The writing on Sam Smith’s wall, at least on his Facebook wall, says “What happened?”
Fans and followers of the 23-year-old “Stay With Me” singer have been posting their shocked reactions to his dramatic weight loss, which Smith told the Today show in September amounted to close to 50 pounds. His diet has only accelerated ahead of the Feb. 28 Oscars, where he is expected to perform his nominated Bond theme “Writing’s on the Wall.”
Adele, as well, showed off a slimmer figure on last week’s Grammy red carpet. In a cover story for March’s Vogue, she says she’s quit smoking, cut back on alcohol and reduced her sugar intake to prep for her upcoming tour.
But are pounds all that these big-voiced balladeers are losing? Could they also be losing their vocal fireworks in the bargain?
The classical world has long held that a commanding physical presence and force-of-nature vocals are linked, dating back to at least the 19th century. In those days, Richard Wagner’s epic operas cast booming-voiced, large-framed sopranos and tenors, inspiring the phrase “It ain’t over till the fat lady sings.”
But Marshall Pynkoski, founder of Toronto opera company Opera Atelier, says the size of the Viking had little to do with the force of her voice.
“In the 19th century, voluptuous women were very much in style,” he says. “It’s like people saying dancers have to be skinny. Well it’s because we’ve gone through several generations of seeing ballerinas being thinner and thinner and thinner.”
While weight doesn’t make a singer, losing weight can knock the wind out of a vocalist, says John Peters, a Philadelphia-based vocal coach. When the all-important diaphragm descends in a larger singer, it pushes against the fat. Because the singer can feel that pressure, it makes it easier for them to judge how good their form is. Once they have become accustomed to this, they may have to relearn proper form after losing a significant amount of weight.
“If you are overweight there is as much fat pressing into your internal organs as there is pushing out of your body,” says Peters, whose approach to vocal instruction specializes in physicality. “There is a dynamic that makes it a little bit easier and more obvious to push down and out, because you have something to push against (with your diaphragm).”
However, this applies specifically to classically trained singers, who routinely fill concert halls with their unamplified vocal projecting.
“In pop singers, I don’t think it’s going to make a difference, except for a positive one,” says Dr. John Hands, a laryngologist and voice-care consultant for theatre companies including the Canadian Opera Company, Mirvish Productions and the Stratford Festival.
“They have 20 or 30 pounds that sit on their abdomen and they’re going to walk around and carry it,” Hands says. “Would I be happier not carrying that weight? I would.”
Yet the myth that singing and size are linked still warbles on. During American Idol’s auditions, Jennifer Lopez said singer Lindita Halimi, who had lost 150 pounds before her audition, “sings like a heavy girl.”
“Voice power has everything to do with your skeletal structure, the structure within your head, your rib cage, your lung capacity,” says Pynkoski. “But size does not equal vocal power. It’s about being in great physical shape so that the muscles in your body are going to respond in such a way that they are going to support your vocal technique.”
In other words, get ready for the impossible: Sam Smith sounding better than ever.