Listen to Your Life

Life doesn’t always go according to plan. When I graduated from the Mozarteum in Salzburg, I did not expect to create an opera festival in Nepal. That was not part of my “five-year plan” for launching my career. But in the summer of 2009, due to a very unusual chain of events, I found myself singing and teaching in Kathmandu!

Just a few months earlier, I had been struggling to survive in New York City. My master’s degree in opera was framed on the wall, but I was not getting enough “opera gigs” to pay the rent. So I took a day job with a non-profit organization called Hope Partnership Nepal.

While working for HPN, I learned that Nepal is a beautiful country that has been ravaged by civil war and political upheaval. Most Westerners are completely unaware… Read More

Full post at icadenza.com

Superior Vocal Health

How do singers stay in peak vocal condition?

“Water, sleep, and good technique!”

That’s what I always tell my students. But what about throat sprays? Do they really work?

To be honest, I don’t trust every throat spray on the market. I’m skeptical of anything that claims to improve vocal quality. Even when I’m ill, I rely on my vocal technique to get me through a performance.  Technique is a singer’s first line of defense!

But there are days when your throat gets attacked by allergies, cold viruses, air conditioning, altitude and humidity. Is there a throat spray out there that can make those days a little easier? Yes, there is.

I’ve just discovered a line of all-natural products by Superior Vocal Health.  These organic herbal formulas were created by a professional singer, so they are specifically designed for singers. And they work.

1. Throat Saver (spray). Throat saver is a refreshing spray with a sweet, minty taste. It moistens the throat, reduces mucus, and boosts immunity. It’s safe enough to be used several times a day, in between rehearsals.

As a frequent flyer, I notice that my mouth gets dry after several hours on an airplane. So there is already a special place for Throat Saver in my flying pharmacy, the little medicine kit that travels with me whenever I get on a plane.

2. Sinus Clear Out  (tongue dropper application).  One April day, I woke up with a miserable headache behind my eyes. My nasal passages were swollen and painful. After putting two small drops of Sinus Clear Out on the back of my tongue, I was overwhelmed by the taste of horseradish and alcohol! But just 9 minutes later, my headache was completely gone. (It’s rare for any sinus medication to work that fast!) Within thirty minutes, my Eustachian tubes were clear and my nose was back to normal. Since I suffer from chronic sinus allergies, I was absolutely amazed. This is seriously good stuff.

3. Vocal Rescue (gargle). This gargle solution combines Turmeric with ginger and honey to soothe a sore throat.This is made for more serious conditions like laryngitis or tonsillitis. It can also save your voice from wear and tear during an intense performance schedule. But please do not swallow; Vocal Rescue is only to be used as a gargle.

Of course, this is great news for singers. But it is just as exciting for actors, professors, politicians, and for anyone who does a lot of public speaking. Just remember that everyone’s body chemistry is a little bit different, so you may react differently. I strongly suggest that you do not use any medication in a vocal emergency until you have first tried it on a non-performance day. But take the time to experiment with these formulas. I think you’ll find that they are safe and effective.

Personally, I’m very careful about what I put in my throat, so I might never have discovered these products if I hadn’t received free samples for the Globetrotting Soprano. But at $19.95, they are reasonably priced, and I have been genuinely impressed by the results. I’ll be buying more.

As a traveling opera singer, I need to stay in peak vocal condition. Most of the time, I can rely on my health and my technique.  But there are days when I need an extra boost, and that’s when it’s nice to know about Superior Vocal Health.

Opera Therapy

Why does music make us feel better?

Do sound waves actually have healing properties?

Opera is medicinal, and not just because there are sometimes “doctors” onstage! In this image, Dr. Dulcamara dispenses potions to Nemorino (Robert McPherson) in Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore. But there is serious evidence that music plays an important role in physical and mental health.

Music therapy has produced some exciting results. The Los Angeles Times recently reported that music therapy can reverse the symptoms of a wide variety of disorders, from dyslexia to Parkinson’s. It even improves the outcomes of patients with brain trauma!

In the ancient world, no one questioned the link between music and medicine.  The ancient Greeks treated patients with melodies, and they considered Apollo the god of both healing and music. Traditional Chinese medicine used particular pitches to heal diseases; in fact, the Chinese word for medicine comes from the word for music!  And in the Bible, David practices a form of music therapy when he soothes King Saul’s rage with his harp.

