We’ve all had them. I’ve certainly had my share over the last 25 years.
For as long as I’ve been singing, I’ve dreamed of one day singing Wotan at Bayreuth, and, last Tuesday, in Das Rheingold, I finally got my chance.
And I sucked. Big time.
Why? I simply couldn’t breathe properly.
When you can’t breath properly, you can’t support your voice properly. If your breathing is shallow, then your support will always be inadequate.
As I opened my mouth and drew in a breath for the very first phrase, I knew I was in trouble. Normally I breathe deeply into my body. I like to feel the breath being pulled down to the very bottom of my lungs, my abdomen drawing out to accommodate the expanding lower lungs. This helps to draw any tension away from the upper chest and neck, and to anchor the voice firmly in the body, rounding out the sound and boosting lower resonances along the way.
On Tuesday, it felt as if my breath stopped slap bang in the middle of my chest. Shallow, and incomplete.
As a hayfever sufferer, this sensation is not unfamiliar to me. Late in the pollen season, I frequently need to use a Ventolin inhaler to counteract the asthma-like symptoms hayfever causes – shortness of breath, and wheezing owing to the narrowing of the airways. It’s a bit like someone is standing on your chest as you try to breath in, and any attempt to breathe deeper has the accompanying sensation of breathing mud instead of air. The inhaler helps to open up the airways to allow more regular breathing, and it works pretty quickly and reliably.
Unfortunately, desperate I was to have a quick couple of puffs on the inhaler, I did not have it with me onstage, and, as Wotan is onstage for the entire show, I had no way of getting to it. All I had was the cigarette-shaped vaporiser that I use to mime Wotan’s chain smoking for the entire show, and that was only exacerbating the problem.
Panic started to set in. Was my voice going to hold up? Was I going to be able to get through the show? Could anyone even hear a single word I was singing? I felt like a rusty old tractor engine, running on a single cylinder. What the hell could be affecting my breathing so badly!?!
From the start of the second scene, it had been apparent to me that there was noticeably more stage fog than there had been during rehearsals. Artificial smoke, stage fog, dry ice, call it what you will, has become a favourite tool of theatre directors and lighting designers.
Singers hate it. We are told, “It’s not smoke, it’s harmless vapour.”, and harmless it may well be, but moisture-heavy air can still adversely affect singers, as I was about to prove quite publicly. Breathing it in is like breathing in the thick, heavy air before a thunderstorm, multiplied many times over.
Onstage, and momentarily out of sight of both audience and cameras during the Descent into Nibelheim, there was some consternation about the alarming amount of stage fog amongst my colleagues as well.
In spite of some not-so-subtle exhortations into the wings to, “turn that s**t off!!!”, the smoke continued to billow out behind the set, to the extent where we started thinking there had to be some sort of technical problem. It finally abated after Alberich’s last exit. I suspect that the lovely Albert Dohmen may have had a few choice words when he got offstage, God bless him.
I desperately tried to rally my nearly spent resources for the final scene, but by that point, the damage had been done. I had spent all of scenes two and three believing that my voice was not going to get to the end of the next phrase, and I limped to the finish line, never having been more grateful in my life to sing the final notes of a role.
After the curtain came down, there was all sorts of discussion and analysis about what had gone wrong. The technical computers apparently showed that the smoke levels were exactly as they had been at the dress rehearsal, yet that was evidently not the case. Sitting onstage wearing a pair of sunglasses during Alberich’s curse (as you do), the smoke was so thick that I could not see my colleagues, as I had been able to do at the dress rehearsal.
Nobody could figure out what had changed. Eventually one of the crew came up with the theory that the heavy, pre-thunderstorm atmospherics of the evening had somehow affected the vapour to make it thicker onstage. Who knows?
What I do know is that something I had been looking forward to for my whole career turned into a two-and-a-half-hour horror rollercoaster.
And it was all filmed for posterity, oh joy. There’s not much I can do about that, unfortunately, but it might one day provide a useful instructional tool to educate young singers on the deleterious effects of excess stage fog.
Until then, I guess I just have to keep sucking it up.
7/8/16 – Tonight’s second show was, for me, a much more enjoyable evening. The stage smoke was much reduced from the opening night, and my breathing and voice were well within normal parameters for the whole show. My thanks to the technical crew for sorting out the problem!