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Stressed opera stars bowing to pressures

Singers speak out on the misuse of alcohol and drugs to cope with growing demands.

August 24, 2007|George Jahn | Associated Press

VIENNA, Austria -- Stripping away opera's glamour, singers are increasingly speaking out about a more sordid side 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," 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 passé, let's get a new person.' "

Reflecting today's harsh environment, even Netrebko, who became Austria's darling when she applied for and received Austrian citizenship last year, was scathingly criticized by Salzburg Festival officials recently when she canceled a performance because of throat problems.

Also missing this year from Salzburg, one of the world's premier opera events, were Rolando Villazón, 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.

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 without keeping track of cortisone treatments that -- if overdone -- can destroy a voice.

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