Thousands of years later, music therapy still has a profound effect on mental health. It can even help victims of severe emotional abuse. My talented cousin, Devon Feldmeth, will be doing drama and music therapy with orphans and former child soldiers in Uganda this summer! Click here to learn more about her project.

In Tibet, healers use sound bowls to cure their patients of both physical and emotional distress. At this clinic in Thailand, singing sound bowls are a part of therapy. The vibration is meant to restore the body’s natural balance.

But it is a misconception that music therapists only use the type of  “new age” music you might hear in an incense-scented massage room.  Sometimes, the very best results happen when the therapist plays the music that the patient loves most.  Watch this dramatic transformation when an elderly man listens to his favorite songs:

In Sweden, some opera singers make house calls!  If you are depressed in Stockholm, you can apply to have an opera singer come and sing an aria for you in your living room.  The arias are from traditional operatic literature and they are chosen to address certain emotions and situations.  The program has been especially effective for couples who want to resolve conflict. It’s called Opera Aid.

As a group, opera singers tend to believe in the healing power of the human voice!  We actually “self-medicate” by singing, and we find joy and energy in our music every day. Is this because of the emotion in the music?  Or is it the vibration of the frequencies that we sing? Or does singing really soften the soul?  Whatever the reason, music is pretty powerful stuff.

So next time you’re feeling under the weather, try some opera therapy! Crank up the Puccini, or ask your favorite singer to give you a live performance. You might just find that music is therapeutic, both in the sound itself, and in the space between the notes. “Music hath charms to soothe a savage breast, to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak.” William Congreve

Living Outside the Box

When I tell people that I’m an opera singer, they often gasp in surprise. That’s because most people don’t think opera is a real job. I might just as easily have said that I’m a dragon slayer or an alchemist.

And then, when I tell them that I don’t belong to a company, but travel around the world performing as a soloist, they get even more excited. Finally, they ask me if I’m famous, but… Read more

Full post at www.icadenza.com

Photo by cutebabiespictures.com

the Parasailing Soprano

Have you ever tried to sing while flying over the ocean?

Last July, I  wanted to do something special for my birthday.

So I convinced my friends to go parasailing!  The perfect California adventure.

Flying was my childhood fantasy.  I always longed for the freedom of flight, without the help of an airplane. What could be better than the sensation of gliding effortlessly through the air?

The sensation of falling is not quite so much fun, which is why skydiving has never interested me.  Hang gliding would be an option, but it requires some real training. Parasailing, on the other hand, requires no particular skills. The desire to fly is enough!

We all felt giddy as we launched our boat from Balboa Pier.  This was really happening! Our guides from Catalina Parasail had given us some serious life preservers. Sitting on the edge of the boat, strapped into a harness with two of my friends, I had a brief moment of “flight fright.”

But the fear disappeared as soon as the parachute lifted us up into the air.   The sensation of flying was so much more gentle than I had expected it to be! It was almost hypnotic. Twelve hundred feet in the air, we glided peacefully (and noiselessly) above the water. We also had a panoramic view of Newport Beach.  It was breathtaking.

On our way back down, the guides thought it would be funny to dunk us in the ocean before bringing us back to the boat.  This came as a surprise! Swooping down into the water like a pelican, I felt like I was hugging the Pacific. It was one of the best moments of the trip.

We finally landed back on the boat with a little thud.  It was time to compare notes with our other friends. “Did you sing up there?” one of them asked.  “Oh no!” I exclaimed. “I forgot!  I yelped some high notes when we first launched, but they were unintentional.”

To make room for the next group of parasailors, we transferred into a smaller boat. But as we made our way back into the harbor, the outboard motor died. And while we were waiting to get ‘rescued’ by a dinghy, the conversation turned to opera. Our guide mentioned that he really likes the Ride of the Valkyries.

My friends happily explained that they had brought an opera singer along. They asked me to sing Brünnhilde’s Battle Cry as entertainment while we waited.  My high C’s bounced off the surface of the water.  We saw some people on the shoreline spin around in confusion. Because of the accoustics of water, it was hard for them to tell where the sound was coming from.  We all laughed together, imagining a new staging of the Ring Cycle where the valkyries arrive on parasails instead of stallions.

