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Tag Archives: opera

With concert halls and opera houses closed due to coronavirus, organisations and musicians across the world are livestreaming concerts from their homes, or from empty halls, and opening up their digital archives so that every one can still access music.

This page is being regularly updated [last update: 8/4]. Please email us (details at end) of things we have missed, or tell us in the comments section.

Easter music special

[NEW] The Sixteen are streaming the performance they gave in the Sistine Chapel in April 2018 of James MacMillans Stabat Materon Friday 10 April at 7:30pm (BST).

[NEW] The Philharmonia Orchestra had been due to mark its 75th anniversary with concerts at Southbank Centres Royal Festival Hall this Easter weekend. Instead, theyre offering a concert from 50 years ago at the same venue. In June 1970 the orchestras first Principal Conductor, Otto Klemperer, led the orchestra in a cycle of Beethoven symphonies, and on Friday 10 April at 7pm (BST) you can watch the orchestra perform the ninth, the choral symphony, featuring soloists including mezzo Janet Baker. The historic concert will be available to watch on demand thereafter.

Operas and concerts on demand

Solo Bach from his own church… Isabelle Faust

[NEW] Violinist Isabelle Faust live-streamed a solo Bach recital on 5 April from Leipzigs Thomaskirche, the church where JS Bach was Kapellmeister from 1723 until his death in 1750. The spine-tingling 60-minute concert is on, free to view until 4 July.

[UPDATED] Each evening at 730pm EST, New Yorks Metropolitan Opera is streaming a past production from its award-winning Live in HD series. Productions are available to stream, free, for 23 hours. More details on @MetOpera or The week of 6 to 10 April includes Verdis Aida (recorded in 2018) with Anna Netrebko, and 2013s Parsifal, conducted by Daniele Gatti and starring Katarina Dalayman and Jonas Kaufmann.

Amsterdams Concertgebouw Orchestra has a huge array of past concerts to watch, organised by composer (including a Beethoven and also a Mahler symphony cycle), conductors (well represented are former chief conductors Bernard Haitink, Mariss Jansons and Daniele Gatti, plus Andris Nelsons, Ivan Fischer, although women on the Concertgebouw podium are conspicuous by their absence), and soloists. Theres also conducting masterclasses, portraits of the orchestras members and documentaries, enough to keep you engaged for weeks to come.

Mariss Jansons conducts the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam, March 2014. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

Dutch National Opera has on its YouTube channel the world premiere production of William Jeths Ritratto, which never actually got to be publicly performed. More will be available over coming weeks, check

The Melbourne Recital Centre has a range of performances from over the past few years of predominantly Australian performers and repertoire in an admirably easy-to-navigate site.

Garsington Opera has made available its 2019 production of Smetanas Bartered Bride in a staging our critic declared full of charm and wit, and also their Nozze di Figaro, captured in 2017.

Garsington Operas Bartered Bride, staged in 2009 and now available to view on demand. Photograph: Clive Barda

Brusselss famous opera house La Monnaie has curated a virtual season with seven recent productions (including Tristan und Isolde, Aida, Dusapins specially commissioned Macbeth Underworld and a hallucinogenic La Gioconda). Not all the surtitles are in English try this database of librettos to gen up). You can also access the same content on its YouTube channel.

Bavarian State Opera (Bayerische Staatsoper) are livestreaming a chamber music concert each Monday evening, then available on demand for a fortnight. The first, featuring Christian Gerhaher, the Schumann Quartet, and pianist Igor Levit was watched by almost 50,000 live and is available until 31 March. Heres the second (highly recommended); Jonas Kaufmann is among the artists who will feature in coming concerts. Check the schedule here. The opera house has also made available a 2013 recording of Il Trovatore, starring Anja Harteros and Jonas Kaufmann (until 28 March), and Lucia Di Lammermoor with Diana Damrau and Kirill Petrenko conducting (until 8 April).

The EU-wide Early Music Day was of course online only this year but featured livestreamed concerts that can all be watched on demand alongside plenty of previous concerts and shorter performances. Dont miss Steven Devines performance of Bachs 48 Preludes and Fugues on the harpsichord at the York Early Music Centre, or, if you need a lift, Bachs Toccata and Fugue (other Baroque composers are available) arranged for four very nimble-fingered recorder players.

The Gstaad Menuhin Festival and Academy (currently still scheduled to run from 17 July to 6 September 2020) have an online space where you can watch performances, backstage interviews and masterclasses from previous festivals. Registration is required but this will also enable the non-German speakers among us to access the English-language version of the written content.

Berlins Pierre Boulez Saals Intermission series features a regularly updated selection of past concerts each available for two or three days.

Deutsche Oper Berlin have a regularly changing programme of past productions available on demand. Check for details

The audio stream of Missy Mizzolis Breaking the Waves (which was at the Edinburgh international festival last year) captured in Opera Philadelphias premiere production in September 2016 is available via a Soundcloud embed.

Susan Bullock as Queen Elizabeth I, Toby Spence as the Earl of Essex and Mark Stone as Lord Mountjoy in Gloriana at the Royal Opera House in 2013. Photograph: Clive Barda 2013

The Royal Opera House is making available weekly ballets or operas streamed live (and then available on demand) on their Facebook and YouTube channels. The 2010 outing of Jonathan Millers Cos fan tutte on 10 April and, on 24 April, the 2013 production of Brittens Gloriana. More ROH content is available on Marquee TV (see below).

Desmond Barrit (Bottom) left in The Fairy Queen at Glyndebourne Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Arts and culture streaming platform Marquee TV has extended their trial period to 30 days, giving free access to a huge array of theatre and ballet productions and a large and varied collection of operas that includes most of Glyndebourne festivals recent productions (from Brett Deans Hamlet to Jonathan Kents glorious staging of Purcells Fairy Queen, bonking bunnies and all). Other must-sees include Arvo Prts Adams Passion, and Opera Norths award-winning production of Jonathan Doves childrens opera, Pinocchio, and one of the greatest opera events of the last decade: Aldeburgh festivals outdoor production of Peter Grimes, staged on the beach where Brittens opera is set. Registration (and thus credit card details) are required to activate the free trial period, but you can cancel anytime.

The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra has a wide array of past concerts on demand and will be adding to this page regularly. Of many wonderful concerts there, try Daniel Barenboims joyful performance of Beethovens 5th Piano Concerto under the baton of Mariss Jansons (from November 2017), or watch their celebrated and much missed Chief Conductor Jansons conducting Bruckners Mass No 3 F minor.

Opera Norths acclaimed semi-staged Ring cycle from 2016 is available on their website. Their 2017 production of Trouble in Tahiti is available via Now TV and Sky on-demand services, and, on operavision (more of which below) you can watch their production of Brittens Turn of the Screw, captured live on 21 February 2020.

Neue Oper Freiburg production of Gerard Barrys The Importance of Being Earnest, available to watch on Photograph: PR

Established opera streaming platform has a wonderful archive of productions from across Europe all available free. New productions are coming every three or four days (check here). You can also watch via their YouTube channel.

The Teatro Massimo in Palermo has several concerts and recent opera productions recorded live available to watch on demand. At time of writing the operas include Madame Butterfly, La Traviata, a Barber of Seville (check out the witty animated opening) and a Cav and a Pag. And theres more to come, we are promised.

The Teatro Regio in Turin has set up a YouTube channel Opera on the Sofa and is making available past productions from the historic theatre. The opening offering is Nabucco, staged last February.

Vienna State Opera is offering a different opera available to watch each day via its streaming platform. Check here for whats on offer this week. (theres also a large archive of previous ballet and opera productions that can be watched with a subscription.)

Francois-Xavier Roth conducts the London Symphony Orchestra. Photograph: Doug Peters

Many UK organisations livestream concerts and make them available via YouTube or other channels. Check out the Wigmore Hall, which has a huge array of their past chamber music concerts free to watch, or try the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestras YouTube channel or Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, who have continued these last few weeks to perform concerts and livestream them.

