Huffpost Arts
Susanne Mentzer Headshot

The Unsingable

Posted: Updated:

There is a stigma in opera singing that is rarely openly spoken about.

When classical singers have vocal problems the cause is assumed to be bad technique or from doing too much. Sometimes this is the case but many times it is something both literally unspeakable and unsingable.

The unspeakable happened to me in April of 1994, the day after Easter to be precise. I had laser surgery on my vocal cords. The journey to that point was a bumpy one.

Singers are independent contractors. We are paid "per performance." If we do not sing we do not get paid. It is that simple. Our livelihood relies on two tiny membranes in our throats that we use all the time for speaking, laughing, crying, and what have you.

These membranes, or vocal cords, are deemed healthy when they are straight-edged and a white to light-pink in color. These edges vibrate against each other to make sounds. It is sort of like when you blow up a balloon and elongate the opening as a small slit to make audible sound. If it opens too much you will hear nothing.

An opera singer's vocal cords have to be very healthy to make an optimum sound -- no gaps, no rasp. A horrific scenario for a singer or professional speaker is nodes or polyps -- solid growths from continuing to sing on irritated vocal cords. We often hear of pop singers having nodes removed and they go back to their careers. That raspy sound that smokers have is from the cords being unable to close all the way.

As a freshman in college I suffered vocal fatigue from singing the soprano part in choir, an uncomfortable range for me. A doc held my tongue way out with a piece of gauze and gazed down at my vocal cords with his mirror. I was told I had a "pre-nodal" condition and to not sing high soprano anymore. I consulted a dictionary. This was a whole new world to me.

Fast forward twelve years to Houston. My husband at the time was unwittingly playing some loud music which was annoying me. From the other end of the long ranch-style house I yelled, "Can you turn it down?" Something in my throat tweaked. The next day I was missing some pitches in the middle of my voice. Dr. Van Lawrence, a wonderful ENT (ear, nose and throat doctor), diagnosed a bruised vocal cord. He scoped me by putting a camera through my nose and down my throat so that I could see for myself. One vocal cord looked like it had a black eye. I canceled my next job and went on total vocal rest which consisted of no speaking or whispering for five weeks. It healed. On I went with my career. The next engagement was my first time working with James Levine with whom I would have a long association.

Fast forward again. On October 18, 1993, I spent the afternoon in a suburban Chicago courthouse finalizing my divorce. That evening I went to the Lyric Opera of Chicago (where my ex also worked) to perform Dulcinée in Massenet's Don Quixote. I was looking forward to the distraction of throwing myself into the escape of the performance. My cords were slightly swollen from crying and fighting a cold over the previous weeks. Before heading onstage I coughed to clear my throat. Once onstage there was no way I could phonate on certain notes. I whispered to my leading man, bass Samuel Ramey, that something was terribly wrong and to keep going. At intermission the General Director Ardis Krainik ordered me to the ER, wigged, costumed in full makeup. Bless her, she was thinking it was psychosomatic, however one look by the M.D. proved my worst fear.

Not only was I newly divorced but could not even talk about it. My son, age five at the time, was as yet unable to read well. I used one of those kiddy scribble pads that has the film you lift to erase and I tried the best I could to communicate with him by drawing pictures. The fax machine was my connection to friends and family for six weeks.

In late December '93, after an all clear from my doctor, I sang my first Adalgisa in Bellini's Norma at the Seattle Opera with soprano Jane Eaglen. There were many challenging and thrilling scenes in which Norma and Adalgisa vocally spar in two fabulous and famous duets. After six weeks and five performances, in one duet during the final performance, I felt that familiar and nauseating snap. I was devastated. My next engagements were with the Metropolitan Opera and I absolutely did not want or need to be canceling. I needed to earn a living.

After an all-too-brief four weeks of vocal silence I returned to the Met (I debuted there in 1989) to sing Cherubino in Le Nozze di Figaro without incident and moved on to Rosina, the leading lady in Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia. Finally, all was going well. My life was getting back on track.

This was not to last. One fateful night, during a scene from which I would not exit the stage for another thirty minutes, it occurred once again. Trapped onstage, as my life was flashing before my eyes, I squeezed the hand of Figaro and mouthed the words trying not to show my distress. For a while the prompter sang. Once the stage manager realized what was happening, my understudy/cover sang from the wings while costumers prepared her to go on. I could not believe that I was in this position in front of 3000 people, let alone at this prestigious opera company with which I had many future contracts.

While Theodora Hanslowe was making her Met debut that night, I was in my dressing room trying to hold it together. Crying could further the damage. Quite aware of the stigma associated with vocal problems, I wrote on a paper towel that I was having hormonal issues and booked a flight home the next day. I remember being careful to destroy those paper towels.

My fabulous otolaryngologist in Chicago, Dr. Robert Bastian, laid out my options. I could continue to have this happen or I could let it heal and then have surgery. I opted for the latter.

The culprit, all along was a small blood vessel, with which I was born, located a little too close to the edge of one vocal cord. That tiny vessel, no larger than one in your eye, was right in the line of fire when that vocal cord was thickened from crying or illness. Basically I had a flooding Mississippi River down there. Fortunately, the blood never oozed out of the edge of the membrane. That would have been a whole other scenario most likely leading to a certain end to my career.

That April morning in 1994 Dr. Bastian himself wheeled me into the ER. I was put under and he cauterized that pesky blood vessel with one of the most precise lasers in the world at the time. The amazing thing was that he was able to look at the underside of my vocal membranes and see a few more small blood vessels that could be problematic also sealing them. They would have never been found otherwise.

Going into surgery I realized that, worse care scenario, I might never sing again but I was content in the knowledge that it was not my singing technique that led me there, but something of no fault of my own. I was forced to accept that there is much more to life than singing. I knew I would be okay no matter what.

After four weeks of rest I appeared with the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Pierre Boulez singing Berg's Sieben frühe Lieder. The fear that I might have another problem took months to wane.

That fall I was back at the Met. I have been problem-free now for almost twenty years, knock on wood.