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March 24, 2013

Challenges of the modern opera singer

Recently there has been quite some controversy regarding the “frailty” of modern opera singers versus the “hardier” older generations, specifically those hailing from the “Golden Years” of Opera. It’s a simple question with a very complicated answer. Is it harder to be an opera singer today than it was, let us say, 50 years ago?

One of my greatest strokes of luck was having met, still in my mid teens, my teacher Paul Asciak who was then in his mid 70s. Schooled by the best, Paul had an admirable career having sung with veritable operatic legends such as Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, Tito Schipa etc. The latter meant that, through him, I had a glimpse of what it meant to be an opera singer during those times. One thing is certain; it was a much calmer life and there is no doubt that an opera singer then had much more “space” and “time” to develop and build a career in a slow and steady way. Is this possible in our day and age? I really don’t think so for the following reasons:

Back then one could sing in smaller houses and make mistakes without the whole (operatic) world instantly knowing them. News, for obvious reasons, travelled much slower which meant that news of a “bad performance” took much longer to travel beyond the city where the actual performance was taking place. Singers had pretty much a lot of control over what they sung. Many scores were “butchered” by cuts and the “diapason” (pitch) was considerably lower. Orchestras tended also to be smaller and their sound less bright making it easier for voices to cut through the wall of sound not to mention that the physical size of opera houses rarely exceeded the 1800 seat mark.

 

Nowadays even young opera singers singing in small houses are instantly exposed to the whole world thanks to social media, youtube etc. Yes one has to be prepared before stepping on stage but make no mistake, there is no substitute teacher for the greatest teacher of all – the stage. It is another undeniable fact that there is less room for mistakes and opportunities to learn from, what I call, the good mistakes.

Operatic scores nowadays are usually performed in their entirety with little to no cuts. Compounding the problem the orchestras of today can be as much as twice the size as intended by the composer not to mention the huge opera houses, especially in North America, that “unamplified” operatic voices have to fill.

Pitch is the other issue. Nowadays we perform the whole 19th century repertoire around a semitone higher than intended as displayed here by operatic legend Piero Cappucilli – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VKKQp5_5u-M It is interesting to note that Cappucilli is doing the comparison between A 432 and A 440. Situation is worse today with many opera houses tuning up to A 444 and sometimes even beyond!

Of course there are advantages nowadays mainly in the medical side of things treating vocal ailments promptly and surely. Antibiotics take care of bacterial infections in record time and doctors are able to diagnose allergies, viruses, infections etc. promptly before the latter are allowed to do extensive damage. The prescription of “cortisone” can help with certain afflictions but I strongly advise young singers to stay away from “overuse” and to only take it when prescribed by an ENT. My rule of thumb is to never sing when the larynx and surrounding tissue , specifically the vocal folds, are compromised in any way.

 

To conclude I think that yes it is harder to be an opera singer in today’s world with the inevitable result that yes we might, occasionally, tend to cancel more than our predecessors. The latter is regrettable and I cannot think of one cancellation that was easy or over which I didn’t brood for days. However better to disappoint one theatre, one night than going ahead to sing only to damage one’s instrument risking a whole artistic career!

Comments

  1. Anne Boardman

    Your points are intelligent and well articulated. I think of opera singers today like professional athletes. There was a time when ballplayers played injured or pushed an injury till it was career ending. A lot has changed medically and professionals would be foolish to do so today. I would also guess there are many people who depend on an opera singer (or an athlete) succeeding besides themselves – or in your case, those darling children. So , here’s to your health!

    Anne

  2. Laura

    I absolutely agtree with every single point. Regarding “news travel fast” I would like to add that with the power of media not only bad news but also GOOD news travel far and fast and this way it has also made it much easier for singers to be known and appreciated internationally. Another point IMO is the speed (and overuse) of travelling. About a hundred years ago singers would travel by ship and spend in many cases an entire season at ONE opera house. That of course saved nerves and physical stamina. Of course, this is out of question today, but travelling by plane has made it much easier to sing many performances in a short time in many different places. Yet, oversinging and appearing in another city every other day over years inevitably takes its toll. I also think that many singers today are not sufficiently trained and take on roles way too early that are way too heavy for them. Therefor: know thyself. ;-)