Live and on-demand streams on social media

[NEW] Violinist Elena Urioste and her pianist husband Tom Poster are posting short clips each day of their performances of anything from Mozart to Messiaen, Nat King Cole to nursery rhymes. Dont miss the Come on Eileen/Toxic/Baby Shark mashup, or their themed costumes to match the music. Send in your requests, and drop in to #UriPosteJukeBox to brighten your day. Wonderful stuff.

Part of its new portal Lincoln Center at Home, the New York arts venue is posting on Facebook past concerts from its Live from the Lincoln series. Highlights include Jaap van Zweden conducting the New York Phil in Act 1 of Die Walkre, or Mahler 5, or, Joshua Bells Seasons of Cuba. Check for regular additions.

The Academy of Ancient Musics Streaming Sunday sees a new concert uploaded each week that you can watch on their YouTube channel. Scotlands Dunedin Consort has on Facebook a recent all-Bach programme recorded at Washington DCs Library of Congress.

The London Philharmonic Orchestra launched with a remarkable performance of a movement of Beethovens String Quartet No. 10 led by Anne-Sophie Mutter from Munich, with her fellow musicians in Tonbridge, Pimlico and Barnes. Edward Gardner, the LPOs Principal Conductor Designate, will introduce the first concert in this series on Saturday 28 March.

The London Mozart Players new At Home series features a daily changing series of imaginatively curated and friendly streams, workshops, family-friendly broadcasts and even live recitals. Check its YouTube channel or

Welcome to my living room – violinist Daniel Hope and pianist Christoph Israel livestreaming the first Hope from Home concert Photograph: PR

On 25 March, violinist Daniel Hope began live-streaming Hope at Home 14 half-hour episodes of live musical performance by leading classical artists, interspersed with English and German talk, live from his living room in Berlin. Tune in at 6pm CET/5pm GMT via the ARTE Concert website, where each episode will then be archived for 90 days, or on Deutsche Grammophons YouTube channel. And lest you be worried, no more than two artists will perform together at any one time, and they will always take care to keep at least two metres between them, while the film crew are using remote cameras.

The London Symphony Orchestra are streaming full-length concerts on Sunday and Thursday evenings. The series kicked off with Francois-Xavier Roth conducting Debussy, Bruckner and Bartk, on Thursday 26 March you can watch John Eliot Gardiner and soloist Isabelle Faust in a programme that includes Schumann and Mendelssohn. Each concert will be available up to midnight (UK time) on the day of broadcast, and thereafter on streaming site Stingray Classica (currently offering a free 30-day trial).

Every evening at 6.30pm (GMT) theres a live organ recital from Worcester Cathedral on Facebook Live.

Pianist Igor Levit is broadcasting nightly House Concerts on Twitter. Boris Giltburg, likewise follow him on @BorisGiltburg to find when the next one is.

Igor Levit Photograph: Lawrence K Ho/LA Times via Getty Images

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma is playing short pieces that give him comfort and posting regularly on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Search for hashtag #SongsofComfort. Fellow cellist Gautier Capuon, on lockdown in Paris, is posting daily doses of Bach on Twitter. Alisa Weilerstein has embarked on a #36daysofBach project each day a different movement of Bachs six Cello Suites streaming performances on twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

Bass Matthew Rose and cellist Steven Isserlis are introducing each other to new music each day on twitter. Follow their dialogue and listen to their choices (heres the first one).

Ivan Fischer and musicians from his Budapest Festival Orchestra are livestreaming chamber concerts in a series they have called Quarantine Soires. Check the website for details.

Please send us details (email, or tweet @tildeni) of what weve missed and well aim to keep this updated. Many thanks to all whove sent information so far.

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People in Ambleside, Cumbria will be offered musical paracetamol in trial that tries to use power of song to lift mood

For someone feeling depressed, the prescription might be an uplifting poem about spring, set to music by the 19th-century composer Gabriel Faur. For insomniacs, its Sleep, an operatic song by the early 20th-century poet Ivor Gurney. And for anyone feeling anxious, its An Evening Hymn, Henry Purcells musical version of an obscure 17th-century religious poem.

In an experiment that attempts to use the transformative power of poetry and music to improve mental health and wellbeing, people in the Lake District town of Ambleside will be offered these unusual remedies at a special song surgery being tried courtesy of the opera singer Bibi Heal.

She will tailor the songs she prescribes and performs typically very old poems set to classical music, known as art songs according to the needs of the person who is seeking her help.

We all know that music, whether youre performing it or listening to it, has a transformative quality. It can help you to feel better and to reframe how you see your situation, Heal says. Art songs are a particularly rich vein to tap. Whether it was Mozart, Brahms or Mahler, the composers and the poets whose works they set to music were flesh and blood, who felt the things we go through now.

These songs are undervalued today, she says. A wealth of human emotions might be condensed in one song. They also tend to require more technical training than modern songs because of the vocal range the singer must cover.

Theres a pure visceral quality of hearing a voice doing things that you may never have heard before, particularly close to you, Heal explains.

Participants from Bradford College act as triage. Photograph: Ant Robling/Great Place: Lakes and Dales

This creates an element of wonder, and when such a song is then targeted according to the listeners emotional needs, she believes it can have a dramatic impact.

If the song can provide an emotional reflection of your life, then you can relate to it and you can see your own truths there in that unfamiliar art form.

The song surgery is the latest example of social prescribing, the trend to prescribe arts treatment to people with psychological and cognitive problems. Last week, the worlds largest study to date of the impact of arts intervention on physical and mental health was launched to help assess whether arts prescriptions can and should be rolled out across the NHS.

Heal became interested in the idea of prescribing songs after performing an opera taster tour of care homes and witnessing the impact her music had on patients with dementia. You can see very clearly with a dementia sufferer when they get it and when they dont, and at what point they are awakened and suddenly find joy.

She has been able to reach people with music who are otherwise unreachable, she says. One particular elderly lady couldnt form responses when we tried to have a conversation. She couldnt remember anything about her husband, about her work she didnt really have a grasp of language, even. We tried to find a way in, we had visual aids, nothing worked. But when I sang La Vie en Rose, she sang along in French.

She knew every word, Heal says. She didnt have any memory at all from any period of her life but she sang that whole song, with me, in French.

In Ambleside, passersby will be invited by performing arts students at Bradford College to have a personal five-minute therapy session with Heal, who will listen to their individual problems before deciding which song to prescribe and offering them a chance to hear her perform it. They will also be given the words of the song, translated into English if necessary, to read and reflect on.

She plans to use the hundreds of songs she has learnt to sing over her 20-year career like musical paracetamol to treat particular emotional maladies: There is an opportunity to come along and say, Im really down. And we will prescribe what we think you need, as a pick-me-up.

Heal hopes that the unfamiliarity of the songs will add to their emotional power. Im interested in seeing if we can get a deeper understanding and a deeper therapeutic response from providing songs that are so multi-layered and not readily available.

The one-day trial is being co-funded by the charity Help Musicians UK and a local arts project, Great Place: Lakes and Dales.

Jane Rice-Bowen, Heals creative producer, says she is hoping to secure more funding to develop an app, similar to the popular meditation app Headspace, that will allow Heal to compile a programme of prescriptions for anyone to access, and also to track their progress.

Those of us who work within the arts have known for ever that it has a transformative power. But weve not always been very good at collecting the case studies and the data, and being able to demonstrate the impact we are having.

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Star steps down as general director and withdraws from future performances, marking end to US career

The opera star Plcido Domingo has resigned as general director of Los Angeles Opera a company he helped found amid allegations of sexual harassment that span several decades.

Domingo also withdrew from all forthcoming performances at the LA Opera, his last scheduled shows in the United States, signaling an end to his half-century career in American opera.

