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Facing Fearful Factors

Singing is not for the faint of heart. A person's voice is more than laryngeal mechanics. It's an existential expression of one's soul. The old adage to fight stage fright is to “picture the audience in their underwear.” Actually the performer is the one who feels naked; opening up and sharing your heart through singing is an intensely vulnerable experience, and it takes courage. This challenge became even greater for me recently.

A friend alerted me that Loft Opera was urgently in need of a replacement tenor for Il Barbiere di Siviglia, which was opening in about a week. I had sung Almaviva before and was hoping to do it again, so I jumped at the opportunity. After a brief phone call with the music director, the deal was sealed.

The rest of the cast had already been rehearsing for almost a month. I had performed Barber previously, but nearly all of the myriad words and notes had completely evaporated from the dark recesses of my brain in the six years that had passed since my role debut. Within five minutes of the first rehearsal, the director informed me that Mr. Peter Gelb would attend our opening night. The staging was complicated and precise, and for the first several days of blocking I felt like I was drowning. I then found out that a few prominent NY critics would be coming to our show, and this is when the panic began. Suddenly what I thought would be a relaxed, fun situation turned into a high-pressure test of my mental and emotional fortitude.

I’ll skip to the end of the story and tell you that it all turned out fine. I didn’t die from a nervous breakdown, and the show was a hit with audiences and critics. One of the reviews said that the performers were “fearless.” That description wasn’t accurate for me. I was scared to death! But courage isn’t the absence of fear; it’s facing a horrifying situation, acknowledging that fear and TAKING ACTION. What steps did I take?

Action: Immediately I went into triage mode and arranged rehearsal sessions with our music director and a few other teachers and coaches. This wasn’t cheap, but it was a worthwhile investment. I took my score with me everywhere: the subway, the gym, Starbucks and so forth. My gracious colleagues agreed to meet with me outside of rehearsal to run recitatives. Whenever we had a break in staging rehearsals I ran to the keyboard and drilled more music and text with our maestro.

Focus: The rehearsal and performance period brought several sleepless nights. Whenever I couldn’t rest, I pulled out my score and read through the text and translation until my mind was quiet enough to stop. Quieting the inner voices of doubt and insecurity was a constant battle for me. Questions would often swirl through my consciousness: “What if Gelb hates my performance?” “What about that tough critic?” “What if I blow it on the high C?” None of these thoughts could ever lead to anything good, so instead I tried my best to stay present and think only on each immediate task as it presented itself. I always had enough strength to tackle the very next note or the next movement onstage, so I did my best to stay centered, grounded and in the moment.

Fun: Barber of Seville is a COMEDY! In the end I let go of the fear and anxiety and just had a good time. The audience saw that we were enjoying ourselves, and they joined in on the party. Of course all the beer they were drinking certainly helped. So often I tie myself in knots because I’m trying to please people or achieve a certain outcome. Then I remember why I started singing in the first place: it brings JOY to me and hopefully to the audience.

When you find yourself looking fear in the face, don’t panic. Acknowledge it, take action, focus and have FUN.

This entry has been published on the Classical Singer website:

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