Hipólito Lázaro: third advice

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Spanish tenor Hipólito Lázaro (1887 – 1974), a celebrated interpreter of verismo in his time, creator of the main role of the opera Il Piccolo Marat by Mascagni, gives advice to future singers in his book My Method of Singing, published in 1947.

After lunch you will get used to taking a nap; your voice will get some rest, and at night, perfectly well rested, it will be sweeter and richer in timbre. If you can’t sleep, because it makes you hoarse, it is enough for you to be quiet, for you must keep in mind that it is much more tiring to talk than to sing.

On the day I sing, it seems that my nerves attack my stomach, even though I have a good one, and despite having lunch around eleven o’clock in the morning, but when evening comes, I have to drink some bicarbonate because I haven’t been able to digest.

When I said I felt my voice was fine, and I saw my wife’s little smile, I knew that night I had to be very careful, because my voice would be a little opaque due to excessive eating, or, very probably because of the damned wine.

Above all, do not drink alcohol of any kind, it alters the nerves like an electric shock, and ends up causing the ominous “delirium tremens”, stealing your will, making you brutish and causing memory loss. Alcohol is tobacco’s partner in this bad work of destroying the human organism, and also of coffee —three vices which, if you persevere in them, will be the end end of your virile energies and, above all, of your liver— and if this organ becomes ill due to the abuse of these substances you can definitively say goodbye to your career, because if you have to submit to a diet of boiled food and puree, you will not have enough nervous strength to sing.

If you are a regular user of coffee, tobacco and alcohol, you should try to get rid of them gradually, not abruptly, because it would cause you a tremendous moral and physical upheaval —I say this from experience—, but with sufficient fortitude you will end up abandoning them completely. Then you will feel satisfied with the consequences, and above all, with the pride that you have experienced in knowing that you are capable of mastering your will as a conscious man.

I have spent my whole life abusing my abundant faculties, being sure of myself; and, in effect, I have had to spend three months without smoking a cigarette or drinking a drop of alcohol, when I had to begin the winter seasons, and I still do so. I can observe that alcohol closes my nasal conchae with the complication that I have to breathe sometimes through my mouth. Because of so many inconveniences, I get, as if by enchantment, the damned pharyngitis, which is so annoying to sing, and prevents you from doing perfect portamenti and messa di voce.

There are some artists who, in order to give themselves courage and be “well oiled” —as it is commonly said— , drink some glasses of champagne; others prefer liquor and most of them coffee with cognac and all kinds of wines; even beer. Due to such abuse, it is necessary to see in which state some of the shows end. If the audience knew what goes on in the dressing rooms before the beginning of the opera, at the slightest slip they would not let the performance continue, but since these outcomes are only discovered at the end of the show, they attribute these anomalies to the artists’ fatigue, and therefore they tolerate certain physical intemperance, which is, after all, nothing other than the natural effects of alcohol.

I’ve witnessed some phenomenal cases among the many I’ve seen. Without going any further, I will tell you a couple of them. A baritone that in a great American theater, fell from a height of four meters singing an opera by Wagner, and was not even scratched. It happened because he was too “oiled up”. And I’ve seen a tenor singing the last act of “Huguenots”, who knelt before the soprano during the love duet and was completely unable to get up and so he had to finish the opera in that posture, completely out of his character, provoking the laughter of the audience, that realized he was completely drunk.

Tobacco, too, you have to give it to yourself in drops —if you can’t give it up for good. A singer should not even see it in the storefronts of the cigar shops because, in addition to hardening the arteries of the vocal cords, it kills the heart, destroys the organism, the sight and weakens the entire nervous system.

Tobacco made me sweat excessively and that made me frantic. When I was performing, I sweated so much that I had to change my underwear at every intermission. This experience forces me to advise singers that, if they lack the will to give up nicotine, at least they smoke cigars —in small quantities— because they don’t irritate as much as paper.

I also suffered another problem because of tobacco: I had insomnia after singing; this disorder was aggravated by a worse one: my sleeplessness aroused a pressing need for coffee, which I used to drink in large quantities, and not being able to rest was the cause of my short breaths on some performance nights.

In short, if the need for tobacco is so strong in you, I just need to warn you, very seriously, that you should be prepared to be always sick with pharyngitis —a setback that will give you many a hard time.

I offer a recipe to those who are stubborn. At night, before going to bed, gargle with half a glass of warm water mixed with a teaspoon of bicarbonate: it is advisable that you repeat these rinses after each meal, to clear your throat.

Instead of coffee, you can drink chamomile or water from boiled apples, which softens and refreshes the throat.

Text excerpted and translated from Mi método de canto, Hipólito Lázaro, Barcelona, 1947.