by Sarah Millin
Some months ago I was having a big dim sum lunch with an old friend. I love eating with my friend Suzette. It’s not just that we both eat slowly. I know when I eat with her there is no judgement about how much we’re eating.
We were both quite petite in our university years and now we’re older and plumper. We were reflecting about how pleasant is not getting the comments about our weight anymore.
“Those women that always felt compelled to say to your face “You’re so skinny I hate you” I remembered.
Or accused you of being anorexic, Suzette said.
Yes, I thought. Anorexic: the curse of Karen Carpenter.
I had almost forgotten about her. Recently the new extension in the Pacific Centre mall in Vancouver starting playing 70s music in an attempt to open people’s wallets to the sounds of the oldies and I heard an old Carpenter tune. It’s yesterday once more.
In the early 70s you couldn’t escape hearing the Carpenters on AM radio, Karen Carpenter’s contralto voice, described by her friend Petula Clark as mysterious and yearning, her brother Richard Carpenter’s complicated arrangements. A bit vanilla for my taste but as Paul Williams (who co-wrote the Carpenters’ second big hit We’ve Only Just begun) said “but what an exquisite flavour of vanilla.”
No one knew much about anorexia until Karen Carpenter died at age 33 in 1983 from a heart attack brought on by years of anorexia and laxatives and other medications. And then anorexia was all over the news, the magazines, the radio.
Thereafter every skinny woman in North America suffered from the accusation of being anorexic like Karen Carpenter.
Now that I no longer get the curse of anorexic comments I could go back and look at Karen Carpenter again.
She started dieting at age 17 as they started their music career in jazz. There’s a short clip of their first tv performance in 1966 before she started dieting. I watched it and couldn’t believe that anyone would think that she needed to diet.
1st tv performance
She was 5’4 and in 1973 she weighed 120 lbs. By 1975 she weighed 91 lbs. 1981 she was down to 84 lbs. In early 1983 she went into hospital, was fed by intravenous drip and gained 30 lbs. in just eight weeks.
And throughout it all Karen Carpenter thought she was the right weight. That is one of the curiosities and curses of anorexia: the sufferer does not see their real weight, their real appearance.
I wondered what that did to her voice, to her career. And then I knew exactly which friend to ask.
My friend Carolyn was a professional opera singer for years performing in Europe and North America.
“Do you think the weight loss was what ruined Maria Callas’ voice?” I asked her.
I love opera and I love Maria Callas. Callas started out her controversial opera career weighing about 200 lbs and then lost 80 lbs. in 6 months between 1953 and 1954. By 1965 her voice was gone. She died of a heart attack at age 53 in 1977, a heart attack that has been attributed to years of dieting.
Callas felt she had to lose weight to accurately portray the characters she was singing like Medea and Violetta in La Traviata. Traditionally in opera the singers are bigger.
Opera nuts have debated for years about whether her weight loss damaged her voice. There’s even a weight loss section in her Wikipedia entry along with another section about her vocal decline that goes on further about her weight loss. Despite the weight loss controversy, Callas is still the best selling soprano of all time.
“I think her spending all that time with Aristotle Onassis had more to do with it” Carolyn quipped. Callas’ long time love affair with Onassis was another Callas controversy.
I pressed her. What would the weight loss do to the voice? Carolyn said she noticed when she was thinner the sound was different, thinner through the chest.
Here’s a video of Maria Callas singing the aria Sempre Libera from La Traviata at La Scala in 1955. In Sempre Libera the character Violetta is torn between her love and her career. Warning: you either love her voice or you hate it.
But back to Karen Carpenter.
“What would it be like to be really self-conscious of your weight and forcing yourself to perform in front of large crowds?” I asked.
“It depends on how strong you are mentally” Carolyn replied. And then she said “Karen Carpenter was a drummer?”
People forget or don’t know Karen Carpenter was a great drummer, she always called herself a drummer who also sang. She was convinced to move out from behind the drums to the front of the stage so the audience could see her better. That move to the front of the stage occurred in 1973.
I wonder what would have happened if Karen Carpenter had never dieted and stayed behind the drums. She recorded a solo record the year before she died (sadly it was disco era) but what might she achieved after that.
Among the many youtube videos of the Carpenters, I found one that stripped out most of the overdubbing and overarranging of one of their classic hits. What could have been…
About Sarah: When not listening to opera, I operate a small business technology support enterprise and write about technology (http://makeitworkcomputersolutions.ca/blog/ ).