An Opera Singer's Advice for Saving Your Voice

When your stock in trade is your voice, the slightest tickle in the back of your throat is scary. An opera singer gives advice about how to preserve and protect your voice.

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SUSAN STAMBERG, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Susan Stamberg. When your stock in trade is your voice, the slightest tickle in the back of your throat is enough to make you scream, in your mind anyway. Just ask any actor, politician, play-by-play announcer or, at the risk of jinxing ourselves, radio hosts.

NPR's Rob Sachs decided to ask somebody who would know best, an opera singer.

ROB SACHS: Meet Jennifer Wilson.

Ms. JENNIFER WILSON (Opera Singer): Basically, people have been telling me that I'm noisy all my life.

Ms. WILSON: (Singing) (Speaking foreign language).

SACHS: She's been a professional singer since 1991, a soloist since 2002 and from an early age growing up in D.C., she knew the opera was the perfect place for her robust voice.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. WILSON: (Singing) (Speaking foreign language)

SACHS: But outside the opera house, Jennifer's voice is a more moderate tenor. You'd never notice she was packing that much heat.

Ms. WILSON: Many actors don't speak any word that they aren't being paid for, and with singers, it has to be sort of the same thing because our voice is our livelihood.

SACHS: Nearly all operas are performed without microphones, so it's up to Jennifer to use her own voice to fill out those big opera houses. Add to that, she sometimes has to project herself over a 120-piece orchestra playing at full tilt. So you can imagine she'll do anything to protect her voice, and it goes a lot further than just drinking a warm cup of tea, which can actually have the opposite effect.

Ms. WILSON: Because any caffeinated beverage is going to cause you vocal chords to dry out eventually.

SACHS: So she has a routine.

Ms. WILSON: I take 200 to 400 milligrams of coenzyme Q10 per day to keep my immune system in top form.

SACHS: Unfortunately, that's not working right now.

Ms. WILSON: I'm suffering from a cold at the moment, as you may be able to hear.

(Soundbite of coughing)

Ms. WILSON: Excuse me.

SACHS: So she uses a humidifier at home and the next best thing when she's out of town.

Ms. WILSON: In Santa Fe when I was there, we had swamp coolers rather than air conditioners that actually dispersed water vapor into the air as a fan blew behind it.

SACHS: And come performance time, things get even more extreme.

Ms. WILSON: I avoid noisy restaurants, you know, no rock concerts, no sporting events. I mean, I really try to avoid speaking to the extent that I have actually carried around a piece of paper and a pencil.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. WILSON: (Singing) (Speaking foreign language).

SACHS: One thing she hasn't had, though, is laryngitis, which can be deadly for any opera production, since performances mostly just run a few weeks and often without the benefit of understudies. So when someone actually does come down with laryngitis, it's pretty common to have a backup singer sing from the orchestra pit while the main actor lip-synchs on stage, and there are even other ways to improvise.

Ms. WILSON: I did attend a performance, which is sort of legendary, where in "La Boheme," the Marcello was sick, and the fellow who knew the role, he ended up singing both his role and Marcello's role from the stage. In fact, the original Marcello was on the stage mouthing and acting his part while the other fellow sort of surreptitiously sang, pretending to be reading a book or something, and then when his time to sing his part would come, he would step up and sing his role.

(Soundbite of opera, "La Boheme")

Unidentified Man #1 (Opera Singer): (As character #1) (Singing) (Speaking foreign language).

Unidentified Man #2 (Opera Singer): (As character #2) (Singing) (Speaking foreign language).

SACHS: Well, Jennifer has never had to do anything like that, but she can relate to the idea of playing two parts at once. As the lead soprano for the Washington National Opera's current production of "The Flying Dutchman," Jennifer gets to be the prima donna on stage, but offstage, she has to shut down her boisterous pipes to preserve them for the next performance, and while being the glass-breaking, shrieking type, Jennifer says playing this other role has helped her develop an unexpected skill set.

Ms. WILSON: You know, it does make you a diplomat because if you don't have the volume at your disposal, then you have to find another way.

SACHS: If Jennifer ever really does lose that amazing voice, maybe there's a second career out there for her, in the foreign service.

Rob Sachs, NPR News.

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