Understanding Opera Singers and their Health

Friday, June 21, 2013 - 04:08 PM

I know, and am grateful, that many opera singers read my articles. This one, about health, and the next one, about money, are for them. I hope that non-singers will read these pieces to become more aware of what singers go through to give audiences the pleasure they so often do. Also, what applies to singers often applies to the rest of us.

While people in all professions face medical issues, few can be undone as thoroughly by a sniffle, cough, congestion, stomach trouble or any number of other afflictions that most of us can deal with more privately. If you are a soprano with a cold, in one way or another everyone will know it. Some singers even ask that an announcement be made. When that job fell to me, the words went something like this: "Good evening ladies and gentlemen. Tonight's Tosca, Miss ____, has a cold (audience groans) but, as she does not want to disappoint her many fans, she has agreed to go on and begs your indulgence." (audience cheers)

A lot of opera companies, in their public communications, say that a singer who cancels is "indisposed," a term too euphemistic to really work. It makes it sound like she's just not in the mood to perform. And I can tell you of more than a few cases in which the opera management decides that a singer, for artistic reasons, should not go on and is declared indisposed even if she might be entirely disposed.

I recall an example from the 1980s in which an Italian soprano was supposed to sing Elisabetta in Don Carlo at a major American company. At the final dress rehearsal, management told her she would not sing on opening night and she was suddenly "diagnosed" with a kidney infection that would prevent her from appearing in the entire run. She went home to Italy with a large paycheck but was also inconsolably disappointed. I have heard this artist in Europe and think she got bad treatment from the American company.

Germ Attack

Singers lead a rough life. They travel a great deal, being exposed to airplanes, jet lag, unfamiliar food, and people with germs who gush too long and too close. There are many singers who are parents and their children are, according to one medical professional I spoke to, "petrie dishes of germs." But parents want to hug and kiss their children. There is a poignant passage in Marilyn Horne's candid memoir in which she speaks of how guilty she felt that she could not go near her sick daughter for fear that she might catch something. Remember: if a singer does not go onstage, she will not be paid her fee, something that all artists (but especially young ones) are not able to afford. I will discuss this in my next article.

Part of what has prompted me to undertake this topic is that a new book is about to be released by Oxford University Press that all singers should read with care. It is called The Singer's Guide to Complete Health and was edited by Dr. Anthony F. Jahn, who is the medical director of the Metropolitan Opera. I should tell you that I wrote the foreword to this book, but that is not why I am mentioning it here. I agreed to write the foreword because it is such a good book and I think singers should know about it.

Dr. Jahn has, in effect, gathered a panel of experts who do a mostly excellent job of explaining all sorts of medical conditions. He wrote nine of the 36 essays, including crucial ones such as "The Vocal Apparatus: Structure and Function" and "Disorders of the Nose, Sinuses, and Throat: An Overview for Singers." You can't be a singer without being conversant in these issues. Another important essay early in the book is "Pulmonary Medicine for Singers" by Dr. Len Horovitz, a New York internist and pulmonary specialist whose patient list includes many singers and musicians.

Something I especially like about this book is that each writer is a specialist in what he or she has been asked to discuss. These topics include sleeping disorders; breathing; hearing; vision; mental health; and allergies. Several doctors emphasize the importance of regular rest as a key to minimizing many medical conditions.

The delicate but inescapable issue of weight is addressed in three essays, one about nutrition and weight management and two about bariatric surgery -- one by a doctor and one by a singer. I think many singers (and the general public) will find a section about acidic foods quite interesting in terms of how acid reflux affects the throat and esophagus.

Because certain terminology comes up more than once in the book, you might notice each doctor defines them differently. This is fine, I think, because it also happens in life. For example, rhinitis is defined by one doctor as "an inflammation of the nasal passages" while another refers to it as a "runny nose." And here I thought rhinitis was about people who constantly pine to hear Wagner's Ring cycle!

Serious issues such as surgery and anesthesia are addressed seriously and compassionately. It is understandable that anyone, but especially singers, can be fearful about procedures that might either have devastating effects on a career or represent salvation for someone in deep trouble.