Domingos announcement on Wednesday comes a week after he backed out of scheduled performances at New Yorks Metropolitan Opera, just one day before opening night, amid building pressure from within the company. Other institutions including the Philadelphia Orchestra and San Francisco Opera also canceled Domingos appearances, citing anti-sexual harassment policies.

I hold Los Angeles Opera very dearly to my heart and count my work to create and build it as among my most important legacies, Domingo said in a statement. However, recent accusations that have been made against me in the press have created an atmosphere in which my ability to serve this company that I so love has been compromised.

Though Domingo is still scheduled to perform at various venues in Europe, the 78-year-old singer has faced fierce criticism following the publication of accounts by the Associated Press from nine women who said that he harassed them over three decades beginning in the late 1980s. The women described instances of unwanted kissing, groping and sexual advances along with threats to their careers if they resisted.

A few weeks later, the AP published 11 additional accounts, including that of singer Angela Turner Wilson, who said Domingo reached under her clothes and grabbed her bare breast while the two were getting ready for a Washington Opera performance during the 1999-2000 season.

It hurt, Wilson told the AP. Then I had to go on stage and act like I was in love with him.

Domingo responded that he believed their interaction had been consensual.

In August, LA Opera, which Domingo has led for 15 years, announced that it had hired a law firm to lead an independent investigation into his conduct but allowed him to continue as director.

In response to Domingos resignation Tuesday, the executive committee of the LA Opera board of directors thanked the singer for popularizing opera in the consciousness of Los Angeles and said that he had performed more than 300 in Southern California.

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The ghostly showgirls of Follies, Wayne McGregors spellbinding Raven Girl and the madcap world of The Cat in the Hat have all been realised by the designer, who looks back at five of her key shows

Our job is to design something thats incomplete without performance. Vicki Mortimer makes it sound simple, but that belies the architectural sophistication and bone-deep emotional impact of her designs for theatre, dance and opera. Besides a long association with director Katie Mitchell most recently on When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other, starring Cate Blanchett she has developed memorable collaborations with Nicholas Hytner, Wayne McGregor and Dominic Cooke.

We are problem solvers, she says. The imaginative depth of her pragmatic choices is always evident, especially now that many of her productions are filmed for cinema broadcast. Detailed decisions suddenly have a validity that I wasnt always able to argue for when I started working. It has validated something I was already looking for:an attention to the exact nature of things.



Mortimer won an Olivier award for best costume design for her work on Stephen Sondheims 1971 musical, set at the reunion of a Broadway follies show. It was directed at the National Theatre by Dominic Cooke in 2017 and has now returned.


  • Early costume references for Mortimers work

I needed to understand what the follies as a genre meant in the American imagination, and then what had happened in the US between 1941 (when the fictional Weismann Follies ended) and 1971, when the reunion takes place. Who were these women before and after? Its really goosepimply, because the depth of their stories suddenly takes hold.

The prewar follies were a celebration of the American girl, an aspirational image of how fabulous women can be. Each former showgirl is shadowed by the ghost of her younger self. The show is about lost youth and also about a lost America, and how you have to live with the choices you make.




  • Backstage at Follies, costumes, headdresses and costume drawings by Mortimer

The ghost showgirls go back to around 1918 and on to 1941. Youve also got the 1970s party guests, and the characters in 1940s daywear. Theres a huge historical range of costumes.

I tried to retain some vestigial connection between the young women and what their older 1970s counterparts wore to the party, perhaps a shape or surface. Essentially important was to ask why has this woman come to the party? How does she want to present herself? For some, its simple, for others there are much more complicated reasons. Heidi, the oldest of the Follies guests, has come because she knows shes going to die soon.


  • Models for the Follies set design

Working with Dominic was sublime, because every visual choice was completely embedded in the characters.

Ive enjoyed returning to the production, because there is something about the chemical reaction of an audience that alters what is in your eye. Ive sat with audiences and had real lightbulb moments.


Raven Girl

Wayne McGregors ballet, based on Audrey Niffeneggers illustrated tale, premiered at the Royal Ballet in London in 2013.

Audrey had this idea of a girl born to a raven mother and postman father, and the predicament of her identity as she grows up. Audreys drawings are like held moments in the narrative. We projected some of those moments on a gauze as emotional content like the nest or the touching drawing of the outlines of both the bird and child.


  • Wayne McGregors Raven Girl, with Sarah Lamb

The design had to be something entirely of its own, and we landed on the idea of a cliff at the edge of the landscape. We felt we needed something really substantial, monumental, from which to initiate the choreographic vocabulary, the dynamic motion. We were looking for specific reference. Pembrokeshire is part of my childhood. The landscape there came under great geological pressure, so you get these great archways of compressed strata. Matt Hellyer, an amazing design colleague, had been on a tour of the Welsh coastline not long before and came up with a photo hed taken at Skrinkle bay.


  • Rocks at Skrinkle Haven, Pembrokeshire

Its a reminder that you draw on research from the internet and books, but also from your visual memory bank and conversation.



  • The set build for Raven Girl by the Royal Opera House head scenic artist Emma Troubridge and designer Catherine Smith


  • A rehearsal for Raven Girl. Mortimers sets and costumes are inspired by Niffeneggers own faux-naif aquatints for the Raven Girl storybook


  • Raven Girl in rehearsal

We had lots of conversations about how to describe flight. We considered having a bank of big fans on stage to create the sense of birds in motion, but we didnt have room. Wayne was very interested in ideas of flocking and murmuration. He looked at single and multiple bodies in flight.


  • Costume designs for Raven Girl


  • Sarah Lamb in Raven Girl

It felt important not to achieve the most beautiful wings which is where we diverge from the book but to bring up their mechanised nature. My drawings suggested spokes of an umbrella: I wanted the feathers to feel separate from the arms, so that you could see they were connected by a steel structure. Wayne felt certain that the wing solution should feel disruptive and uncomfortable, that what we wish for is not necessarily what brings us happiness. Its fairytale territory.



Mortimer won the International Opera award for design for Alban Bergs 1925 opera, directed in Chicago by David McVicar in 2015.

The composition of Wozzeck was interrupted by the first world war. The idea was already in Bergs mind he was conscripted into the German army in 1914, experienced the trenches, and wrote it on leave in 1917 and 1918. His wartime experience massively informed how he saw the story, as well his approach to the composition itself. That was Davids starting point.

Opera singer dies in Barcelona after international career spanning half a century

Montserrat Caball, the feted Spanish soprano who won a new generation of fans after singing Barcelona with Freddie Mercury, has died at the age of 85.

A spokesman for Barcelonas St Pau hospital, Abraham del Moral, confirmed her death early on Saturday. The singer had a stroke in 2012 and had been admitted last month for a gall bladder problem, according to Spanish media reports.

Caball was born into a working class family in Barcelona. Her musical talents became apparent early on she was singing Bach cantatas at the age of seven.

The singer achieved international acclaim in 1965 when she stepped in for another performer in the notoriously difficult role of Lucrezia Borgia in Donizettis opera in New York. Her debut went down in opera history as one of the greatest overnight successes and she went on to tour the world in a career that spanned half a century, starring in 90 opera roles and giving almost 4,000 performances.

The Guardians Martin Kettle once described Caball as the finest bel canto soprano of the post-[Maria] Callas age. For those who prize sheer beauty of sound and true legato singing, she has no peer since Rosa Ponselle in the 1920s.

In 2004 she was placed sixth in a BBC Music Magazine list of the top 20 sopranos of the recorded era, as voted by opera critics, after Callas, Joan Sutherland, Victoria de los Angeles, Leontyne Price and Birgit Nilsson.

The semi-operatic Barcelona was first released in 1987 and featured at the Olympic Games in 1992, the year after Mercury died. It initially reached no 8 on the UK singles chart, making it one of the Queen singers biggest solo hits, before peaking at no 2 on its re-release to coincide with the Olympics.

