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Music Pages

Director deems soprano's physique unsuitable for role

20 January 2010

Daniela Dessì performs Francesca da Rimini
Daniela Dessì performs Francesca da Rimini

Italian soprano, Daniela Dessì, has walked out of rehearsals for a new production of Verdi’s La traviata at the Teatro dell’Opera in Rome following comments by director Franco Zeffirelli about her physique.

Criticising the decision to cast Dessì as Violetta, Zeffirelli said at a press conference in December that “A woman of a certain age and plumpness is not credible in the character”. He added, with reference to the fate of the opera’s heroine, that “[Dessì] is not exactly the kind of woman who is likely to die of tuberculosis.”

Dessì’s husband, Fabio Armiliato, who was due to sing the role of Alfredo, has also withdrawn from the production.

Meanwhile, Dessì has staunchly defended her suitability for the role of Violetta, stating that “I believe a lot in the physical appearance of the singer. I have always taken care of myself.” She also told the Spanish newspaper, El Mundo, “You don’t sing with your body, you sing with your voice.”

Zeffirelli’s comments reflect a growing trend in the world of opera to cast singers based on their looks as much as their voices, a trend influenced by the growing importance of broadcasting and recording to the coffers of major opera houses.  

“Cinema is already leaving its mark on the way operas are produced in the opera house,” says Opera Now Editor, Ashutosh Khandekar. “The scrutiny of the camera means that the days of wooden acting and improbable casting have had to be addressed.”

Arguably, female opera singers tend to come under even greater scrutiny for their looks than male artists. But in some cases, warns Khandekar, this emphasis on visual impact “can be to the detriment of the music.”

Dessì is now said to be exploring possible legal action against Zeffirelli, but given that she decided to quit the likelihood of any action being brought is slim. Opera Now commentator, Robert Thicknesse, has suggested that “any subsequent posturing probably has more to do with whether she gets paid or not, which I imagine she will.”

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