Watching the olympics, especially the gymnasts, brings to mind certain comparisons between what those athletes do and what we do as opera singers. I gasped, with the rest of america, when one of the female american gymnasts fell off the balance beam, and then fell on her butt during her floor routine. Watching her fall off the beam, you know immediately that she has performed this routine literally thousands of times without single mistake, and that in this moment - THE moment of her (albeit young) life so far, the nerves were just too much for her and she made a misstep that surprised even her. Then, in the next exercise, she is so shaken from the previous mistake, that she falls yet again. I could soooooo relate to that, and it made me think about nerves, mistakes, and my own career as an opera singer.
For a couple of years I became crippled by stage fright. I'm not entirely sure what started this bout with performance nerves, except that somehow, repeatedly performing before the scrutinizing and critical public of New York City started to wear me down, and I got all into my head about it. I started worrying that I would get a bad review, and the worry would turn into a kind of panic that a couple times actually shut down my ability to sing. The first time I remember it happening was during my first aria of Barber of Seville at City Opera, and it was almost like an out of body experience because I was so nervous. I felt like I wasn't even singing with my actual vocal cords, but instead going through the movements in some sort of dream sequence. I didn't sing particularly well that night. The following year, during a performance of a new opera, Lysistrata, I got so nervous for the opening night that as I approached a particularly climactic high note (one that had never given me any problems in rehearsals), my throat closed up, and I started the note, but sound just stopped coming out a second later and there was nothing I could do. In both situations, the nervousness and worry changed my ability to execute my pieces to the best of my ability, which was both frightening and frustrating. Thank god I wasn't on national television with my whole country's expectations on my shoulders. I don't know how the girls who keep from cracking under pressure do it.
I've been thinking about this a lot lately because I'm learning Musetta, which is a soprano role with plenty of high B's in it. Now, I can sing high B's, sometimes more easily than other times, but they are in there somewhere. However, if I start to think about it too much, to second guess myself, and worry about how it's going to come out, it's not usually very pretty. But if I'm relaxed, not thinking too much of it, and just singing, they come out perfectly fine. So the ultimate question for all of us who have to perform difficult tasks while under pressure is how the hell to relax enough to make everything go like it did in rehearsal? The answer is different for everybody, and I'm still trying to find the best one for me. I've noticed that often, when I'm exhausted, I sing fantastically because the fatigue balances the anxiety to make me relatively even. But I don't really want to deprive myself of sleep before every performance. I'm still looking for that magic ticket. Maybe one day I'll become so Zen that I won't feel nervous at all - only a profound sense of peace and harmony as I go to sing those high B's. I'll let you know if that ever happens.