In December 2015, Caball was given a six-month suspended jail term and fined more than 250,000 (180,000) for tax evasion.

She was placed under investigation in 2014, accused of channelling earnings through a company in Andorra when she lived in Barcelona and thus defrauding tax authorities of 500,000, which she subsequently paid.

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The US-born tenor has gone from singing in church to the International Opera awards. Now hes tackling something personal: the issue of race in America

Babbling brooks, young love, broken hearts: standard topics for classical song cycles from Schubert onward, and for most opera singers a key part of their concert hall careers. Not for the 45-year-old US tenor Lawrence Brownlee, one of the worlds leading bel canto stars. He has never yet sung any of these standard repertoire works. He wanted material he could relate to. US urban not European pastoral, a reek of the blues, a snarl of reality. Why not the story of a black man murdered in police custody?

Since nothing touching on such a subject existed, Brownlee and Opera Philadelphia, where he is an artistic adviser, set about commissioning a new work. He will premiere Cycles of My Being, composed by the eclectic pianist-percussionist Tyshawn Sorey, with a libretto by the award-wining poet Terrance Hayes, next month in Philadelphia, with further performances at Lyric Opera, Chicago, and Carnegie Hall, New York.

The idea started with the injustices we see on a daily basis, Brownlee says when we meet in London early on a Sunday morning just before Christmas. Weve summed it up as being about black male subjectivity. Meaning? Exactly that. What it means to be an African American man living in America today. It seems every week or month a black man is being murdered by police for something insignificant. Driving without a tail light could turn into a situation where someone loses their life just for being black.

Brownlee is about to catch a plane to Zurich to squeeze in a few days work before going home to his young family in Florida. Hes on the road up to nine months a year. The night before, he sang the last performance in another Rossini opera, Semiramide, at Covent Garden, playing opposite the superstar mezzo soprano Joyce DiDonato.

In the small but prominent role of the Indian king, encased head to toe in silver sequins, Brownlee detonated showers of trills and glittering high notes to match. He was singled out for unanimous critical praise. His pinpoint accuracy and not a given for his high tenor voice type tonal warmth has established his career.

Today hes in jeans, trainers and American football sweatshirt, a touch heavy-eyed and keen for coffee. You see me now. I look just like any regular black guy. No one knows that Im educated, have travelled to 45 countries and speak four languages [Italian, French, German and English], that Ive met kings and queens and the American president the former one. I would not care to meet the present one. And, yes, I wear a Rolex!

Brownlee with Jacquelyn Stucker in Semiramide at the Royal Opera House, London. Photograph: Alastair Muir/Rex/Shutterstock

His laugh breaks the quiet of the hotel lounge. Many an opera stars career is measured by an elite Swiss watch on their wrist. If his words look boastful on paper, he speaks them with an engaging self-deprecation and much chuckling. He is, too, absolutely serious.

Im not saying any of this makes me better. Im just talking about equality, assumption, stereotype, the way we are perceived. Our story is about walking down the street and a white person comes towards us clutching their purse thinking were going to rob them of their $20 or do something violent. Sometimes he grabs his wrist with its precious timepiece I worry I should be the nervous one.

Born in Ohio, the fourth of six children with three very sharp big sisters, Brownlee first planned to be a lawyer, but shifted direction in his late teens. His father worked in the motor industry and used his entrepreneurial skills to give his large family a good education.

He was of the opinion that every son should do better than their father. Born in Georgia in 1945, he grew up under the shadow of slavery and segregation laws. He knew his place in society. I always felt the weight of all the things he couldnt do, and the freedoms I have in comparison.

The family was musical. His early singing experience came from church and the gospel tradition, as well as musicals. Faith was central to the Brownlees life. Singing was always part of dealing with hardship, a sense of, Lord, let me make it to the end of the day. That faith has stayed with him. Yes, I do pray, Lord, let me make it to the end of the performance!

As one of the artistic advisers at Philadelphia, his task is specifically to help bring diversity to opera. As well as showing that people like me can appear on stage in starring roles, his ambition is to increase the ethnic and social range of the audience too. The song cycle is part of that drive. Demonstrating formidable physical and vocal versatility, he also sang the role of jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker in Yardbird, another Philadelphia commission, which had its successful UK premiere at Hackney Empire last summer. Given the sudden escalation of his career, no one was surprised when Brownlee was named male singer of the year in the International Opera awards 2017.

Brownlee is equable towards racial attitudes in opera, insisting that old prejudices are changing, if slowly, and that the best singer should always be given the role, even in the case of Verdis Otello (not suited to Brownlees voice, though he hopes one day he might tackle the higher-lying Rossini version). From international stars such as Leontyne Price and Grace Bumbry to Jessye Norman and Willard White, Brownlee has had role models to follow, though he has encountered more subtle forms of resistance.

You cant blind-cast with opera. No one has ever turned me down for a part and said Because hes black or even Because hes small and black! but theres a code Ive come to understand We have a different idea for the role is a common one. Change is slow, across the classical world even in orchestras which have blind casting, behind screens. The New York Met orchestra still only has maybe five players of colour out of 60 or more musicians. Itll take time.

Brownlee as Charlie Parker in Yardbird at Hackney Empire. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

The issue of sexual harassment, he agrees, is equally or perhaps more urgent. Hes worked regularly at the Met, where its conductor and former music director James Levine has been suspended following sexual abuse accusations. Has he contributed to the world of music? Yes, without question. More than that I cant say Ive never worked directly with him, he says. All this with Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey and so on has heightened our awareness. Its not an accident its all coming out now. There have been uneasy situations across the industry for a long time.

Brownlee pauses, choosing his words with care, then adds: Its widely known that many performers have handlers who make sure they dont stray off the path. Some performers, its known, because of past accusations, cannot be left alone with women, are only allowed male dressers, male makeup artists. Its almost a given

Power games within the industry are exacerbated by the circumstances of a top musicians working life. Being away for weeks or months at a time is hard. It can be lonely. Youre in hotels. You meet someone you like one day. The next youre gone. Its hard to form or maintain relationships. His own solution is to get out as much as he can, give masterclasses, explore whichever city he is in, dance salsa, join a gym. While Ive been in London Ive found a boxing club. And before the last Semiramide performance yesterday I had a fast game of ping pong!

He met his wife, Kendra, in 2008, via online dating. I filled in the forms, pages and pages of them, on a plane, totally jet-lagged. Next day, half asleep, I got a message from her! She knew what my life was like. We established a relationship knowing that. They have two children: Caleb, seven, and Zoe, six. His son is autistic and Brownlee campaigns on behalf of people living with autism. As we discuss the additional pressure this creates, especially for his wife when hes away, he checks a new message on his phone.

My wifes sent me a nice picture of Zoe in school with a message: I wonder if you can pick out our daughter very quickly? He passes the phone over. Its immediately obvious what his wife means. She is the only person of colour in her class, he says. Doors close on us. Sometimes she comes home sad. All the Swiss watches in the world cannot solve that. Brownlee is on his own lifelong mission. Cycles of My Being is a start.

And I will keep on singing until I can no longer do so, he sums up, before zipping up against the wind, any regular black guy, in his own words, and rushing off to catch the train to the airport.

The world premiere of Cycles of My Being is at the Perelman theatre, Philadelphia, on 20 February.

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Why are so many Mongolians winning international singing awards? To find out, Kate Molleson travelled 1,000 miles across the country to meet latest star Ariunbaatar Ganbaatar, drinking mares milk, sleeping in yurts and recording its vocal masters

Last summer, a video from Cardiff went viral in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. It showed opera coach Mary King moist-eyed during the finals of BBC Cardiff Singer of the World. Who had moved her to tears? Mongolian baritone Ariunbaatar Ganbaatar. Towering, broad-shouldered, with a huge smile and a mighty voice, the 29-year-old sang Rossini, Verdi and Tchaikovsky and charmed everyone, including the judges, who declared him joint winner of the coveted Song prize. There was something so imposing about the sound, King said. Contained and glorious. Its very unusual to find this combination of presence, power and effortlessness.

