I have to tell you guys a secret. Opera singers seem like the coolest people on earth. The rock stars of the theatre. Ballers, many have said. But the truth of the matter is that we are all a bunch of moist throated, germaphobes hell-bent on social ostracisation based on strange and off-putting habits often inflicted upon members of the public minding their own business.
Ok, I am being a dramatic diva once again. We are strange, but some of these habits listed below you will probably think are totally normal. Lip trilling while on a packed train. Normal. Don’t know what a lip trill is? Are you crazy?
Here are some of the reasons opera singers are fantastically eccentric creatures of the wild:
Humming, lip trilling and singing sirens in public spaces
There are so many occasions when en route to an audition, coaching or singing lesson that I will be in need of warming up with no place to go but the bus stop. Multi-tasking on crack. Humming, singing sirens (think ambulance) and lip trills are what get us warm and buzzing ready to use those precious cords. I mostly try to warm up the higher notes as traffic noises are loud, trains approach the platform etc… but I don’t always get the timing right and this does result in suspicious side glances. Lip trills are most famous for entertaining small children, where you put your lips together and they vibrate as you blow air through, spit flying all over the place. Opera singers don’t spit while doing this, because as they say, we are pros. But the look of doing something in the absence of a child, as an (assumed) adult can disturb even the most open-minded civilian. Understandable. I am so often humming quietly that I barely notice I am doing it until I see the people around me searching for the source of unending scales, arpeggios and cadenzas I just can’t get down pat yet. Oops.
Drinking water constantly- and if you’re me, drinking hot water constantly
An opera singer with a moist throat is a happy one. If you drink lots of water, your vocal cords become more flexible, bouncier and generally happier guys than ever before. For this reason you will never, ever see an opera singer without water in close proximity. My own personal habit, is to be constantly drinking hot water. No tea. No coffee. Just, hot water. Delish! The reason behind this is that steam, in combination with the hydration from the water actually helps prevent and aid *inflammation of the vocal cords. Ice cold water constricts them. No, no we can’t have that. My cords are warm, juicy guys ready to rumble at all times. I have disturbed many a friend and foe as they handled my surprisingly hot water bottle, expecting it to be icy cold. Alas, no. Even on the hottest summer day you will find me drinking some nice, mildly hot water. Mmmm.
*ever had a sore throat? Your cords are inflamed!
Ingesting just about any strange concoction in order to sing while sick
If you ever have a sore throat- ask an opera singer. They know the things. Firstly, let me define sick for an opera singer. Sick is: feeling any sort of odd sensation in ones throat. The way in which we react to said sensations (coughs, tickles, inflammation, sinus things or extra mucus) depends on the diva. One tickle and a singer could be out cold for the night where others may soldier on even through having a mild cold. Brave, brave divas they are. When sick, do drink all the water (as mentioned), drink herbal tea, steam the hell out of your throat (towel, head, over steaming hot water sans eucalyptus oil- drying!) and sleep for all eternity. Lozenges- do not. Coffee do not. Milk do not. Many singers I know are into a great myriad of herbal remedies like olive leaf extract, the most disgusting taste I choose not to describe to your delicate ears. My favourite is: hot water (when is it not), honey (one bucket) and pepper. So much pepper. I have no idea why, but pepper is the most important addition that makes the difference. Do it.
Being hyper-aware of absolutely any said sensation in the throat, tongue, jaw and nasal passages in general
The work we do requires being aware of all of these things while singing but also means that throughout our day we are constantly checking in on our jaw tension, tongue root tension, open airiness of our sinuses and hopefully lack of congestion. If you ever see me massaging around my neck, jaw, face area. Now you know why. Move along.
Sometimes your voice needs a rest. Silence. This reduces swelling of the cords from speaking too much, shouting, singing too much or all of the above. Everyone needs a rest, and our little guys are no exception. The problem with this one for me is I have noticed just how much this voice rests annoys everyone coming into contact with you. My roommate and best friend would get so upset, absolutely convinced I’m mad at her and not just a paranoid-singing-maniac. To quote my father- “not this fucking voice rest thing again!” Silently, I draw a sad face on a piece of paper.
Flying long haul gets us wearing masks
Ever heard of a humidiflyer? This baby is a humidity making mask for your face and also really helpful at scaring all remaining passengers on the plane. What does she have?! Is it serious!? Don’t worry mate, she’s just a moisture loving songstress. It looks like this. Most recently flying from Australia to Europe, I got ready to have my big sleep (24 hours is time to get out your best sleeping skills). I brush my teeth, put my ear plugs in, eye mask and finish off with strapping my face in with this humidity making, germ protecting babe. Settle in folks, and keep one eye open at all times. The creepy mask lady’s gonna get ya!
Strong and unmistakable aversion to anyone with a sniffle or cough- god forbid the cough
The common cold is the singers enemy. I have heard stories of some of the greatest divas today sneezing once in the sound check and within half an hour being wheeled out the stage door in a wheelchair, cancelling all performances until further notice. This makes sense to me as a singer. My voice is my instrument, and if it gets sick or hurt I can’t go on. In any capacity. Just leave me here, forget me forever and move on with your lives. Goodbye, dear world you have been good to me.
Making strange noises, constantly
Oh man, living with an opera singer will open your eyes to sounds humans can make that are so similar to sex noises, but in fact are not. We have to get all different parts of the system going- whether it’s a breathing thing, something for the resonators or the tongue and jaw. We do all manner of things. Singing with entire tongue out your mouth- try it. Sighing, very high pitched. Ah, ah, ah! Great to get the voice going and also to pretend you live a wild life behind your bedroom doors. Double the benefits.
Loud- LOUD singing
Ok, let’s put this into perspective. While living in the back of an eight apartment block, eight apartments from the front gate, you can hear me singing my warm ups. Imagine living next door. Or, in the next bedroom. We have to sing over a full orchestra, into a theatre full of hundreds of people without a microphone. It figures… but in real life, I’m sure I have pissed off many a neighbour singing my exercises over and over, making strange sex noises (unfortunately without the sex) and singing only the first half of a song. Can’t be as bad as a band of recorders though, right? Most recently my neighbour knocked on my door asking if it was possible for me to buy some sort of sound box (think telephone box) for me to sing in. Almost as good an idea as these new things I’ve seen advertised.
And so, now you have a tiny insight into what it is like being an opera singer, or waiting for a bus with one. Thanks for reading, and if you didn’t, also thanks for not reading because now we will still be able to continue being friends. Opera singers are special creatures, reviving an art that is so old and so magical. We love what we do and we sacrifice being normal for this life of loud, multi-lingual bliss.
If you have never seen an opera, I would recommend Carmen or The Magic Flute as good starting points. Coming soon- a guide to going to the opera for beginners and curious cats looking to get a big slice of diva in their lives.