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Trade Secrets: How opera singers take care of their voices

Unlike an orchestral player, a singer's instrument can't be packed away when they're done performing – real care has to be taken to keep it in peak performance.

By Philippa Ratcliffe (Speech and Language Therapy Consultant)

15 May 2015 at 11.41am | 12 Comments

How does an opera singer produce that sound?

Singing is a more athletic, energetic and elite form of speech. The voice is a wonderful, mysterious instrument – hidden from view, so all the singer has to rely on is sound and feel.

The vocal folds, which are tiny, the size of your little fingernail, are the source of the sound. They are connected to the lungs as the power source, the abdominal muscles and diaphragm are the generators. In a woman, during normal speech, the vocal folds flutter together around 220 times a second, in a man it’s around 130. Singing can raise this by up to a thousand more. Next, the vocal tract shapes the sound – this is the tubing around the back of the nose, throat and tongue, including the mouth, lips and teeth. The sound produced by the vocal folds is made up of all sorts of harmonics and partials, which can be accentuated or attenuated in certain places in the vocal tract.

Read more: How does an opera singer's voice actually work?

Some people are genetically predisposed to be good at this, but it’s possible to learn to achieve that lovely ringing sound, which carries so well with such clarity – the singer’s formant.

What makes a great operatic voice?

It is a combination of genetics – the size of the larynx, vocal folds and length of the vocal tract, and those other intangible, non-physical qualities: musicality, imagination, temperament.

How can a singer care for their voice?

Always stay well hydrated. The vocal folds, which are fluttering together to make the sound, need to have a wet surface, and if you are not secreting enough lubricant, what little is there becomes viscous. As the vocal folds come together in the closed phase they stick, so you have to increase the effort to burst them open again. They will then recoil and slap together. It is the equivalent of walking through mud – exhausting.

Singing in the full throes of a cold is quite dangerous, but if the cold is on the way out I advise singers to steam for an hour, using an electric steamer, to shift anything left and reintroduce moisture. But stay away from anything that dehydrates – particularly menthol or decongestants. Warm-up and cool-down exercises are important. If a singer has been using their voice in a restricted register – say very high – afterwards it’s a good idea to bring the larynx and vocal cords back to neutral by doing some descending scales and trills for a few minutes.

Acid reflux is another very common problem; even just the vapours from stomach acids are harmful – they contain pepsin, a protein-degrading enzyme, and the larynx is made of protein. So no late-night meals of spicy or acidic foods.

Unlike any other instrument you can’t pack a voice away in a case when you are finished – it is always there in a singer’s day-to-day life and they have to be aware of that.

In my clinics, I see people in crisis, which for a singer is terrifying – it’s not just their job, it’s their identity too. However, I say never waste a good crisis – it’s a time to change things for the better. But I am impressed with how well The Royal Opera looks after its singers. As I meet with them I encounter very few problems, which shows that the investment in their future is good.

By Philippa Ratcliffe (Speech and Language Therapy Consultant)

15 May 2015 at 11.41am

This article has been categorised Opera, Uncategorised and tagged baritone, bass, health, mezzo-soprano, soprano, tenor, vocal, voice

This article has 12 comments

  1. Iiris Korimaki-Whorrall responded on 20 April 2016 at 2:04pm Reply

    Useful.

  2. Chris Alexander responded on 25 April 2016 at 5:53pm Reply

    Is there any article detailing the regimen of Royal Opra House singers, who are so well looked after? Thanks for any pointers to additional info.

    • Mel Spencer (Content Producer (Social Media and News)) responded on 25 April 2016 at 6:10pm

      Hi Chris,

      Thanks for your comment. We're very pleased so many people have enjoyed reading this article and we're looking into ways of sharing more information like this about our singers as it seems to have struck a chord, if you'll pardon the expression!

      All the best,

      Mel

  3. Tina responded on 27 April 2016 at 1:09am Reply

    Thanks. That was useful... And what about smoking?! for example if a singer smokes 5 cg every day, and after each cg, she drinks 2 glass of water, is there also any problem?!...

  4. Roseann Iles responded on 11 August 2016 at 11:07am Reply

    Why would any singer in their right mind smoke????

    • Michael de Navarro responded on 12 August 2016 at 6:02am

      You would think not but the great Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau did as did Elizabeth Soderstrom and at least one current world-class bass

  5. Paul Rhodes responded on 12 April 2017 at 5:35pm Reply

    I returned from London to BC / Canada on April 11th. Whilst in London I attended several opera events and one master class. On every occasion I asked singers "how do you protect your voice from stress / strain and infection" They should be reading this as they had no answers for me !!! Many Thanks

  6. Wilson rush responded on 16 April 2017 at 6:19pm Reply

    Wonderful advice for both aspiring and expiring singers especially amateurs who cannot afford or have access to such professional musical and physiological issues

    Well done to the ROH in advertising against late night curries and over celebration of both alcoholic and non alcoholic beverages

    A real lifestyle wake up call and grateful for it

    This opens the threshold of the good old thirst for knowledge

    Wilson rush
    Tenor 1
    Bbcsc and locally in kent

  7. Yasmin Fitzpatrick responded on 22 April 2017 at 10:26pm Reply

    Full of useful insights and vocal exercise suggestions. Thank you!

  8. Dr Seán Donnelly responded on 24 April 2017 at 11:10pm Reply

    The Great Enrico Caruso was a chain smoker of turkish cigarettes. Hence the darkening of his voice over the years.

  9. Mary responded on 3 May 2017 at 3:01pm Reply

    I love the Royal Opera and found this an interesting article. I was especially interested in using steam. However, as a retired (and picky) teacher and lover of correct grammar, I have to say that the title of this article grates. It should be "How Opera Singers Take Care of Their Voices (plural). Otherwise, it seems that there is one voice for all opera singers. I won't comment on the other misuses of subject and pronouns. Don't you have an editor, Royal Opera House?

    • Chris Shipman (Head of Brand Engagement and Social Media) responded on 4 May 2017 at 3:09pm

      Hi Mary,

      This has been corrected - glad you liked the article.

      Thanks,

      Chris

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