The sordid side of opera - drugs

For opera singer Adrianne Pieczonka, increased drug and alcohol use is the result of relentless stress.

adrianne piczonka 88 224 (photo credit: AP)
adrianne piczonka 88 224
(photo credit: AP)
Stripping away opera's glamor, singers are increasingly speaking out about a less glamorous aspect of their world - increased drug and alcohol use sparked by relentless pressure to perform often and well. Most performers continue to avoid the pitfalls of substance abuse and no figures exist documenting the extent of such behavior. But insiders agree that heightened competition, unyielding sponsor demands and the weight of stardom are leading to excesses that invite comparisons of opera to sports tarnished by doping scandals. Some attempts to stay on top are relatively harmless, like popping a beta blocker to soothe the butterflies before stepping on stage. But others are more alarming. Singers often overuse steroids in the form of cortisone to control inflamed vocal cords - sometimes in amounts that can permanently impair their abilities, say performers and their doctors. Others drink too much. Still others snort cocaine, according to insiders. Inability to cope sometimes turns into tragedy - as in the case of American tenor Jerry Hadley, who killed himself last month after what friends said was a prolonged bout of depression and reported financial and drinking problems. "It's become somewhat like a pop-star culture," the Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka said of the growing pressures to get to the top - and stay there. "People are already talking about a new Anna Netrebko and she's only in her mid-30s," Pieczonka said, referring to the superstar Russian soprano. "Now it's kind of like 'Anna's passe, let's get a new person.'" Reflecting today's harsh environment, even Netrebko, who became Austria's darling when she took out citizenship last year, was scathingly criticized by Salzburg Festival officials when she recently canceled a performance because of throat problems. Also missing this year from Salzburg, one of the world's premier opera events, were Rolando Villazon, Neil Shicoff and Elina Garanca - an unusual number of stay-aways by big names and all linked in some way to job stresses. Tenor Endrik Wottrich received harsh criticism for pulling out of a performance of the Wagner festival at Bayreuth, Germany, because of a cold. Fuming, he lifted the curtain on the pressure and resulting abuses. "We are faced with the choice of performing and being attacked because we sing one false note, or being attacked because we are taking care of ourselves," he told the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. To deal with the pressures, "soloists are taking beta blockers to control their angst, some tenors take cortisone to push their voice high, and alcohol is everywhere," he said. "The real pressure is no longer good old stage fright but comes from a new dimension that has penetrated opera - it now lives from glamour, and normal human mistakes are a disruption in such an environment." The mezzo Vesselina Kasarova spoke of colleagues who "are doing much too much...and are not as robust as they think. "They then turn to drugs to be able to cope with this kind of lifestyle," she told the German weekly Die Zeit. It's not that singing opera was ever a piece of cake. The stresses of performing are probably as old as opera itself. But the art has come a long way. In the past 50 years, stages have grown in size, orchestral instruments accompanying singers have become stronger and opera seasons have lengthened. Adding to the pressure, singers get paid by the performance - no money for no shows. Good singers are now in demand all year round, globe-trotting from one hemisphere to another. And even those who avoid long-distance travel often have little time between the late spring end of the subscription season, the start of rehearsals for summer festivals, and tours promoting their own recordings. Growing emphasis on appearance adds to the pressure. Stars like Netrebko and Villazon are feted as much for their looks as for their voices, sometimes forcing others less photogenic to resort to drastic measures. After American soprano Deborah Voigt was fired from a London production of Ariadne auf Naxos because she couldn't fit into the costume, she underwent gastric bypass surgery, reportedly losing nearly 100 pounds. The slower pace of earlier times also led to greater tolerance of cancellations, which sometimes even enhanced careers by becoming part of a diva's allure. Montserrat Caballe is still in demand in her '70s, despite a history of bowing out at the last minute that gave rise to the apocryphal line, supposedly from one of her managers: "Mrs. Caballe is available for only an extremely limited number of cancellations this season." "The interest in musical theater and opera has grown greatly just in the last few years," Austrian music critic Wilhelm Sinkowitz said. "Opera always was stressful and back then, if someone like (Maria) Callas canceled that was a catastrophe for those who paid to see her. "But all of that has been amplified - there are more and more performances and more and more pressure," Sinkowitz said. "And today, the public simply does not accept that a brand name like Netrebko or Villazon is not available. This is why the pressure on top performers is tremendous." Still, physicians who treat singers urge them to resist the temptation to perform at any cost. Some, they say, overdose without knowing it, as they travel from gig to gig in one city after the another without keeping track of cortisone treatments that - if overdone - can destroy a voice. Asked about cortisone overuse, Chicago otolaryngologist Robert Bastian, who counts many singers among his patients, said "a sense of vocal invincibility" - the trademark of a good singer - can backfire in an increasingly competitive performing world. Pieczonka says she has tamped down the pressure by pacing herself - she said she was taking a two-week vacation, something many others would never do out of fear of being off the circuit too long. Still, she has no illusions. "The word that comes to describe this lifestyle is 'hideous,'" she said.