A real strength of this book is that Dr. Jahn did not limit the discussion to traditional Western medicine. There are so-called alternative therapies as well as a focus on exercise and the Alexander Technique for physical awareness. Eastern medical practices, including Chinese herbal remedies, acupuncture, yoga and meditation, get more extensive coverage than I have seen in books geared to mainstream medical care.

Another thing that sets this book apart is that there is valuable writing from people who actually appear on stage. The veteran character tenor Anthony Laciura, whose vast range of roles required him to engage in all kinds of stage business, offers an insider's view of how to stay safe in an environment that can be perilous. He wisely counsels that it is to a singer's advantage to get to know the stage crews, who are safety-conscious but also enjoy the recognition by, and interaction with, friendly artists. Laciura also emphasizes the importance of the rehearsal process to learn where pitfalls might be on the stage as well as how to engage in stage fighting that looks realistic but avoids Errol Flynn-type ad libbing that could lead to injuries.

The quality of the writing is admirably high in a book by non-writers. It is clear, direct and caring, like a good doctor. It is almost entirely free of jargon that doctors use with one another, so that a phrase that a certain condition is a "common presentation" caught my eye. Believe me, no opera singer wants to be part of a common presentation.

Healthy Teeth Matter

I do have a couple of issues with this book, but they can be addressed when it has a second edition. The absence of essays on dental and mouth health is unfortunate. A dentist not only cares for your teeth but often is the first to detect medical problems elsewhere in the body whose symptoms appear in the mouth. Also, he or she is concerned with your bite and the alignment of your teeth, which are essential for proper diction in performance. My dentist has many singers, actors and speakers among his patients and I see the attention he devotes to these minute but essential concerns. As an aside, I think it is shameful that, in the United States, dental care is not covered as part of health insurance--the mouth, tongue and teeth are body parts every bit as important as the the sinuses, gall bladder, knees and toes.

The other thing that troubled me were chapters on minimally invasive cosmetic surgery and plastic surgery on the face. These procedures are a reality today and singers think about them. But the tone of these two chapters sounded more promotional than informative. They also reinforced negative self-images and said, in effect, that in a competitive market you need every advantage. I think that the good, happy singer is one who takes care of his or her innards, whether they are organs or the soul. If they are serene, rested and prepared, they sing well, sound gorgeous and are entirely appealing. Besides, what are makeup and wigs for? Finally, a line editor missed some spelling and punctuation errors, but these can be corrected in a future edition.

My reservations, if addressed, will only strengthen what is already an indispensable book that I think doctors would also be wise to read. As for singers, tell them you love them but only kiss them or shake their hand if they make the first move.

And another tip to my singer friends: Never discuss your medical status on social media. I have seen famous performers post candid information about coughs, sore throats, congestion and more intimate issues. This is not something your audience and, especially, opera managers should ever know about.


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Comments [21]

Got something important information about dental issue. I am interested to read more about dental insurance. I want to know why dental insurance in very costly and how I can get a affordable dentalplans. I am following now dentalplans.com and trying to findout best insurance policy for me and for my 5 years age child.

Feb. 12 2016 11:53 AM
concetta nardone from Nassau

Thanks for the kind remarks Mr. Lane.
Saluti e auguri

Jul. 13 2013 01:54 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

Concetta, it is what one reads into any document or occasion that proclaims his/her lifestyle philosophy and attitudes on what is in our ambience or anecdotal experience. JOHN RUSKIN expressed this commrentary
"The highest reward for a man's toil is not what he gets for it, but what he becomes by it." My sentiments entirely. Concetta, you have the right spirit and your sons must be very proud of their mother. All the best !

Jul. 13 2013 12:55 PM
concetta nardone from Nassau

Saluti Mr. Lane, read your comment that Barbara Walters actually said that Shakespeare was overated. If anyone is overated it is Ms. Walters. I do not really like to watch the plays because occasionally the performances are too reverential. But oh boy, do I read the plays. However, love Macbeth, Othello, Romeo and Juliet as operas. As for the Bard, I copied the most beautiful passages in the hope that my two sons will read them after I have left this valley of tears, lies, etc.
Best wishes

Jul. 10 2013 10:01 AM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

There has been a complaint by non-performers that performers should not attempt to promote themselves but havesome mercenary agents or publicists to do that. Unfortunately many performers who traverse their career opportunities with self-deprecating attitudes that minimize their potentials, assuming that the world will recognize their talent and reciprocate in financial terms. Most creative artists are reticent to evangelize for potential fans. If one has indisputable talent as JOE FRAZIER and MOHAMMED ALI unquestionably did, FLAUNT IT !!! We all have detractors. But even Tschaikovski after hearing the Ring at Bayreuth declared it was lacking melodies. Virgil Thomson after seeing Leonard Bernstein's WEST SIDE STORY declared it ashcan music. And Barbara Walters volunteered that SHAKESPEARE is overrated. Verdi was denied admission to the Milano Conservatory; they told him that he had no talent for music. So it goes.