I love to sing while I’m out in nature.  It gives me a feeling of pure freedom. And I really like that feeling. It’s why I still chase my wildest dreams, like flying.

All in all, it was a perfect day: fun, friends, and parasailing! I even got to sing on the water.  I have not yet planned my next birthday adventure, but I welcome your suggestions!

My Inner Italian

Fluency is a survival skill.

If you have a vague desire to become fluent in a language, you will probably fail. But if you need to be fluent, your brain will do whatever it takes to make that happen. Nothing can stop you.

I know this to be true.  This is the story of how I (briefly) became Italian.

When I moved to Italy in the spring of 2005, I stuck out like a sore thumb. You could tell I was a foreigner from a mile away. It wasn’t just my blonde hair and my H&M wardrobe; it was my whole way of being!  My gait, my mannerisms, my accent. Of course, it wasn’t obvious to everyone that I was American. Many people guessed that I was Swedish or German. But I was definitely not Italian.

Strangely, this came as a complete shock to me. Having lived in Austria for seven years, I already felt very much at home in Europe. I thought that I was good at adapting to new cultures. But I did not realize how much my comfort was tied to my northern European look. When I moved from Vienna to Florence, I suddenly stopped “blending in.”

Fortunately, I did speak some Italian. After all, I had been singing Italian opera for years! My education at the Mozarteum had included three years of Italian classes, and I had continued to study the language in Vienna.  But when I won a scholarship to study with Mirella Freni at her academy in Vignola, I discovered just how much Italian I didn’t know.

I remember my first night at school in Italy.  I was sitting at a long table in a local restaurant in Vignola with all of my classmates from the academy. I was at the middle of the table, so I could hear about four different Italian conversations going on around me. But I didn’t know what anyone was saying. I had made an effort to speak Italian all day long, but now it was after 10 PM, and I couldn’t even speak German and English anymore, let alone Italian. “I have to learn fast,” I thought to myself.  “I’m the only American at this school. I have to get comfortable in Italian as soon as possible.”

And amazingly, I did.  But I would never have succeeded without the help of my roommates. I was rooming with two extraordinarily talented young singers: Beatriz Diaz from Spain and Chiara Amarù from Palermo.  The three of us became the best of friends! Chiara was so kind and patient with us as she taught us to navigate her native language.  Together, we laughed and cried through the intricacies of Italian verbs.

But we only roomed together while we were at school in Vignola, and that was only one week out of each month.  The rest of the time, I lived in Florence, where I was working for Opera St Mark’s. I loved living in a city of history and art and culture, but I couldn’t get used to the fact that strangers were constantly approaching me! With my bright hair and touristy image, I attracted a lot of attention.

At first, I enjoyed chatting with people. But I got so tired of the question, “where are you from,” that I started to make up outlandish answers.  “I’m from Brazil,” I would say firmly. Or I might claim to be from Greece or Korea or Egypt.  This made the Italians laugh until they cried.  “Please, miss, where are you from?” they would ask as I passed them on the street. And I would reply, “Dalla Antartide. Non si vede?” (From Antarctica. Can’t you tell?)  It was my little joke.

Out of sheer necessity, I enrolled in Italian classes at the Istituto Italiano in Florence.  They have great intensive courses, with fun field trips! After a few months, I had earned certificates in advanced grammar and conversation and diction. I passed all my exams.

But the real test of my language skills came when I was asked to be the official interpreter at an opera master class taught by Sergio Bertocchi! Three students from Australia and Singapore had come to Italy to study with Maestro Bertocchi, and since I was the only native English speaker in residence at the academy, I would be their interpreter. I didn’t have too much trouble translating their voice lessons, or helping them order at the restaurant.  But I gulped when Maestro Bertocchi asked me to spontaneously translate his lecture on vocal anatomy and the philosophy of singing! Somehow, I managed to translate an hour-long graduate level lecture, but when it was over, I couldn’t remember a thing that Maestro Bertocchi had said.

Meanwhile, I worked very hard to create a life for myself in Florence.  I made friends in the local ex-pat community.  I bought a membership card for the Uffizi Museum so that I could look at great art every day. And I also got to know the churches of Florence very well: I worshiped in one, sang concerts in another, and practiced my music in a third!

