The Fear

We singers have all been there. Cold sweats. Pounding pulse. Butterflies. Clammy palms. Dry mouth. Sticky throat. And then the orchestra starts playing a completely different opera from the one you were expecting.

Thankfully, most of us wake up at that point and thank our lucky stars that it was all just a horrible performance anxiety nightmare. (I do know some unfortunates to whom this has happened in reality, but thankfully such things only happen once in a blue moon, and usually only in last minute jump-ins.)

However, anxiety dreams like these – and they are incredibly common among opera singers – just go to show the levels of stress and pressure to which performers in our profession are subjected. Even the normally safe haven of sleep provides no guarantee of respite from The Fear.

The Fear, and how one deals with it, is a subject that very few colleges and training programmes dare to approach. Dealing with nerves is an integral part of our profession, yet a young singer can sail through college and a Young Artist Training Programme with nary a word being spoken about the subject.

There seems to be an unspoken agreement amongst the powers-that-be that a performer who suffers from bad performance anxiety is simply “not cut out for a career in opera”. Which is complete bollocks, frankly. Insulting, uninformed and lazy. And normally uttered by someone who wouldn’t recognise performance anxiety if it walked up and punched them in the face.

Many great singers throughout the history of our profession have suffered from debilitating stage nerves. Even today, in an age when psychology and therapy are no longer considered dirty words, I know of many fine colleagues for whom it is not just a battle, but an ongoing war of attrition, yet they bravely face down their demons and put themselves out there on that stage every day.

I even have a couple of friends, talented singers and stage performers both, who suffered so badly from stage nerves that they simply decided it was more hassle than it was worth and subsequently retired from the profession. To say that these people “just weren’t cut out for it” is deeply insulting to their talent, skill, and fortitude.

The Fear can hit anyone, at any time. I’m sure if you asked most singers, they’d tell you many tales about times when they’ve simply wanted to run away and hide. I confess, it’s a pretty regular occurrence for me, and this ain’t my first rodeo, as the man says.

One such occasion was in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Madrid a few years ago. Their Bottom cancelled a show, and my good mate, fine singer, and all-round-top-bloke Darren Jeffery, who was singing Theseus, stepped up to sing Bottom, while I was drafted in at the last minute to (quite literally, as it turned out) fill his shoes as Theseus. There was very little time to rehearse, and, if it hadn’t been for a remarkably, given his own worries, cool and sanguine Darren talking me through it over a cup of coffee before the show, I wouldn’t have had a clue what I was supposed to be doing.

I remember sitting in front of the mirror as my mind furiously churned over my predicament.

“What the f**k are you thinking, you idiot?… You’ve never done a jump-in before!… You haven’t sung this role for two years!… This is your house debut!!… You’re really gonna screw this up!!!… This is it – your career will be in the toilet after this….”

I was horribly nauseated. In fact, I was physically sick about 30 minutes before my entrance. It sounds insane, but I remember testing how far the window opened, and trying to see how much of a drop it was to street level. I was giving serious thought to legging it, and to hell with my career!

Needless to say, the drop was too far, and I was too fat to fit through the window in any case, so there was no running away. I somehow made it through the show, though I have no memory of it other than nearly crashing Theseus’ sports car into a big hole in the middle of the stage, and Hippolyta’s little toy dog humping my leg at some point. The rest is a blur.

With the benefit of hindsight, my level of performance anxiety that night was nothing when compared with my debut as Wotan in Rheingold at the Proms last year – the hottest evening of the year, with Maestro Barenboim conducting, the Staatskapelle Berlin playing, a full-house, a live radio relay, singing the role from memory on only 4 and half hours of rehearsal. I hadn’t even sung the whole role through with an orchestra at that point.

The funny thing is that on that night, I wasn’t testing windows as potential emergency exits beforehand. I was sitting in the green room, quietly playing Scrabble on my iPad. I felt weirdly displaced from the whole affair. It was as if everything was happening to someone else, and I was just tagging along for the ride. To this day, I still break out in a sweat when I think about it, but at the time I was eerily calm, for reasons I still can’t adequately explain to myself today.

Stage nerves are very much on my mind today, as tonight we open a new production of Richard Strauss’ Daphne at La Monnaie in Brussels. I play Daphne’s father Peneios (oh, how the penis gags have been coming thick and fast), a minor role with a four minute aria and not much else to do. As I write this, I am sitting in my favourite local coffee shop, and not feeling nervous at all, but I know, from 20-odd years of experience, that about 30 minutes before the show I will be sitting in my dressing room suffering from all the stress related conditions I described at the start of this blog.

I might appear outwardly calm. I may even be playing Scrabble on my iPad, but I can assure you, inside I will be in turmoil, questioning myself and my abilities, questioning my right to be there in the midst of such a good cast, questioning why the hell, after 20 years, I’m still putting myself through this.

But I know, when the time comes, I will step onto the stage and try to do my job to the best of my ability, as I always strive to do. Experience has taught me that I will always go through hell in the moments leading up to a performance, but experience has also taught me that I will get through it and come out the other side, for the most part, unscathed.

For anyone planning on attending a show here in Brussels, you’ll be reassured to know that, while it’s only about 25 feet from my dressing room window to street level, I’m still too fat to fit through window.


  1. Penis gags…. thick and fast? Oh Iain, you leave that wiiiiide open… LOL 🙂

    Hearts and flowers,
    Fricka 🙂

  2. Such a great post on The Fear. I am a recent graduate of a music program in the States and I can say we didn’t talk too much on how to deal with these. Before my first recital (not gonna lie) I took a few shots (also NOT the best decision). Being told that I just “wasn’t cut out for the performance life” was unfair to all the hard work put in. Yoga helped – but wasn’t the end all of my “performers anxiety.” Love to hear that those at the top still get nervous 🙂 Thanks for sharing your journey!

  3. PS. My next stage job was at the opposite extreme; 500 performances of a rock musical in the West End, tripping over microphone cables – at times I wondered whether the salt mines of Siberia might have been preferable.

  4. I came to singing opera comparatively late (and if I had known what I was getting myself into perhaps I would have avoided it!) but I started as a performer as half of the Equity quota (then a closed shop) at Perth Rep where I did eight months of two weekly rep. Quite simply one’s life was rehearsing, learning lines, eating, sleeping, brushing one’s teeth and performing on stage. One got so used to being on stage and trying not to fuck up and dealing with the unexpected, that it was the most wonderful training for the profound work of 3 weekly rep and 4 weekly rep. I’m showing my age!
    There always needs to be a positive tension and focus as one leads up to a performance, but if you are well rehearsed, confident in your technique, strong in body and mind, then one can cope with many demands and the unexpected. My very first experience in opera was as Dr Bartolo in “Figaro”; the Marcelina failed to appear for our first entrance, I felt I couldn’t leave an empty stage so I went on and started making up Mozart recit (in English) until she appeared!

  5. It may amuse you to know that despite the nearest I have come to your real experience on stage is singing (oh how badly) in a G+S chorus, that I have had those dreams too! Which makes me respect what you and your colleagues do all the more, and be very grateful that you do it. Every time I see opera live, I do always wonder at the apparent nervelessness (knowing it must be only apparent) of the singers. This makes the spectacular performances I have been lucky enough to hear all the more moving. Please keep away from those windows, everybody – particularly if you are skinny enough to get through them!

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