience what they want, an idealized body type. If you talk to an agent, they say, ‘well, I believe in your talent, but I can’t lose credibility with this house, because I know they’re not going to hire you.' ” As for the audience, “they don’t question why they only see normative, white bodies on stage.”
“The gatekeepers make the rules,” Cox says, “but because of anti-fat bias, they allow themselves to justify these discriminatory decisions. They allow themselves to conflate health with thinness, as well as with good singing. If someone is telling me that I’m not making a phrase because I’m not a jogger, I will have serious questions for them about their understanding of appoggio and vocal technique in general. When I run up the stairs, I carry with me a hundred pounds more than someone in a normative body. Do you seriously think the core of my body is not strong?”
As for Ms. Zola and the Met, Cox says, “I know she doesn’t want to see fat people on stage. She’s making the decisions about who gets to be on stage, and I can’t imagine a situation where her framework shifts. And it’s not just her; really, it is at every level of this industry.”
Cox consulted with MONC Auditions Executive Director Melissa Wegner to create the new guidelines for judges, and speaks highly of her: “Melissa was really interested in having the kind of data to back up the rules she was writing, so she could tell judges who have been talking to singers about their bodies in this way for so long, ‘here’s why you can’t talk about them like this, here’s the science that shows you are increasing risk for them for all kinds of negative outcomes.” Tracy Cox sees Wegner as “one of the most progressive people she’s found in that building” and well-intentioned: “the last thing she wants is for singers to be traumatized by this competition.” And yet, Cox admits that “because of the dynamics of that institution, there is only so much she can do to protect contestants from fatphobic abuse by the judges.”
The opera industry is lagging decades behind every other art form, Cox says, when it comes to centering fat voices. “If you look at Hollywood today, Broadway today, there are actually more fat people on the screen than there are on the stage of the Met. It’s not because the CEOs had this magnanimous change of heart about fat people, it’s about money: there are a lot of fat people in the world, and people want to see themselves on stage.” While anti-fat sentiment dates back generations in opera, Tracy Cox sees the Met HD broadcast as a significant change in expectations for casting directors: “it lent this shift to cinema, towards the idea that we have to have this limited, misogynistic, idealized beauty onscreen to get people in seats, and that’s how we’re going to save opera in the 21st century.”
To help address harassment and body shaming in The Pipeline, Cox says we need to rethink the power dynamic in the industry and professionalize apprenticeships - they are jobs, not an extension of the master/student relationship. With only a handful of spots in each apprenticeship, graduating singers are “so grateful to be hired they forget they are providing a service to this opera company: extremely cheap labor for them to make their budget happen.” In return, Cox says, “companies are providing us with an entrance to the professional world.” The mindset of life-long learning is critical, and of course, apprentices should still be taking voice lessons and masterclasses, but “we should never lose sight of the fact that this is a workplace.”
The way we fund opera, Tracy says, also must shift away from donors and board members towards a more community-driven approach. “We can hire new casting directors, we can put more progressive people in those positions, but until we stop relying on high-income donors and board members, who we know are not welcoming to marginalized groups in general and are not interested in sponsoring productions featuring fat bodies, it will be challenging to make the change.”
More broadly, we need to recognize fat people as a marginalized group “worthy of being heard” and humanize fat people by centering their stories on-stage. Cox’s eyes lit up, describing her new project for Victory Hall Opera, a show called ‘Fat Pig’ that is the first opera to be written and produced that centers a fat woman as the romantic lead. According to Tracy, nearly all of Victory Hall Opera’s patrons are first-time opera-goers.
“Anti-fat bias and discrimination are traumatizing singers at every level of this industry, and furthermore, it is driving talent out of the business,” Tracy said. “If you want more people in the seats at the opera, if you want more people to discover the transformative power of this art form — the work to be done is to be more inclusive on stage, not less. Excluding talent based on objections to the body that houses it is a disgraceful and unethical practice — and it will destroy this industry if we let it.”
Zach Finkelstein is a professional classical tenor soloist, a Senior Consultant at a public opinion research and strategy firm, and the editor and founder of The Middleclass Artist.