Day by day, things began to change.  The people in my Florentine neighborhood started to accept me as one of their own.  The guys in the pizzeria nodded as I went by. I had a “regular” order at the caffè in the piazza.  I shopped in Italian stores and read Italian news. Once, I even got interviewed for a market research survey about Italian brand names!

But I didn’t realize just how Italian I had become until the day I moved back to the States.  My mother had come to Rome to help me move, and we were shoving all of my worldly possessions into the trunk of a taxi.  But the taxi driver, thinking that we were gullible tourists, charged us triple the usual rate. Naturally, I started to argue with the taxista in a loud voice, with my hands flying. The Italian language had become a part of me, gestures and all!  (Click here for a quick guide to Italian gestures.) I won the debate and got my money back, but then I looked over to find my mom suppressing giggles.  “I can’t help it,” she insisted. “My daughter sounds like Sophia Loren!”

So that is the story of how I became Italian, just for a little while.  It wasn’t a permanent change. After returning to the United States, I lost some of my italianità.  But every now and then, my inner Italian comes out!

My Italian side can be triggered by little things: the smell of oregano, the sound of a vespa, or an exquisite piece of Renaissance art. And suddenly I feel like I’m back under the Tuscan sun, my heels clicking on the cobblestones while I adjust my sunglasses and chatter away in Italian with my friends.

If you really want to learn Italian, make it a top priority! Then, get in touch with your Italian side. Eat Italian food. Argue with an Italian taxi driver. Read an Italian website. Listen to an Italian opera! Release your inner Italian. Arrivederci.

Inside the Master Class

What really happens at a master class?

I’ve had the privilege of studying with several famous opera singers at master classes. They have taught me more than just vocal technique and musicianship.

Here are some of the secrets I’ve learned from great singers.

I remember the moment that I first saw Dame Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. It was January 2002. I was sitting in a crowded auditorium in Stuttgart, Germany. Suddenly, the backstage door swung open.  In that instant, the room fell silent and three hundred heads swiveled to look at her. At the age of 86, Schwarzkopf could command attention simply by walking into a room.

A master class is a seminar for advanced music students (or young professionals) conducted by a master musician. The student performs a piece of music in front of the whole class while the teacher critiques the performance.

Frau Schwarzkopf was famous for making caustic comments at her master classes. She could be pretty brutal with her students.  I was thinking about her reputation when I climbed onstage to sing Hugo Wolf’s Schlafendes Jesuskind for her.  The song opens with the words, “Sohn der Jungfrau, Himmelskind!”  But it took me eight tries to get to the word “Himmelskind,” because Frau Schwarzkopf kept interrupting me.  A couple of times, I hadn’t even made a sound before she yelled, “Nein!”

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf was a stickler for detail. Every breath, every expression, every vowel had to be just right. I learned a lot about Wolf Lieder that day. But I learned even more about willpower and charisma, qualities that Schwarzkopf possessed in abundance!

Master classes are never just about singing.  They’re about how to live your life.  (See Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture.) Singers are natural mimics — we learn by imitation and even by osmosis! We absorb a great deal of information simply by being around great artists. And this has little to do with what is actually taught or discussed.

Montserrat Caballé is one of the most joyful people I have ever met.  A couple of years ago, I had the pleasure of singing at her master class in Zaragoza, Spain. Her curriculum included a lot of vocal anatomy; she enjoys the science of singing. But it was her contagious joie de vivre that most impressed me. Studying Casta diva with her was simultaneously gratifying and alarming, because her passion for Bellini is visible. It shines through her like a light.

Master classes are special times in the life of a singer because most voice lessons do not happen in front of an audience. Soloists usually take individual lessons. Professional opera singers continue to work with voice teachers and vocal coaches throughout their career, but this training is usually one-on-one.

And yet, there is something about the group learning experience that really works for musicians. Singers who have struggled for years can make huge breakthroughs in a master class. I’ve seen it happen. In just a few days, a student can experience an exponential learning curve.

That’s why I was thrilled to discover that Mirella Freni teaches her own students in a “master class” format. When I moved to Italy to study with her in 2005, I did not realize that my “classroom” would be a sixteenth century palace! On the day of my first lesson, I climbed up a magnificent spiral staircase to a large chamber with painted ceilings, where sixteen young singers were singing arias for each other while Signora Freni made suggestions.

Mirella Freni is, of course, a musical genius.  She sings in a very natural and authentic way, as if she were holding a conversation.

