The Human Instrument

23 April 2007

This weekend saw the end of a four-concert run of a Handel oratorio, in which I was singing the chorus bits along with 23 other local professional singers, joined by a top-notch period instruments orchestra and excellent soloists hailing from various places in the U.S. and Europe, one of whom is a personal favorite of mine. She was astounding in the first two performances last weekend – her tone was powerful and expressive, and she made the most of the wide variety of vocal colors in her arsenal, creating a complex emotional life for her character.

On the third night, less than a week later, I could hear some imperfections in her singing – notes not quite in tune, slightly wonky vowels, maybe some flagging breath support affecting the tone – but I chalked it up to the major acoustic change from the venue for the first two concerts to that of the third, from a very resonant church to a theater that is notoriously dry as a bone. I thought perhaps the lack of resonance coupled with the fact that in this venue the chorus was seated quite close to the soloists revealed some wrinkles that the acoustic airbrushing of the first venue hid.

The real story, however, was that she was either ill or affected by allergies, and either way it was taking a toll on her voice. The next night, at the warmup for the last performance, she sang a few bars of her opening recitative and had to ask that an announcement be made to the audience that her singing was compromised. There had been no time to find a cover for her; this particular oratorio isn’t performed frequently enough for it to be in many singers’ repertoire, and her role is not something one of us from the chorus could have prepared on such short notice. So she had to go on, and we, along with the audience, had to watch and listen as her voice grew hoarser and weaker. By the second act she was singing the recitatives an octave down from written pitch and struggling to get through her arias and duets, and her arias in the third act were all either cut or re-assigned.

She was gracious and professional through all of this, and her colleagues were sensitive to it, even adjusting their performances when necessary. But it was still heartbreaking to watch, because I know how scary and frustrating vocal problems can be, and I could see those feelings play briefly across her face at times. I’ve been to concerts where a violinist had to stop a concerto mid-movement to replace a broken string, and where a continuo player had to drop out of a piece for several minutes to repair an organ stop on the fly, but there is no way to heal the human voice during a performance when it malfunctions like this.

I’ve been struggling with some vocal fatigue myself lately, brought on by a combination of 1) a nasty sore throat / earache / cough I came down with at the end of March that is only just starting to go away, 2) laryngitis and resultant loss of voice due to singing a Tenebrae service during Holy Week that I should have skipped, and 3) April being a very busy month, gig-wise – my voice started coming back from the laryngitis just as I was beginning a stint of 7 nights of rather athletic singing in a row. Things have calmed down a little, but I still get an unnerving “lump in the throat feeling” after singing for an hour or so, which sets my inner hypochondriac to obsessing over the possibility that my vocal folds may be developing nodes. The rational part of my brain is telling me that I’ll probably be fine with vocal rest, but I should get myself to an ENT for a laryngoscopy soon just to be sure.

As troubling as my vocal problems have been, though, that last Handel concert brought me some much-needed perspective. The unique nature of the singer’s instrument and its vulnerability tend to heighten anxiety about vocal health, at least for me, but I am fortunate enough not to have been in a position where I lost my voice in front of a paying audience at a high-profile concert where nobody could have covered for me, and I am lucky to count among my friends several brilliant sopranos, a few of whom have generously subbed for me at various services this month, allowing me to get some of the rest I need.

Hopefully these experiences will help me remember not to push myself so hard the next time I come down with a sore throat, even if it is right before Holy Week. No singing job is truly worth compromising one’s health for.

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