The honey of the opera


Just a few days before the end of 2015, Alex Beggs for Bon Appetit interviewed five opera stars of the New York Metropolitan Opera for Bon Appetit, trying to get them to reveal their secrets when it comes to avoiding or dealing with a winter cold that can jeopardise their next live performance.

“The End of the World”
Most people can still go to work with a cold (to the dismay of their co-workers across the cubicle divider), but “for an opera singer, it can be ‘The End of the World!!!’” said Paulo Szot, who plays Dr. Falke in this season’s “Die Fledermaus”—you have to imagine that last part being sung out dramatically from the top of a mountain. “It is every singer’s nightmare. The nasal mucus gets inflamed and swollen, you lose your resonance, your chest gets heavy, you cough, sneeze, the horrible mucus….”

So when Szot, who doesn’t remember ever canceling a show due to illness, first feels a tickle in his throat, he gets to work. He gargles a few times a day with a mixture of warm water, salt, and a little vinegar (apple cider works just fine)—especially crucial before bed. Susan Graham, who also stars in “Die Fledermaus,” chugs water, takes zinc tablets if she can find them, and gets steamy with “either one of those little drugstore facial steamers, or the old tried-and-true towel over a bowl of steaming water,” she said. “And another old-school remedy: Vicks VapoRub! I find it very comforting, maybe just because it resonates to my childhood.”

Preemptive Measures: Slippery Elm
Opera singers are always conscious of their instrument, in all seasons. They “will do whatever there is to help minimize the symptoms: taking vitamins, inhalation, acupuncture, resting, hydration, etc,” said Szot.

Szot constantly drinks organic chamomile tea with honey, sometimes with a few pieces of ginger dropped in, “the chamomile helps with inflammation and calms your nerves, and the ginger is a powerful antiseptic and antibacterial agent, I was told,” he said, “before and during every performance I must have it.”

Isabel Leonard, who plays Rosina in “The Barber of Seville” (opening this week), swears by Yogi Throat Comfort tea. “If you ask any singer, they all know about it,” she said, “It has soothing ingredients like licorice, fennel, and slippery elm.” (Slippery elm comes from the inner bark of the tree.) She recommends adding fresh lemon juice and honey—just make sure to add the honey after the scalding water has cooled down.

Graham prefers Traditional Medicinals Throat Coat tea, which is primarily slippery elm. “It has a sweet licorice flavor,” she said, “a little dab of honey can make it even more soothing, and a little dab of rum can make it even more ….comforting! That is, if I don’t have to go onstage that night!” Once, she had to sing a concert at the Hollywood Bowl with a sore throat, so she took her tea onstage with her, in a “heavy, faceted, medieval-looking goblet” that the stage management found for her—steaming her face at intermission.

When the Cold Hits
When a throat tickle turns into a dreaded cold, Nadine Sierra, who you can see in Rigoletto for one more week, sleeps with a humidifier on high so that her bedroom “feels like a rainforest,” she said. During the highly competitive Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, which helps young opera singers get their careers off the ground, Sierra was nursing a cold with bowls of homemade chicken soup. That soup must have had some good luck noodles in them, because that year, she was the only female winner.

Of the five opera singers we interviewed, the biggest refrain was the ginger, lemon, honey combination. But more than one mentioned zinc, which doctors are hesitant to recommend because studies are still on the fence about its effectiveness. Often those sprays and lozenges are labeled homeopathic, because they aren’t regulated by the FDA. It’s best to talk to your doctor before you go crazy with it.

Sometimes, Life Happens
“We rely so much on our voice and are so tuned into every detail that when one little thing is off, we can really feel it,” Leonard said, and a cold can “remind [us] of how fragile we are and how out of our control so many things become.” During one performance, she pushed through the first half of a show with a sore throat, but she could feel her voice disappearing. “It’s a horrible feeling. I alerted the theater and my cover towards the end of act one and said ‘I won’t be able to finish.’ It gave everyone enough time to get themselves organized and then at intermission, I cried myself home in a taxi. Life happens.”