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.