Hear Ariunbaatar Ganbaatar sing

Ariunbaatar doesnt have a typical background for a contestant in one of the worlds most prestigious opera contests. He grew up in the traditional Mongolian way, living in yurts with his nomadic family, herding cattle on horseback across the steppe. As a child, he rode some 60 miles a day, and he was always singing. He won a place at university in Ulaanbaatar but dropped out after two years when he couldnt pay the fees, became a taxi driver and one night got chatting to a customer who happened to be the chief of police. Long story short: he joined Ulaanbaatars police ensemble, worked his way back to university, then onwards to the grand opera houses of Russia and Europe.

That backstory tugged at my curiosity so much so that three months later I was on a flight to Ulaanbaatar with a radio producer and suitcase of audio equipment. I had the same basic preconceptions many westerners share about Mongolia: Genghis Khan, Gobi desert, furry camels, wild horses, fabulous throat singers. My guidebook described a proud post-communist nation, once the greatest empire the world has ever known, now a population of three million landlocked between two global superpowers, Russia and China. It is rude to turn down an offer of fermented mares milk, I read, for it is considered a gesture of friendship.

But the books couldnt tell me was why opera is such a big thing in Mongolia right now. Ariunbaatars win was no fluke: in 2015, he took first prize in the male-vocalist category of Russias Tchaikovsky competition. And there are others. Amartuvshin Enkhbat, Mongolias first-ever entrant to Cardiff, reached the finals in 2015. And last years contest also included an impressive contribution from tenor Batjargal Bayarsaikhan.

A bigger stage from left, Amartuvshin Enkhbat, Ariunbaatar Ganbaatar and Batjargal Bayarsaikhan. Composite: Alamy

Mongolia won independence from China in 1921 and became the first satellite state of the Soviet Union. Its traditional singers were sent to Russia, East Germany and Poland to study opera. I expected to encounter awkwardness around that history the fact this music was a Soviet import but not so. Opera caught on in Ulaanbaatar. The Mongolian State Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet is a handsome peach-coloured neoclassical building on the main square of the capital. It opened in 1963 with a heavyweight of Russian opera: Eugene Onegin.

Today, the theatre employs 285 people and hosts more than 100 performances a year. To date, Mongolias own national opera – a love story called Three Dramatic Characters by B Damdinsuren has been staged 2,022 times. Opera might have been planted by the Soviets, but it took root. Why? One answer is geopolitics. For a small nation, explains Tuya Shagdar, a young anthropologist I meet in Ulaanbaatar, in order to catch the attention of the world, we need to promote ourselves through culture.

Supernatural expert throat-singer Batzorig Vaanchig. Photograph: Facebook

Shagdar stresses that Mongolia does not want to appear to be simply a cultural annex to Russia or China, and hints that beating the Russians at their own game is particularly enjoyable. Another answer is that Mongolians are incredible singers, the tradition dating back centuries. Like opera, throat singing requires decades of specialist training to create multiple pitches at the same time. Hearing an expert up-close is an almost supernatural experience. We recorded Batzorig Vaanchig, one of the very finest, and the subtlety and colour of his overtones was astounding. He made his voice sound like the wind, then the snow, then an eagles wing slicing through the air.

To get to the throat-singing source, I travelled 1,000 miles west from Ulaanbaatar across the Gobi desert to Hovd province. Its an awesome landscape. I spent several nights in a yurt on the shores of a vast lake watching cranes migrating south from Siberia, the glacier-tipped high Altai mountains on the horizon. No roads meant gruesome car sickness. Every time we stopped at a yurt to ask directions, I was fed boiled mares milk and lamb fat to calm my stomach.

When we arrived at Chandmani, a tiny village, there was a party: vodka, more mares milk, and throat singers of all sizes and shapes. A grand master sang ancient verse with his granddaughter on his knee. A choir sang pop covers with a synthesiser backing track. It was surreal and glorious. What better mark of a tradition in rude health than a gaggle of six-year-olds belting out Born to be Wild in amassed overtones?

Life on the land Ariunbaatar Ganbaatar, centre in pale blue shirt, at a family gathering in their yurt. Photograph: Kate Molleson for the Guardian

Almost everyone I spoke to connected the countrys singing culture with the landscape. Traditional ballads known as long songs translate into verse the contours of the land, its long straight sightlines with jagged mountains like decorative ornaments on the distant horizon. Im nervous about any claim that where you are born determines what sounds you are able or entitled to make feeling that this could tip into to ethnic exclusivity, or plain exotification. Yet I cant deny the incredibly open and natural sound that Ariunbaatar and other Mongolian singers seem to make.

One musicologist I spoke to, Khatuchuluun Buyandelger, was unequivocal about the reason behind his countrys embrace of opera. Its down to physical stature, he says, and thats down to landscape, food, clean air, even historical narrative. Remember Genghis Khan? Mongolians certainly do. We have the force not only to conquer the world, Khatuchuluun says, but also to sing for the world.

International wins have made Ariunbaatar a celebrity at home. Politicians hope his career will secure Mongolias position on the opera map portraying it as a modern, cosmopolitan nation. He says he has no desire to leave Mongolia. His family are still nomads on the steppe, still herd cattle on horseback, still pack up their yurts to follow new pastures. Being with them on the land is what gives me inspiration to sing, he says. Wherever I am, that is what I imagine when I sing.

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The Russian singer, hailed as one of the worlds greatest, was diagnosed with a brain tumour in 2015

The Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky has died aged 55. The news was announced on his Facebook page:

On behalf of the Hvorostovsky family, it is with heavy hearts that we announce the passing of Dmitri Hvorostovsky beloved operatic baritone, husband, father, son, and friend at age 55. After a two-and-a-half-year battle with brain cancer, he died peacefully this morning, November 22, surrounded by family near his home in London, UK. May the warmth of his voice and his spirit always be with us.

Hvorostovsky was born in a tough industrial city in Siberia, telling an interviewer in 2002 that as a high school student, prison looked a more likely destination than the opera stage, with drinking, drugs and fighting, part of his adolescence. A teenage obsession with pop music also almost claimed the singer for a different world, and his hard drinking and wild behaviour continued into his 20s and early 30s.

He came to international attention in 1989 when he beat Bryn Terfel to win the Cardiff Singer of the World title. With his prematurely white hair, dashing good looks and powerful stage presence, his heartthrob image was carefully cultivated and he amassed legions of fans.

A career performing in all the major opera houses and concert halls followed, and he was hailed one of the worlds greatest baritones for the rich, expressive fluidity of his voice. His fame allowed him to bring the neglected and little known Russian song repertoire into western halls, most notably with the remarkable accompanist Ivari Ilja. In the opera house he was particularly feted for his performances of Verdi, and also his charismatic and provocative interpretation of Tchaikovksys antihero Eugene Onegin, a role he made his own.

In 2006, Hvorostovsky was the soloist in the BBCs Last Night of the Proms, and delighted the crowds with his glamorous take on The Toreador Song from Bizets Carmen.

Genuine stars are rare in the classical music world; Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky ranks among them, wrote the Guardians Tim Ashley in 2003.

The singer was diagnosed with a brain tumour in June 2015 and retired from the opera stage at the end of 2016. He lived in London with his wife and two children.

Fellow singers paid tribute on twitter:

Joseph Calleja (@MalteseTenor)

Gutted to the bone. A charming singer with a greatness that will immortalize his artistry. #hvorostovsky

November 22, 2017

David Butt Philip (@DavidButtPhilip)

Tragic news. Dmitri Hvorostovsky was an astonishing singer, a warm & charismatic man and one of my first operatic heroes.

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The long read: More and more singers are cancelling big shows and turning to surgery to fix their damaged vocal cords. But is the problem actually down to the way they sing?

