Cortisone Cowboys

In accordance with my role as new music’s self-appointed DARE officer, I’d like to address once again the topic of drug use among performers. Rather than argue against beta blockers again (an uphill fight, as it turned out), I want to look at the use of a drug that has a clear, quantifiable impact on a singer’s ability to perform: cortisone.

In George Jahn’s AP article about drug abuse among opera stars, Endrik Wottrich alleges that cortisone (props to the Friday Informer), an immunodepressant that’s been historically prescribed as a treatment for laryngitis, is sometimes used by tenors to expand their range upward even in the absence of laryngitis. Singers have been taking cortisone for at least a quarter-century; a 1983 interview with Diahann Carroll in the Music Educators Journal illuminates the risk of developing a cortisone dependency—after a few shows on the drug, Carroll felt that she might not be able to perform without it. Carroll, who had recently sworn off cortisone at the time of the interview, claims that she “blacked out” the name of the physician who prescribed it for her, but notes that the same doctor “recommended [cortisone] to many singers.”

As a former singer, I sympathize with vocalists who find the mercurial nature of their instruments frustrating. Between hay fever and changes in barometric pressure, I often felt that I had about a hundred days of “good voice” out of the whole 365-day year. However, I doubt that cortisone use would have become as seemingly widespread as it is today if not for the competitive, high-pressure environment in which modern opera singers toil. When a single cancellation might mean that the next soprano in line—a soprano without varicose veins, perhaps—is within striking distance of your gig, the heat is on.

I haven’t checked exhaustively, but I have yet to run across instances of early or new music specialists taking cortisone. Although I’m sure that’s happened once or twice, the link between dangerous cortisone abuse and opera’s dog-eat-dog business climate isn’t difficult to identify. All moralizing aside, I wonder if the best argument against classical music as big business lies in the risks that musicians are increasingly willing to take in order to succeed. As the stakes get higher, so do the hazards.

One thought on “Cortisone Cowboys

  1. rtanaka

    In all honesty, part of the reason why new music appealed to me as a performer in the beginning was because it temporarily allowed me to escape from the harsh expectations of standard performance techniques. A lot of the music was really hard (or in cases of aleatoric music, really easy), but hey, unlike Mozart, if you made a “mistake” nobody noticed, because it was new! (Sometimes not even the composer.)

    I’m not the only one who did this — There’s a nice story here, if interested. With the strong expectation of perfectionism and an over-emphasis on technique, people getting “burned out” on classical music is so abundantly common that it makes working in the medium sometimes rather depressing. As I got older I grew a greater appreciation for standard techniques, but only after I stopped worrying about trying to make everything perfect did music become fun again. With this kind of attitude I will never be able to play in a professional orchestra, but I guess that’s kind of the trade-off when you decide to do your own thing.

    What’s kind of interesting is the differences in kind of substances people use depending on what medium they’re playing in — some jazz and pop musicians I know sometimes smoke a joint or have a drink as a way to “loosen up” before a performance. Beta blockers are the “white collar” equivalent of such things, which sort of reflects the class differences between the mediums. (Although I’ve known several classical musicians who’d do things like show up to rehearsals drunk…it didn’t really matter to them since they were good enough to nail everything regardless.)

    I’m not against people having fun in their own time, but I’m generally against people being on anything for performance purposes because I think its rather disrespectful toward the audience. Course part of the problem lies in the fact that people love virtuosity as a thing in itself, regardless if it’s old music or new music (Ferneyhough, anyone?), which is why you have people thinking they need to dope up in order to meet certain (often unrealistic) expectations. As composers I think we need to be aware of such things, because performers get enough stress as it is, without us having to add to it.

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