Jul. 09 2013 12:32 PM

Two highly respected newspapers with full time professional music critics that reviewed my work were the NEW YORK STAATS-ZEITUNG UND HEROLD [a German language newspaper with a reviewer whose career covered WAGNER performances] and SHOW BUSINESS. My close working with composers FRANK LOESSER, MARC BLITSTEIN, MARTIN KALMANOFF and IRVING CAESAR singing their songs, and in LOESSER'S case his Most Happy Fella and his Guys and Dolls, coached by them at their request. I was the leading singer with the General Platoff Don Cossacks singing throughout the USA, Canada and Mexico and had my own program OPERATIC SPOTLIGHT on WNYC. As host, interviewer, and singer, I sang solos and duets with stars of the MET OPERA and New York City Opera as guests. It is nothing new for even geniuses to undervalue competitors. Virgil Thomson called Leonard Bernstein's WEST SIDE STORY ashcan music. Tschaikowsky at Bayreuth was unimpressed, calling the RING unmelodic and Barbara Walters complained "Shakespeare is given too much credit." So it goes.

Jul. 09 2013 12:40 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

I appreciate ANONYMOUS FROM VALHALLA and ANONYMOUS FROM NYC your noting that you have located and read the NEW YORK TIMES reviews of my Carnegie Hall and opera premieres performances. THANKS , I knew that when you would research the matter that you would see that i have many years experience singing in nightclubs, opera, Broadway musicals and on radio among other programs, on the International Ladies Garment Union's GODINO OPERA PROGRAM, in which I coordinated singers with the program matter with maestri Salvatore dell'Isola, Frederic Dvonch, Lehman Engel, Anton Coppola and others, all maestri with the RODGERS and HAMMERSTEIN productions in their original premieres. The broadcasts emanated from WEVD off TIMES SQUARE, NYC. As JOE NAMATH and MOHAMMED ALI demonstrated, if you have the goods, proven assets, FLAUNT THEM so that others may be aware of their existence.

Jul. 08 2013 05:56 PM
Anonymous from Valhalla

I did search the NYT website and, alas, Mr. Lane was received reviews as late as 1957. Point taken! Apologies!

Jul. 08 2013 10:53 AM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

To address ANONYMOUS FROM NYC's query. MY PERFORMANCE NAME IS KENNETH LANE, not until recently have I used my full name of Kenneth Bennett Lane. If you merely READ the listings of professional music critics reviews of my performances in the NEW YORK TIMES, MUSICAL COURIER, MUSICAL AMERICA, FANFARE MAGAZINE, NEW JERSEY MUSIC AND ARTS MAGAZINE [Sigmund Spaeth the editor], OPERA NEWS, NEW YORK DAILY NEWS, NEW YORK DAILY MIRROR, DAILY RECORD [of Morristown, NJ] THE JERSEY JOURNAL [of Jersey City, NJ] HUDSON DISPATCH [of Union City, NJ] and since my career has started many years ago even when I was still a student at Juilliard and Columbia University, The New York Herald Tribune, The Journal American, The World Telegram and Sun, the Newark Evening News, which no longer exist. Besides I sang either the title role or leading tenor role in operas by SERGE PROKOFIEFF AND GEORGE ANTHEIL ET ALS. ALL have been reviewed by major music critics.

Jul. 08 2013 10:01 AM
Anonymous from NYC

Wagnerian Heldentenor Lane: Please provide a link to your New York Times reviews. I am unable to find any.
I have never heard of the Valhalla Record label. Furthermore, anyone may rent the Isaac Stern Auditorium. That is not the same as being a Carnegie Hall sponsored performer. Finally, as illustrious a Wagnerian Heldentenor as you may be, have you ever sung for the Metropolitan Opera? I thought so!