I dont even know how to start this, Adele wrote in an online letter to fans on 30 June. The previous night, she had played the second show of a sold-out, four-night residency at Wembley Stadium. These dates, in front of audiences of 98,000, were supposed to be the triumphant conclusion of her record-setting, 123-date world tour. But on stage, something had just felt wrong.

Ive struggled vocally both nights, she wrote. I had to push a lot harder than I normally do. I felt like I constantly had to clear my throat. After the second show, Adele went to see her doctor, who told her she had damaged her vocal cords and had no option but to cancel her remaining shows. The most powerful young voice in the music business had fallen silent. To say Im heart broken would be a complete understatement, she wrote.

Though only 29, Adele had been here before. Six years earlier, she had suffered a haemorrhage to her vocal cords after singing live on a French radio program. In order to repair the injury, she underwent an incredibly delicate, high-risk medical intervention: vocal cord microsurgery. In this operation, the surgeon wields miniature scalpels and forceps attached to foot-long poles that are guided down the throat to excise whatever damaged tissue is robbing the vocal cords of their elasticity, and depriving the voice of its natural timbre, range and clarity.

Adeles surgeon, Dr Steven Zeitels, was after a nasty polyp that had formed under her epithelium, the thin outer layer of the vocal cord. Zeitels carefully snipped the layer with a scalpel, and then, with a forcep, pulled back the tissue like a flap, exposing the polyp below. With a second forcep he pulled out the gooey, infected mass, and zapped the remaining haemorrhaged surface with a laser to stop the bleeding and prevent scarring.

The margin for error in such surgeries is measured in fractions of a millimetre. You cant let the instruments touch any healthy tissue. Dig too deep, Zeitels knew, and he would risk damaging the superficial lamina propria, the soft, pliable underlayer of Adeles vocal cords. If he pierced that, he told me, there would be no way to preserve the power and suppleness of her voice.

On 12 February 2012, three months after her surgery, Adele swept up six awards at the Grammys, including album of the year and song of the year. In her acceptance speech for best pop solo performance, she thanked Zeitels for restoring her voice. To most observers, it was a cheering comeback story, but for a handful of medical specialists it was a watershed moment. For years, vocal cord microsurgery had been considered risky. (In 1997, an unsuccessful surgical procedure left Julie Andrews already damaged voice beyond repair.) More than the physical risk, though, singers feared the damage to their careers that could follow if word got out. In the world of showbusiness, it was safer to be seen as a singer with a healthy young voice than as a one-time great with surgically repaired cords.

Now, Adele had suddenly swept away the stigma. In the years since, Zeitels business has boomed, along with those of many of his peers. They have no shortage of patients: there is an epidemic of serious vocal cord injuries in the performing arts. In addition to his work on Adele, Zeitels, who directs the Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Laryngeal Surgery and Voice Rehabilitation, has repaired the cords of more than 700 performing artists, including Sam Smith, Lionel Richie, Bono and Cher. Michael Bubl, Keith Urban, Meghan Trainor and Celine Dion have also had to quit touring to get their cords surgically repaired. In a mark of how attitudes to surgery have changed, both Smith and Bubl broke the news of their surgeries to their fans via Instagram.

There is no precise data on the number of performers who have gone under the knife over the years. But several surgeons told me they estimate that vocal cord surgery has been performed on thousands of pop, rock and classical singers, as well as on theatre and stage musical stars. Cancelled shows reverberate across social media and hit a struggling music industry hard. When Adele pulled out of her remaining two Wembley shows this summer, nearly 200,000 tickets had to be refunded. Its unclear if she will ever tour again.

After Adeles 2011 surgery, Zeitels became something of a celebrity. Occasionally, a reporter asked him if Adele was cured for good. He made no assurances, but told Channel 4s Jon Snow that her surgically repaired voice sounds smoother now than before.

While the media was celebrating this miracle surgery, one woman in the music industry raised a dissenting voice. According to Lisa Paglin, a former opera singer turned voice coach, Zeitels had simply found a temporary fix; in the not too distant future, Adele would once again be forced off the stage and back into the operating theatre. It was a prediction that Paglin and Marianna Brilla, her coaching partner, were willing to stake their reputations on. The rash of vocal injuries silencing our most promising young talents, they argued, is too big a problem to be solved by microsurgery.

How many surgeries would Dr Zeitels consider performing on Adele? Or on anyone? After surgery, unless a singer makes major changes, return to performing means a return to the vocal abuse that put her/him on the operating table in the first place, Paglin wrote, in the small trade publication Intermezzo. Concerts injury surgery rest concerts injury surgery. Is this the life of a professional singer?

When Adele cancelled the final nights of her recent tour, Brilla and Paglin felt saddened but vindicated. For more than a decade, they have been pushing for a revolution in the way that almost every modern performer has been taught to use their voice. After years of painstaking research in musical archives, early scientific journals and the classroom, Brilla and Paglin say they can deliver what medical science has failed to: a permanent fix for vocal burnout.

Their solution requires the revival of an all-but-vanished singing method that is not just beautiful to the ear, but also easy on the throat. Some of their ageing and beleaguered clients described it to me as a kind of fountain of youth. But their cure is not without controversy. It is based on a provocative theory that has been gaining ground among a small cadre of international talents: that we have all been singing completely wrong even Adele.

Singing is a rough business. Every vocal performance involves hundreds of thousands of micro-collisions in the throat. The vocal cords also known as vocal folds are a pair of thin, reed-like, muscular strips located inside the larynx, or voice box, in the throat. They are shaped like a wishbone, and contain the densest concentration of nerve tissue in the body.

When we are silent, the cords remain apart to facilitate breathing. When we sing or speak, air is pushed up from the lungs, and the edges of the cords come together in a rapid chopping motion. The air causes the cords to vibrate, creating sound. The greater the vibration, the higher the pitch. By the time a soprano hits those lush high notes, her vocal cords are thwacking together 1,000 times per second, transforming a burst of air from her lungs into music powerful enough to shatter glass.

Beautiful singing requires lithe cords, but all that slapping together can wear down their fine, spongy surface and lead to tiny contusions. Over years of heavy use, nodules, polyps or cysts form on the vocal folds, distorting the sound they create. For a singer, the first sign of trouble is often the wobble. His pitch fluctuates on and off key because his ragged cords have lost their natural vibrato their ability to resonate properly. Then theres the hole, a point on the scale where a singers vibrating vocal cords fail to produce the proper tone. Try as he might, those notes will exit his mouth flat or, worse, as a barely audible gasp.

A vintage engraving of a view inside the throat. Photograph: Alamy Stock Vector

It was once unheard-of for a singer to perform with a faulty voice, but the opera world has recently been shaken by a trio of incidents in which the stars Rolando Villazn, Aleksandrs Antonenko and Robert Alagno walked off stage mid-performance, unable to go on. Some opera singers complain of year-round cold symptoms, and legal steroid injections and other drugs are often used to get a struggling singer through a performance. But singing through the wear and tear can cause the lesions to burst and bleed, creating voice-ruining scars, which is what happened to Adele in 2011.

Voice specialists liken the physical toll on singers and stage performers to what athletes endure. Surgery to the professional singers vocal cords is what ligament reconstruction has become to the football players knee. Dusty theatres, stuffy airplane cabins, erratic eating and sleeping patterns, the stress of living off stingy contracts all affect the vocal cords. Add to it the occupational hazard, at least in opera and classical music, of taking on roles that require you to sing above your natural range, and the cords become extremely susceptible to injury.

In 1986, the conductor, vocal coach and New York Times music critic Will Crutchfield lamented that vocal burnout was cutting short careers and diminishing the power of opera, as audiences, by necessity, accustom themselves to hearing voices in poor condition. Back then, Crutchfield saw that singers peaked in their 30s and then began to decline. But Adele, Trainor and Smith all underwent career-saving surgery in their 20s. Vocal burnout is afflicting amateurs, too. One veteran teacher in Italy told me that female students in their early 20s who want to sing like Adele or a young Whitney Houston are the ones who come down with vocal nodules. Another music teacher told me she recently had to instruct one of her 10-year-old students to stop singing and get his damaged cords checked by a specialist.