I think the best moment may have been when some of my colleagues asked Ms. Freni how to produce a pianissimo. They wanted to hear about the physical process, how to use their abdominal muscles and resonance chambers, etc. But she gave them a more profound answer.

“What is the best way to support a soft sound, Signora?”

Bemused, Mirella Freni gazed back at them. “Con lo stato d’animo, ragazzi.” (Stato d’animo can be translated “mood,” “spirit,” or “frame of mind,” but what she literally said was, “With the state of your soul, kids.”)

When I went to visit Ms. Freni last spring, I found that she had moved her academy to Modena, the town where both she and Luciano Pavarotti were born. Her master classes are held in a former hospital, in what used to be the cardiology wing.  There is poetic justice in that, since Freni’s music is about singing from the heart.

Of course, master classes are often a mixed experience. When a student wants to learn, and a teacher wants to teach, there is nothing better than a master class.  But sometimes it gets more complicated than that.

Master Class is actually the title of a play about Maria Callas, written by Terrance McNally, in which Callas teaches students about singing while reliving episodes from her own life. And like the play, a real master class can reveal someone’s hidden agenda.

Sometimes, the student just wants to demonstrate how fabulous she already is. Meanwhile, the teacher wants to prove her greatness as a teacher. They both need professional affirmation; they both want to shine.  And they both end up feeling hurt and unappreciated. This is completely unnecessary.

A really masterful pedagogue can adapt to the student’s own learning style. Some students are more kinesthetic; others are more verbal.  Some make huge intuitive leaps simply from imitating the sounds in the room; others need a step-by-step methodology that they can write down.

An experienced maestro knows how to critique a student without discouraging him. He knows what to say and what not to say. Some of the best vocal coaches I’ve known have a Zen-like ability to teach without saying anything at all!

I was not quite that wise when I went to teach vocal workshops at the Kathmandu Jazz Conservatory in 2009. I had prepared a several multi-media presentations on topics from breathing technique to the history of Western opera. And I think it was useful. But I noticed that my students got even more from my energy and attention than they did from my information. That’s how it works.

Master classes aren’t just about music. They’re about life.

Accidental Genius

Everybody wants to be a genius. But creativity is so hard to predict.  Most creative ideas seem to happen by accident.

So… how can we have more creative accidents?

The key is to create a dangerous environment.

I’m not talking about physical danger, although that might get your creative juices flowing. I mean artistic risk.

Personally, I need a space where I can play around with my creative ideas, where I’m not afraid to crash and burn. For me, this is usually a music studio. For you, it could be a laboratory or a gymnasium or a library or even a cubicle. Any space where you can approach your project with a bold sense of adventure.

Geniuses don’t play it safe. The most creative people I know are pretty comfortable with risk.

My brother-in-law has a fairly exciting brain. Rocket science isn’t terribly challenging for him. Even in college, he was able to imagine and produce projects of staggering creativity, but he usually injured himself in the process! This led his Harvard friends to call him a “genius of sorts,” and the nickname stuck.

This fearlessness is just as important in music as it in science. The best jazz musicians I know are great improvisers because they are not afraid. They invent great music on the spot because a) they’re good musicians and b) they’re not afraid to fail.

Creative minds maintain a curious balance between discipline and playfulness. In a recent article for the Wall Street Journal, Jonah Lehrer reports that while most great thinkers work grueling hours, the “incandescent flash” of inspiration usually happens when they finally relax and take a hot shower.

For some reason, creativity requires both work and play. The best thinking happens in the space between the two. That’s where the insight lives.

The practice room is probably the least glamorous location in an opera singer’s life. But that’s where we spend a big chunk of our time. And that’s where a lot of the magic happens.

Say it’s Tuesday night at midnight in New York City. You’re alone in your sound proofed practice room. You are singing along as you bang out some chords on the piano and suddenly — unexpectedly! — something amazing happens. Music pours out of you, more vibrant than ever before.

Then two weeks later, you’re on stage in New Haven, singing the same music, and you are flooded with fresh creative energy.  Why? Because you practiced. You actually practiced getting inspired.

It’s not really an accident.  Not really. But it feels that way.

Inspiration is completely unpredictable. You can’t know if and when it’s going to happen. But it’s much more likely to happen if you’re ready and waiting.