The only reference to you I can find on the Internet is on your website!

Jul. 07 2013 02:02 AM
concetta nardone from Nassau

I think Mr. Lane is an invented character. No one could possible be so full of themselves except some of the staff at QXR.

Jul. 06 2013 12:50 PM
Concetta Nardone from Nassau

Again very fine article, thanks. As for weight, some singers really did need to lose weight, Caballe, Sharon Sweet, Tebaldi. Tebaldi's voice did not suffer when she did lose some of the extra pounds. I recently rented a dvd from the old ed sullivan show. She sang with Franco Corelli, the finale from Andrea Chenier. I never realized that she was beautiful. There she was, tall and slender and singing beautifully with Corelli. He was also tall and a really gorgeous man. Never liked his voice though, He pushed too much.
Best wishes

Jul. 04 2013 10:20 AM
Joanna Cazden from Burbank CA

Hi Fred:
thanks for this nice report.
As a speech pathologist and singer, specializing in rehab for singers, I often tell my patients that nearly EVERY aspect of body & health can influence voice -- the good news being that improved care for any aspect of bodymind will support the voice.
My book on this, recently published by Hal Leonard, is ideal for student and other developing voices: www.tinyurl.com/everyday-voice-book or tinyurl.com/everyday-voice-download.

Jul. 03 2013 02:41 AM
Anonymous from Bayreuth, New Jersey, Exit 7

I cannot find any reviews of Kenneth Bennett Lane anywhere.
My hunch is that he is a fictitious cartoon character.

Jun. 29 2013 08:50 AM
Johnny Lane from Fort Lee

I will be performing the first entire Ring Cycle singing the rare Heldencountertenor role of Testiculous!


Jun. 28 2013 08:40 PM
Harry from Howard Beach, N.Y.

Here you go again, Mr.Lane. Bragging and running your commercials . Try to stay on subject and spare us the boring commercialism and bragging.

Jun. 28 2013 11:16 AM
Daniel Polowetzky from NYC

Many years ago a singer who briefly sang at the Metropolitan Opera informed me that I was "phonating incorrectly", and would in a few years be unable to talk!

I'm still talking and she is not singing at the Met!

Jun. 23 2013 10:11 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane's uncle from UWS

Who's the babe in the photo?

Jun. 22 2013 04:13 PM
David from Flushing

The recirculated air on planes is a major health hazard that ought to be addressed by regulation. There was a terrible case of a passenger with resistant TB who passed on the infection to several others during a long flight. Anyone who has to travel as part of their occupation is not in the safest of positions. The viruses that have attacked cruise ship passengers are now appearing in resort hotels in the US. It is only a matter of time until planes become infectious.

Jun. 22 2013 01:33 PM
Leslie from Now San Francisco, home Belfest , Maine

I sang for many years, though not professionally, and as I sit in each opera performance I am continually amazed and grateful at how these wonderful singers/actors which I see and hear can do everything they do on stage while still mindfully producing such gorgeous sounds.
I travel 8 hours through good weather and bad (remember the February storm on the east coast this winter) to see a favorite singer at the MET. I just traveled across the whole country to see a favorite singer in a favorite opera- wondering the whole trip ---until the curtain (well it was a screen) opened and there he was healthy!. Selfish? Yes. I would have understood-don't want them singing while not healthy- -but...

Please take care of yourselves. We, in the audience, treasure your art.

Jun. 22 2013 11:24 AM

Nearly all American opera singers don't have health insurance provided to them. They are self employed and have to buy their own health insurance and that may not include dental. I hope you discuss this issue at some point. Also paying taxes as a singer might be something you could talk about.

Jun. 22 2013 07:35 AM
Molly Abbott from Charleston, SC

Wow, thanks for the in-depth article and book suggestion! I completely agree with you both on the dental issue as well as your frustration with the cosmetic surgery chapter(s). My mom always told me that there is nothing on Earth more beautiful than someone who is confident and passionate about their life. As an opera singer, I always remember this!

Jun. 22 2013 12:44 AM

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Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream and devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns, Amanda Angel and others. The music stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings.

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