The rise in vocal injuries is linked to a change in what we consider good singing. Across all genres, it has become normal to believe that louder is better. (One reason that Adele is such a big star is because her voice is so big.) As a result, singers are pushing their cords like never before, which leads to vocal breakdown.

New waves of medical research into the causes of dysphonia, or the inability to properly produce voice, bear this out. In the west, vocal abuse is surprisingly common in all professions that rely on the voice , from schoolteachers to opera singers. Awareness of the problem is growing, but as Adeles case demonstrated, and separate studies conclude, surgery is not necessarily a lasting fix.

Brilla and Paglin have been saying this for years. You cannot solve the problem by simply relieving the symptom, Brilla said. Its a motor problem. The singer has to understand its the way youre running your engine the techniques theyre using to sing. If you dont fix the engine, its going to happen again.

Teatro La Nuova Fenice, a 19th-century opera house built in the neoclassical style, sits at the top of the small hill town of Osimo in central Italy, just inland of the Adriatic Sea. In the grand lobby of the building is a marble plaque commemorating the night in 1927 when the Italian tenor Beniamino Gigli, one of the greatest talents of his era, performed here. Gigli packed concert halls across Europe and the Americas in a career that spanned five decades.

Gigli is an icon of the purer, more natural singing style that characterised a period when vocal injuries were almost unheard of, say Brilla and Paglin. They have a small teaching studio in a cul-de-sac below La Nuova Fenice. Brilla, a dramatic soprano with a fearless air, first became obsessed with the fragility of the human voice more than 50 years ago, as a teenage opera singer growing up in Pennsylvania coal country. A doctor there diagnosed her with a problem common among young singers with big voices: her vocal cords werent coming together properly. She had a hole. Over the next few decades, she cycled through nearly 30 teachers, including legends such as Antonio Tonini and Ellen Faull, trying to learn to sing in a style like Giglis at once powerful, clear and sustainable over the course of many years.

Brilla met Paglin, a lyric soprano who appears small next to Brilla, while studying voice at Indiana Universitys school of music. The two bonded over their love for Italian opera and their frustration with the way singing was taught, even by their legendary teacher Margaret Harshaw. Feeling that the giants of music instruction didnt have the key to vocal longevity, Brilla and Paglin determined that they would be the ones to unlock the secret.

In 1977, Brilla won a prestigious Fulbright scholarship to travel to Italy to search for a way to sing beautifully without risking injury. There, she heard glimpses of perfect arias from older, mostly Italian opera singers who learned their craft in the early 20th century. These singers seemed to effortlessly produce clear, powerful musical tones, and so many of them were still performing with vigour well into their 60s, 70s and 80s. To Brilla, they held a clue to the vocal longevity lost to singers today.

Paglin soon joined her in Rome, where they started spending hours each day at the national sound archive, La Discoteca di Stato, listening to early recordings. They also scoured libraries for texts that discussed how operatic and classical singing techniques had changed over the centuries. When they werent researching, they were performing; big talents in their own right, they performed in many of the major opera houses and music halls of Italy and Austria. This put them in the presence of more masters, whom they peppered with questions. They also tracked down other ageing opera stars, teachers and conductors.

Their research pointed Brilla and Paglin to a surprising conclusion: that responsibility for the modern decline of the voice lay at the feet of Verdi, Wagner and Puccini. These three composers were the pop music sensations of their day. Music scholars credit them with being the first to challenge their singers to push their voices to new limits, in order to capture the emotional ups and downs their characters were feeling. Think of the teenage Japanese bride in Puccinis Madama Butterfly, her heart breaking, desperately watching the seas for a sign her love will return, or the thunderous battle cries of the Valkyries in Wagners Ring cycle. If youre going to kill off the main character of your show, you need genuine rage and pathos on stage.

But Brilla and Paglin heard something different that the emotionally charged, full-throated, operatic singing style Verdi and Wagner made popular in the late 19th century and that Puccini amped up even further in the early 20th century had subsequently infiltrated all singing genres and public performances. With each passing decade, the style grew more extreme. To illustrate the point, when I visited the duo earlier this summer, Paglin pulled from their sprawling research library a file containing a series of images. The first was a photograph, taken in 1920, of the legendary Italian tenor Enrico Caruso mid-aria. Caruso seems to be enjoying himself, even as the camera flashes; its as if hes talking to a friend, not baying at the audience. This is natural singing, Paglin said.

As she flipped from image to image, we travelled towards the present, a decade at a time. The photographs of the more contemporary singers including the tenor Rolando Villazn, who has suffered multiple vocal injuries looked like horror-movie stills: their mouths were wide open, eyes bulging, neck veins popping, as if they were screaming. There was none of Carusos easy calm.

Caruso and Gigli produced legendarily big sounds, but with an effort that todays performers might deride as somewhat wimpy. Compare Carusos 1916 recording of O Sole Mio with Villazns 2010 rendition. Carusos is powerful, but not so powerful that the lyrics crash into one another and become indecipherable; and even at the height of the aria, he doesnt drown out the strings. That Brilla and Paglin had identified this contrast wasnt enough. They wanted to reverse-engineer exactly how Caruso and his contemporaries sang.

Rolando Villazn on German TV in 2015. Photograph: Hannes Magerstaedt/Getty Images

In 1983, Brilla convinced Maria Carbone, a retired Italian operatic soprano, to work with them. Carbone was nearing 80, but still had a powerful voice. While Carbone sang, Brilla would clasp Carbones abdomen to feel what was happening inside her body. Carbone started with an aria from Tosca. As her voice rose, hitting higher and higher notes, Brillas eyes widened. I could feel this tick, tick. Tick, tick, she recalled. It was the natural up-down release of her diaphragm. Nothing else was happening. Carbones ribcage wasnt ballooning out as she sang, and there were no deep gulps of air, as is common with todays big-voiced singers. More amazing still, the movement of Carbones abdomen while singing was just as quiet and rhythmic as when she spoke. It was a discovery of what the perfect singers posture should be, Paglin said.

Brilla added: Whereas all the teachers in my life had been telling me to open, open, open to exaggerate her breathing and lunge into every high note to produce the biggest sound Carbone was demonstrating the opposite.The root of the problem, they realised, is in classrooms. Too many students graduate from conservatories who dont know how to sing, and its leading to injury, Brilla said. Weve got to stop this. Its ass-backwards!

It is not just singers whose careers are threatened by deteriorating vocal cords. In 1989, the Italian actor Maddalena Crippa momentarily lost her voice during a live performance of Shakespeares bloodiest work, Titus Andronicus. Crippa was playing Tamora, the vanquished queen of the Goths. After Tamoras son is murdered before her eyes, Crippa said she unleashed these uncontrollable cries. But, for a moment, her next line wouldnt come out. It was the first time in her acting career that Crippas vocal cords had failed her. The suffering I felt was indescribable, she told me.

That suffering continued for more than a decade. Crippas voice was no longer reliably crisp and sonorous, and a burning pain lingered in her throat. After visiting vocal coaches and throat specialists, she got the prognosis that all performers dread: nodules on her cords. Cortisone injections and voice exercises worked well enough to get her back on stage, but her confidence was shaken. You mean you still dont know how to use your voice? she remembered thinking. Its demoralising. Then, in 2002, at the suggestion of a fellow actor, Crippa visited Brilla and Paglins Osimo studio.

Unlike medical doctors, Brilla and Paglin dont own a laryngoscope that allows them to peer into the throat. If someone comes to them with injuries, they treat the problem by ear. They sing a soft note and ask the student to match it precisely. They can hear in the response where the pitch is off-key, and where the damage is located on the cord. (When I spoke with Adeles surgeon, Steven Zeitels, he demonstrated something similar, singing a scale to isolate where his own cord is damaged a perturbation, as its called, the result of years of long hours in the classroom.)

