Pass the Lemsip

Colds. The bane of the opera singer’s life.

I’ve got one right now as it happens. Nasty little 24-hour flu.

For most people, a cold is a matter of minor inconvenience. A runny nose and a sore throat aren’t enough to stop you from going into the office. You can persevere and push on through. If you’re feeling cheeky and fancy a sick day, you call it manflu and stay at home. The worst part is enduring the piss-taking of your colleagues.

But for singers, every cold is a big deal. It is a temporary disability, an injury to be suffered, worked through, and recovered from much like a tweaked muscle or a strained ligament for an athlete.

Colds are (sometimes quite literally) a pain in the neck. They’re inconsiderate bastards who invariably hit you at the most inconvenient times, in my experience most commonly during the last few days of stage rehearsals, or at the end of a season, when you are tired, run down, and vulnerable to pesky, stubborn viruses.

These days, there seems to be an alarming culture of cancelling performances owing to what are euphemistically referred to in announcements as “upper respiratory-tract infections”. Colds, to you and me. This shouldn’t, and needn’t, be the case.

Colds affect singers in different ways, according to how they produce their voice. Those singers who rely mainly on head resonance are, quite frankly, buggered, and will be completely incapacitated by a head cold. For those with a more sound technique, head colds and sore throats are obstacles that can, more often than not, be negotiated.

My personal weakness is sinus infections. For many years, I’ve had a deviated septum, which means the cartilage in the middle of my nose is offset. My nose has been broken several times, all caused by either rugby or youthful scraps. This has resulted in a near occlusion of the top of my right nostril. Whenever I get a cold and the nasal passages become inflamed, the occlusion becomes complete, the gunk can’t drain out, and if the cold is a stubborn one, I’ll invariably end up with a sinus infection.

So, why haven’t I had an operation to fix it?

Oh, I’ve considered it, believe me. Every time I get another infection, I ask myself the same question. The simple truth is that I cannot afford the time I would need to take away from singing. The best estimate for a healthy recovery is six weeks, the reality can be nearer ten. And then I’d need a couple of weeks to get my voice back up to speed. I simply cannot afford to take 3 months away from work for an operation to cure a condition that affects me, on average, once every couple of years.

And experience has taught me that I can sing through the worst of it. Two years ago, I performed the whole autumn season – Fasolt in Rheingold at Covent Garden and Don Giovanni at ENO – whilst suffering from a sinus infection. I wasn’t at my best for most of the performances, but I never cancelled. I never even had an announcement made.

If you think this sounds irresponsible, consider this – the vast majority of people in the theatre had no idea I was ill. They came to the show, enjoyed the performance, and went home none the wiser. I could have made a big song and dance about it – “Mr Paterson begs your indulgence for sounding like a rusty bandsaw” – but I didn’t think this was fair. The audience pays (sometimes a great deal of money) to see a performance, and if you make the decision to sing, then you owe it to them to sing without excuses.

As to why I never cancelled the shows outright, there are several contributing factors.

The first, and most important in my view, is experience. I’ve learned that a croaky speaking voice is no indication of the viability of my singing-voice. Some careful preparation, lots of fluids, and some canny musicianship has been enough to see me through. Knowing that you’ve survived battles previously is a great source of solace when faced with another one.

Professionalism has a great deal to do with it. You have entered into a contract, not just with the opera house but with the punters buying the tickets, to appear in a certain role on certain days. I believe that you should do your damnedest to honour that. “Should I cancel?” is not the question you should be asking yourself. Better to ask, “What do I need to do to get through this?”

Pride may be a deadly sin, but professional pride should be a pre-requisite for a life in opera. I do not have a reputation as a serial canceller, nor do I want one. I’ve only cancelled three opera performances in 22 years. I consider reliability to be one of my strengths as a singer, and I will not sacrifice that lightly.

Then there’s the money. Only those working at the very highest levels of our profession can afford to write off the loss of a fee. I can’t. Never mind ten of them.

So, you might ask, how does one avoid becoming a serial canceller? Well, unfortunately, there are no quick fixes, and magic remedies cannot be relied upon. The solution, as with so many aspects of singing, lies in preparation.

If there’s one piece of advice I would love every young singer to take on board it’s this – you have to get comfortable with your voice when it’s not firing on all cylinders.

Technique is what you rely upon when your voice doesn’t play ball. You need to accept that your voice is not a perfect thing, and that your true voice is, realistically, your average voice. The voice that you can produce day in, day out, no matter how you feel. Striving for perfection is a great goal. Falling short is the day to day reality, and no reason for cancelling.

I always talk about my voice in terms of percentage. Maybe twice a year, when the planets align, the sun is blazing from a cloudless sky, and I’m sailing across crystal-blue seas, sails filled by a strong following wind, then and only then, in those perfect conditions, does my voice achieve 100% of its full potential. If I’m lucky, I’ll have a performance on those days. Usually I don’t.

Most of the time, I reckon my voice sits at around 80% of its full potential. And I’m happy with that. I can live with it. I don’t need it to be perfect. I need it to be reliable.

When a cold hits, the immediate impression is that I have 0% voice, but that’s rarely the case. If I’m careful, and clever, I can generally coax it, more or less, back into shape. Adrenalin normally takes care of the rest.

As a singer, you always want to give your best, that goes without saying. But the reality is that everyone, sooner or later, falls victim to illness. How well you deal with it is one of those things that defines you as a singer.

Good singers don’t always sing at their best. And with the greatest, it’s the fact that you don’t even notice that makes them truly remarkable.


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