So if you need a creative boost, just find an “accident-rich” environment and spend a lot of time there. Somewhere down the line, you might have a stroke of genius.

The Day I Saw Mount Everest

Kathmandu, 2009 ~ My Himalayan adventure began very early on a Thursday morning.

It was the beginning of monsoon season, and there were some very black clouds on the horizon. I thought I felt some raindrops on my neck as we headed for Tribhuvan Airport.

We had flown into the same airport when we first arrived in Nepal on a flight from Bangkok, but we had come into the international terminal. The security check at the domestic terminal involved separating into male and female lines. To enter the departure lounge, we first had to enter a special curtained room, so that a gender-appropriate official could check us.

“Oh, you’ll love the domestic terminal,” an American friend had told me.  “It’s straight out of Indiana Jones. They sell whips and knives. There’s a snake charmer in the corner.”

He was joking, of course. When I passed through the heavy curtains, I found myself in a very normal looking departure lounge, with powder blue walls and large posters advertising Yeti Airlines and Buddha Air. The plastic benches were full of people waiting for their flights. There was a table in the corner where a man was selling instant coffee with yak’s milk.

I sat down on the floor with my mom and another friend from Hope Partnership Nepal. We had come to Nepal to create a music festival and to do some service projects.  But we had this morning off, and we wanted to fly around Mt. Everest!

We were told that our flight might be canceled because of the weather. We waited quietly for over an hour, wondering if our plane would be allowed to take off. The mood in the lounge was very somber. There was a smell coming from the restroom, which featured a hole in the ground and a bucket of water but no toilet paper. Finally, a crackling voice came over the loudspeaker.  “Buddha Air, next flight departing at 7:06.”  Everything was announced in both Nepali and English.

As we boarded the tiny plane, I tried to remember some Nepali phrases that my friend Rabin had taught me: तपाईंलाई कस्तो छ? (How are you?) मलाइ सन्चै छ । तपाईलाई नि? (I’m fine, thanks. And you?)  I could never make the words stick in my head.

Our tour guide greeted us warmly and explained that we might not be able to see much.  It was raining, after all.  If the storm got worse, we would have to return without seeing the Himalayas at all.

We ascended slowly, leaving the rooftops of Kathmandu far below. Suddenly, we broke through the clouds into a bright, sunlit world!  Nobody dared to speak.  We were in a magical place.

“Mom, we’re at the top of the world!” I whispered.

It is a strangely wonderful thing to view a 29,000-foot mountain from 30,000 feet. I felt like we were close enough to see the ice melt!  It was truly one of the most majestic things I have ever seen.

The tour guide ticked off the names of the mountains as we passed each one: “Nuptse. Everest. Lhotse. Makalu.” We took turns going up to the cockpit to see the pilot’s view, which was even more spectacular. Fluffy white clouds were nuzzled against the peaks, and the sky was azure blue. The mountains themselves were absolutely vast; you could actually feel how big they were.

Later, I tried to put that feeling into my music as I was singing, but I couldn’t make a sound that was both earthy and ethereal at the same time.

It’s been three years since I was on that little plane in the Himalayas. But I’ll never forget that breathtaking moment when we broke through the clouds. That memory helps me get through less beautiful moments.

I didn’t actually climb Everest, and I may never go trekking in the Himalayas. But I know those mountains personally, and I think about them often.

      Once again
      Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
      That on a wild secluded scene impress
      Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
      The landscape with the quiet of the sky.
                     - William Wordsworth
                     "Lines Composed A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey"

Food for Singers: The Diva Diet

How do you feed a singing voice? What do you eat? When do you eat? What foods should you avoid?

For a singer, eating right is a balancing act.

Food is fuel, and you need enough fuel to get through your show. But too much food could make you lethargic on stage, and the wrong kind of food could irritate your throat, ruining your performance.

So you have to juggle everything that you know about nutrition… with everything you know about your own body. This photo is by She Knows Health & Fitness, a good resource for health tips.

When people travel to far-off places, they usually relax their diets and enjoy the local cuisine. But singers do not have the same luxury. When we travel to Rome or Tokyo for an opera gig, we have to think about how the food will affect the voice.

This week, I asked my singer friends what they like to eat before a performance.  I got responses from opera singers all over the world! And the results* are fascinating.  Here are their answers: the 5 best foods for singing … and the 5 worst foods for singing!

