Suck it up.

Bad nights.

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.

Literally.

*Update*

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!


6 thoughts on “Suck it up.

  1. I attended Rheingold on Wendesday and really enjoyed the performance. By the end of the opera there was an over powering stench of tobacco in the auditorium. Could you also smell the tobacco on stage? Was this a specific stage effect for the audience or were some of the stage performers actually smoking tobacco? It all took me back to the sniff and smell cards at the excllenent Love of Three Oranges production at the ENO in the early 90s.

  2. I’m listening to the broadcast of Rheingold as I can’t make Bayreuth due to recent heart surgery.

    I read your piece with trepidation & deep concern for you personally – what could be worse for a Wagner singer than a feeling that they have sung below par at Bayreuth?

    (I have long admired your voice and the intelligence & wit you bring to your performances. I heard your ENO Sachs 3 times, & thoroughly enjoyed your illuminating & thought-provoking talk for the Wagner Society last year. I also very much liked your original takes on Fasolt & Kurwenal).

    So I feel a huge sense of relief that – whatever you may have been feeling while singing it – your Wotan is a triumph. I’m no expert but I can’t hear any of the problems you mention and you seem truly to ‘inhabit’ the part. The production seems to me a bit ‘hit & miss’ – some of it works, but there’s too much going on, & sometimes the gap between Wagner & the production is unbridgeable. What consistently works, however, is the performers – very much including you. And it’s hard to imagine a better Fricka than Sarah Connolly.

    Incidentally, how interesting to have ‘Schwarz-Alberich’ sung by a practising ‘Licht-Alberich’ – emphasises the connectedness of the 2.

    Congratulations!

    Richard Miles
    Chairman, The Wagner Society

    1. Many thanks for your kind comments, Richard. I trust that you are well on the road to a full recovery.
      Sarah is indeed excellent as Fricka, and it has been wonderful to have such a supportive colleague in the cast.
      For myself, I wrote the piece because I wanted to share my experience of the evening. Sometimes it’s great fun to be onstage, and sometimes it really feels like pushing s**t uphill – sooner or later you’re gonna wind up in a right old mess.
      Part of doing my blog is that I wanted to paint a more realistic picture of what it means to be an opera singer. There’s too much faux-mysticism about our job, and I wanted people to understand how it feels when things don’t go to plan.
      At some point after the festival, I will have a look and listen for myself, and see what lessons I can learn. For now, though, I need to focus on Monday’s Tristan premiere.
      Best wishes for a speedy recovery!
      Iain

  3. Mate. Am totally with you. Had same issue with Beaufort scale AC at Coli during Tristan. Made for a seriously compromised night for me that show.

  4. Very sorry to read this, and I hope they sort the fog out for later performances. I shall be there for Tristan and Ring III , and I’ll be rooting for you as an admirer and fellow Scot.

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