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Can opera singer measure up after dropping 70 pounds?

Opersinger IndrThomas

Opera singer Indra Thomas

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Updated: April 19, 2012 8:23AM

To some critics, a highlight of the Chicago Lyric Opera’s 50th anniversary season in 2004 was the debut of soprano Indra Thomas in the title role of Aida.

Watching her play an Ethiopian slave in love with an Egyptian warrior, one critic observed that Thomas had “a voice of considerable beauty, combining a potent lower register with effortless high notes.”

“And she has the breath control and technique to spin out Verdi’s long melodic lines,” wrote Mike Silverman of the Associated Press. “She is a compelling actress, seizing the stage from her first entrance with no sign of first-night nerves and creating a vivid portrayal of a woman torn between love and loyalty to country.”

Thomas was a much bigger performer then.

Physically, that is.

Last May, Thomas had weight-loss surgery at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York.

“My health was an issue,” she said. “I was borderline high blood pressure. I was borderline diabetic . . . all things that run in my family, and in my [African-American] culture as well. Every time I went to see my doctor, she was putting me on a new medicine.”

Thomas had a sleeve gastrectomy. “It’s a stomach-stapling procedure. It’s all done arthroscopically, which is nice,” she said. “They cut your stomach vertically, and they leave you with a smaller stomach, and take the rest of it out. I felt this was a better procedure. Less invasive. Like taking out an appendix or gallbladder.”

Before the surgery, Thomas weighed more than 300 pounds. “Now I have lost somewhere around 70, 75 pounds,” said Thomas, who is 5-foot-8 and in her early 40s.

“With this surgery, you go down, but you don’t go down very fast. Because of what I do for a living, I have to go down very, very slowly, because I have to retrain my body and my muscles to work for me, because that’s what I use to sing with. This surgery takes you down slowly. With bypass surgery, people go down very fast.

“For an opera singer, that could be devastating to your system,” she said.

Going public about her surgery takes bravery. Weight has long been an issue in opera, where, as the saying goes, “it ain’t over ’til the fat lady sings.”

Star soprano Deborah Voigt had gastric bypass surgery and lost more than 100 pounds — and has occasionally been pummeled by reviewers since she did. Some have said her voice doesn’t sound as good with the weight loss.

With her weight loss, Thomas has made adjustments in her singing, but nothing dramatic.

“My voice is pretty much intact,” she said. “I haven’t gained any higher notes, or lower notes. What has happened is that I feel I can move more smoothly through my passaggio now than I could before.” (“Passaggio” is the Italian term for the transition point between vocal registers, like that between the chest voice and the head voice.) “I feel better about my movement on stage now because I’m lighter.”

Notices from her recent performances in London were fine, with Financial Times critic Richard Fairman writing that her performance was “vocally wayward but came good at the end,” and George Hall in the Guardian saying her Aida was “imposing and often exciting, if uneven.”

Thomas, a Georgia native featured in the movie “Driving Miss Daisy” with her church choir at age 19, can eat as before, only less. “If I go out for dinner, I’ll order an appetizer, and that will be totally enough and fill me up completely,” she said.

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