The moment Crippa said hello, Brilla and Paglin knew there was something very wrong with her voice. She exuded tension, as if bracing for confrontation, and took big, gulping breaths before speaking. Brilla and Paglin often see this problem with singers; their vocal cords are so used to having great quantities of air shoved at them that the cords wont respond without that force. Once you start pushing, youre condemned to push for the rest of your life, Paglin told me. Unless you learn a new way of doing it.

In their studio, Brilla and Paglin instructed Crippa to lie on her back and produce a series of high notes, which Paglin demonstrated for me. It sounded like a faint squeaking, as if she was gently releasing air from the neck of a balloon. When Crippa was told to reproduce what Paglin called a floating high C, she protested, saying she couldnt get that far up the scale. Finally, she gave it a try, producing a barely audible piff, followed by a more sustained tone. Hearing herself, Crippa broke down and cried. They were tears of joy, Crippa told me. They touched a nerve deep inside me. I mean, this is my voice. My voice.

Brilla and Paglin say they can restore most vocal cord problems naturally, via exercises that massage out the defect over time. They aim to stimulate the cords precisely where they arent coming together properly, and to break students out of the bad habits that cause problems in the first place: taking big gulps of air, tensing the throat and jaw muscles, forcing the mouth to open to exaggerated proportions, and the urge to scream out the high notes.

There are limits to what Brilla and Paglin claim to be able to do for an ailing artist. Paglin told me of a time when she was watching a singer perform on stage, and could tell there was something very wrong. She got a message to the singer that he urgently needed to see a doctor. He did, and was diagnosed with a form of throat cancer.

But their track record with other difficult cases has earned them a small international following. The veteran Italian stage actor Moni Ovadia was one of their earliest big-name success stories. Throughout his mid-40s, he performed up to 250 shows a year, in Europe and the US, but by 48 he was ready to quit showbusiness. His voice had become flat and raspy, and he found it physically painful to perform. He credits Paglin and Brilla with restoring his voice and his career. They saved my life, he told me. Today, at 71, he is a bull on stage, and can perform non-stop for up to three hours.

In May, at Brilla and Paglins studio in Osimo, I watched an aspiring dramatic soprano named Emanuela Albanesi rehearse the high-energy duet Mi Volete Fiera?, from Gaetano Donizettis comic opera Don Pasquale. There are few, if any, widely accepted standards for teaching singing, and many teachers complain that too many of their peers get jobs because of how they sound, not what they know. Paglin and Brilla mine the internet for teaching videos that concern them, such as one in which a soprano chides a student to open her mouth wider and wider as she sings an aria, in order to achieve more volume; not until the student plugs her fist into her mouth is the teacher satisfied.

Albanesi, however, sang with an ease that belied the strength of her highest notes. As she came to the final grazie!, I was expecting a thunderous, take-the-roof-off moment, but she never lost the disarming grin with which she performed. I thought of that photo of Enrico Caruso singing with such relaxed ease. I whispered to Brilla that it was the first time I had ever been able to make out each and every lyric in a such an intense operatic number. Im telling you, she said. Weve cracked it.

The question remains: could Brilla and Paglins approach permanently cure an artist like Adele by teaching her to sing in a more natural way? Steven Zeitels is dismissive of such an approach, and quick to defend Adele and his other clients against the contention that bad technique is causing their vocal problems. People used to think if you needed an operation it meant you dont know how to sing. The people I see they know how to sing!

Zeitels believes that medical specialists such as himself are becoming increasingly important to the arts, which he compared to other demanding physical pursuits. Any athletic endeavour will eventually take a toll if done for long enough, he said. Whats terrific is were getting better and better at bringing people back.

Specially trained vocal therapists have also restored performers to health through voice training, but medical experts advise taking this route only for minor vocal injuries, such as small nodules. Otherwise, they strongly suggest surgery. This attitude rankles Brilla and Paglin, who have cured artists such as the internationally renowned jazz singer Maria Pia De Vito, who suffered from vocal edema, a painful swelling of the cords, for which surgery is the generally recommended course of action. What irony, Paglin said. There is an industry built around singers who harm themselves while singing, and there is another one built around fixing them up.

Another renowned throat surgeon, Dr Robert T Sataloff, who has performed voice-corrective surgery on several Grammy Award winners, including Neil Diamond and Patti LuPone, bristles at the notion that surgery is not a sensible way to keep singers healthy. Combined with proper education on the dangers of improper singing technique, he believes it can keep people on stage for longer. Is it perfect? No. And it probably never will be, he told me. Like Zeitels, Sataloff drew a sporting analogy. Injury is inevitable and thats when they end up in my office.

Swedish opera singer Sigrid Onegin (18891943) having her vocal cords examined. Photograph: Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

Some conservatory teachers in Italy dismiss Brilla and Paglins natural-singing approach as heretical, and their disciples as a sect. Over time, the duo have made a number of enemies. An invitation in 2011 to teach a series of master classes at Romes Conservatorio di Musica Santa Cecilia, one of Italys top conservatories, met with near universal opposition among the faculty. The classes were popular with the students, but many teachers didnt want them on campus. Edda Silvestri, the former director of Santa Cecilia, told me she didnt recall any overt hostility towards the duo, but she did remember the rift Brilla and Paglin created between faculty and students. Unfortunately, this is common when you try to introduce any new approach to a conservatory. They are conservative places, Silvestri said. Elizabeth Aubry, the vice president of Italys most influential organisation of singing teachers, the Associazione Insegnanti di Canto Italiana, finds Brilla and Paglins critiques terrible. She said the main objective of her organisation and its counterparts in the UK and US is to teach teachers precisely not to do damage.

For his part, Zeitels is working on a futuristic fix to dysphonia. Anyone who relies particularly heavily on their voice schoolteachers, talkshow hosts, sales reps, preachers, lawyers, frazzled parents is vulnerable to chronic raspiness, or to going hoarse. One of Zeitels patented innovations is to apply a biomaterial a gel implant in the tissue of damaged vocal cords to restore pliability. He sees it as a potentially huge breakthrough. It will be just as important what you put into a vocal cord as what you remove, he told a journalist in 2015.

But some of Brilla and Paglins students are thriving without such intervention, including Maddalena Crippa, who at 59 years old is in the midst of a remarkable second act. Her voice has been injury-free since she started working with Brilla and Paglin 15 years ago, and last May she wrapped up a critically acclaimed tour of LAllegra Vedova, a one-woman-show based on a 1905 operetta. For 75 minutes each night, she sang and acted two roles, the husky-voiced Danilo and the high-pitched Anna, who at one point sing a virtuosic duet. Critics were impressed, with one raving that Crippa is still a brilliant singer.

Adele, however, is one of those rare figures in the arts. Her unique voice, and her story, are so big that many people believe that what she does (or doesnt do) to correct her latest injury will determine future approaches to protecting the voice.

On 1 July, when news broke of Adeles cancellations, Paglin sent me a Whatsapp message. She was frustrated by the press coverage. Recalling that Adeles original surgery in 2011 had proved to be a huge PR victory for vocal-cord microsurgery, she worried that the message from Adeles latest setback would be that, not to worry, a second or third surgery will get the star back on stage. What makes matters worse is that the mechanics are still convinced that all there is to it is to keep operating, while the singers themselves still talk about air travel, drafts, allergies and stress. #elephantintheroom could be a good hashtag, she wrote, referring to what is wrong, as she sees it, with how people are taught to sing in the first place.

A few hours later, she sent me another note. She felt bad for Adele, and wanted to help. We know how to fix Adeles problems (sans surgery), and for good. If only we could talk with her.

Main photograph: Sascha Steinbach/Getty

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