5 BEST FOODS FOR SINGING

1. Water – Dehydration is a singer’s worst nightmare. Dry vocal cords are less flexible and more susceptible to damage.  But don’t wait until the last minute to get a drink! The vocal folds are one of the last places in the body to get hydrated. So you can’t moisten your throat (from the inside) until you have consumed enough water to hydrate all of your vital organs. The singers in my survey reported drinking up to a gallon of water on the day before a performance. They drink more water as soon as they wake up the next morning. And they keep a couple of water bottles backstage during the performance.

2. Veggies & Fruit – Singers pile their plates full of green leafy vegetables. These help the body shed toxins and fight diseases. For optimal vocal performance, Aaron Lim, author of Your Personal Singing Guide, recommends fruits and vegetables rich in Vitamins A, C & E. One of the singers in my survey is a vegan and she selects raw foods packed with nutritional value; before singing, she drinks a green smoothie with kale or chard, juicy fruit, flax seeds, dates and water.

Fermented vegetables, like sauerkraut and kimchi, are cancer-fighting, mood-improving, probiotic superfoods! But wait until after your performance to indulge your saurkraut habit, because salty foods absorb water.

3. Protein –  Just like athletes, singers need protein to maintain their strength and stamina. Many singers like fish and poultry, because they are high in protein but low in fat. But a couple of the singers in my survey reported needing iron-rich red meats on the day before a performance. Vegetarian singers prefer protein shakes and energy bars.

4. Small “Combo” Meals – Many singers eat a small meal about two hours before the curtain goes up. They can’t afford to get dizzy onstage, so they avoid sugary and starchy foods that could spike their blood sugar. Instead, the singers in my survey picked foods with a low glycemic index. They also balanced their proteins and carbs.  Favorite meals included salmon and salad, eggs and toast, or chicken and rice.

5. Vocal “Lubricants”– Food and water never come in direct contact with the vocal cords. But there are some snacks that stimulate saliva production, bringing relief to singers who suffer from “dry mouth.”  These include apples, lemons, hard candy and ginger tea.  If you’re feeling hoarse or scratchy, a spoonful of honey will soothe your throat and fight off bacteria.

5 WORST FOODS FOR SINGING

1. Alcohol – Many people only sing in public if they’re tipsy, but opera singers finally stop singing when they drink.  Here’s why: alcohol causes the tissues in the larynx to swell, reducing vocal control.

2. Heavy Foods – Singers avoid fatty foods, greasy foods, and anything that might give them gas. Remember that food is fuel, but don’t overtank! Singing depends on good breath management. If you eat too much, your digestive system will slow down and your abdominal muscles will relax and you’ll find it harder to support your air.

3. Caffeine – Caffeinated drinks steal moisture from the body. Also remember that caffeine is a real drug and it can hype you up. Performing is exciting enough by itself; you don’t want to flood your body with caffeine and adrenaline.

4. Spicy Foods – Garlic and other spices are fantastic for the immune system, but they are hard on the vocal folds. They can also irritate the stomach, causing acid reflux. You’ll also want to avoid foods with nuts or small particles that could get lodged in your throat.

When I was singing and teaching in Kathmandu, I lived on naan and tea for days at a time. Why? Because my digestive system was in shock. I couldn’t tolerate yak’s milk at all. And I loved the spicy boar, but the spicy boar didn’t love me.

5. Milk – Dairy products have been linked to sinus infections.   To a singer, there is nothing worse than having a raging infection in the ears, nose and throat. For many years, we were taught that drinking milk actually produced phlegm.  This turns out to be a myth, and yet some singers do get congested when they use milk products.

I was lactose intolerant until I moved to Austria, where my digestive system cured itself. (Note that this is medically impossible, but it happened anyway.) I thank Austrian cows for my current ability to eat cheese — after all, Austrian cows appear to be happier and healthier than American cows, and they have better cowbells, so I think they deserve the credit. 😉

It’s best not to be too neurotic about what you eat. Anxiety does not help you sing better. But clearly, food plays an important role in the singer’s life.  If you want to stay in peak vocal condition, you need to choose your meals wisely. And that concludes this episode of the Diva Diet. Bon appétit!

* Please note that this was an informal survey with a very small sample size. It does not attempt to be a formal study with statistical significance.