    • admin

      “Regarding “news travel fast” I would like to add that with the power of media not only bad news but also GOOD news travel far and fast and this way it has also made it much easier for singers to be known and appreciated internationally” – this is also bad news Laura as sometimes singers are not ready for the big time despite huge talent and a prodigious gift. Hence my argument that, to some extent, a singer doesn’t really have a choice to go “slow” at least where notoriety is involved hence more pressure and less room where to make mistakes. Even the Great Caruso used to write to his wife Dorothy about how surprised he was that they didn’t boo him in certain theatres despite the many cracks on a couple of nights during a tour of South America. In this day and age the bootleg recordings of these cracks would be all over with high pressure on him not to mention the speculation.
      To your second point yes some singers do take some roles way too early and simply just do too much. However how many tenors nowadays can request not to sing the Cabaletta in Rigoletto? Alfredo Kraus, a perfect tenor technically, reputedly used to have it in his contract that he will not sing it. Bjorling used to cut, apart from the customary cuts, “Ma se me forza perderti” from the last act of Ballo and this at the Metropolitan Opera. Such behaviour is impossible to do today and we are singing in bigger houses, with bigger orchestras with ever higher tonality.

  3. Rosa Ulacia

    Estoy de acuerdo con tu reflexión, Hace 50 años había cantantes que llevaron una carrera larga y inteligente como la de Alfredo Kraus, Begnamino Gigli, Placido Domingo y otros demasiado cortas como la de Alfredo Diestefano, Anna Moffo.
    Tu llevas una carrera inteligente, de corredor de fondo, vida ordenada, buena técnica, y tendrás una larga vida profesional. A tu salud. Rosa Ulacia

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Joseph's Blog

July 11th, 2014

10 tips to overcome vocal fatigue

The end of my operatic season is night and pretty much invariably, year after year, its when I feel most tired and in dire need of my annual summer break. Singing the last few performances culminating with my Malta yearly summer concert can be a challenge – especially when I have to tackle a total of around 19 arias/songs!
Thankfully there is stuff that works for a tired physique and voice. Here is what works for me -

1. Move! Working out, swimming and even a long brisk walk will do wonders for your circulatory system. Don’t do this on the day of the performance but definitely in between.

2. Silence. If you are singing a lot than it is imperative that you keep mum during other hours and only talk if its absolutely necessary. Limit phone conversations too as much as possible.

3. Diet – 3 main meals a day are a must. Avoid foods high in lactose and sugar and go instead for protein, veg and loads of fresh fruit. Keeping your blood sugar relatively constant is important and regular, healthy meals will lessen the likelihood of acid reflux. Its also important not to eat late in the evening. I try to avoid eating after 6pm whenever possible.

4. Steam inhalations – Get a big pot or steam inhalator, throw in some bicarbonate of soda and sea salt and just inhale the healing/relieving vapours! This is really beneficial to basically all your upper respiratory tract and will dislodge mucus and other impurities from your throat.

5. Nasal irrigation – Not the nicest “procedure” but it does remove all kinds of “junk” from your nose. Make sure you always rinse with saline water and there are prepared sachets you can get from virtually any pharmacy.

6. Sleep – Its boring but a good 8 hour sleep is unbeatable to get the voice back in shape. Acid reflux sufferers will also find relief by tilting their head upwards by using two pillows to avoid nasty acid creeping up their throat during their slumber.

7. Stress – or the lack of it. Absolutely avoid stressful situations which may include noisy places/bars. Your throat tenses up automatically even if you don’t speak apart from the fact that you can “tire” your ears out. There have been some studies that our “ears” tire out too so the avoidance of high decibel places is a must!

8. Vibrator – Yep that one. Apparently tests have shown that massaging your throat with a vibrator is beneficial to the surrounding neck muscles. Apparently there are some therapists that employ such “devices” already…

9. Humidity – A constant dry environment can spell disaster for your voice and general well being. If you are in a cold climate and the heating is at full blast, chances are that the relative humidity is low. Invest in a humidifier and let them rip! We all have slightly different comfort levels. For me what works best is around 55 to 65% – just like a good cigar!

10. Arguments – Whether of a business or personal nature do walk away from these when you are singing. Even if talking is not involved the mere thought or presence of something negative will automatically tense your neck muscles and raise the incidence of acid reflux!

 

If everything of the above fails than you need a vacation! Choose a high humid climate with beautiful, clear seas at hand. Swimming in the ocean/sea is truly beneficial for the voice as long as one avoids the worse hours of the sun.