Terror behind a rising curtain: Why do talented performers get stage fright?

For some performers, stage fright never goes away, as Polly Morland discovers.

"There is nothing to hold on to. There is nothing between you and the audience. And the other thing is that we're actually looking at the audience and most musicians are more involved with their instruments. Or the conductor, he is looking at the ensemble he's conducting."

The world famous soprano Renée Fleming is trying to explain to me what can be so particularly scary about being a singer. "Singing is definitely such a lot more personal," she says. "You know, we can't exchange our instrument for a new one. It is us, because our voices are in our bodies, so each one is unique, just as we are."

Fleming is not the only performer I have met who cites the singular vulnerabilities of their art almost by way of a disclaimer. Indeed, each micro-constituency within the performing arts seems instinctively to imply that there is something that makes it especially terrifying for them. A flute player told me that it was because she had to sit still in the orchestra and could not physically uncoil her nerves by rushing around onstage.

An actor said that it was because he had to be so emotionally naked in order to inhabit his character. An oboe player said that the problem lay with the unpredictable caprice of the instrument's double reed. A horn player said it was because the horn is so loud that there is no hiding in the ensemble. A ballerina said it was because if a dancer fluffs the choreography they not only look silly but risk pain and a possible career-threatening injury. And on it goes.

What they say is true of course, but it seems that, a little like love, there is something about the intense experience of stage fright, whether you are topping the bill at the Met, or skulking in the ranks of some provincial orchestra, that makes it feel like you are The Only Person On Earth Who Really Knows What This Living Hell Feels Like. There is also something of the shame that seems to go hand-in-hand with stage fright that causes each sufferer to search for some reason why they in particular have succumbed, while their colleagues are apparently quite unruffled.

Renée Fleming wrote candidly in her autobiography some years ago of the crippling stage fright that beset her in the late 1990s as she hit the height of her career. Months of mounting nervousness, triggered by a marriage break-up and a heavy workload, climaxed at La Scala in Milan in 1998, where Fleming was singing the lead in Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia.

In many Italian opera houses portions of the audience have more in common with the aficionados of the Spanish bullring crowd than with the culture vultures of London or New York and nowhere is opera closer to a blood sport than at La Scala. Here a much-dreaded faction called the loggionisti sit in the uppermost gallery, booing and catcalling at any singer who does not meet their exacting standards. Known for their forensic knowledge of the repertoire as well as their bruising vendettas, the loggionisti have visited baying displeasure upon many a famous name, even booing Pavarotti for apparently spending too long away from his homeland.

Quite what Fleming's offence was is unclear, but certainly her opening night as Lucrezia was not the luckiest of performances. The tenor had dropped out and been replaced at the last minute. Then the conductor fainted with a thud at the end of Fleming's first aria. Finally, at the end of her final cadenza, which deviated somewhat from La Scala convention, the gods erupted and Fleming was booed to the goldfretted rafters. It lasted for the whole of her closing scene and afterwards, she wrote, "I began to shake and I shook for days."

There followed a year of abysmal stage fright. Fleming never missed even so much as a rehearsal, but her memoirs are full of Kafkaesque images to describe the turmoil within: she calls it her "dark night of the soul" when she would find herself "going into the tunnel", "drenched with sweat" and "consumed with terror". "Every cell in my body was screaming, No! I can't do this!" she writes, "you feel as if you will die."

It is heady stuff. Operatic, even. Yet when I talk to Renée Fleming, either time has healed or some need to deliver high-octane confessions abated, for her account is more measured, more grown-up somehow. "It was just a very difficult time," she says. "You know, the mind can only take so much and then it says, 'OK, I don't want to do this any more. This is too much pressure.'"

We talk about how the pressure increases as your career takes off and how heavy the weight of expectation can become once you are famous, as well as how very public the critique of your shortcomings; how important it was to have "wonderful people" around you. "During the worst period," she tells me, "my voice teacher stood in my dressing room and walked me to the stage. And thank God, because in retrospect I think if I had somehow quit or said, 'I'm just going to take some time off and get on top of this', I'm not sure when and how I would have gone back."

I ask about the stigma that surely must come with stage fright when you are as celebrated as Renée Fleming, how cloak-and-dagger you need to be about the fear. "No. You just have to sing well," she says, "That is all people are concerned about. But also I didn't talk about it back then. I didn't talk about it until I was in control of it again and it was behind me."

Fleming's former manager dubbed her "Mother Courage". It is a grandiose soubriquet for someone who simply sings, but there is little doubt that Fleming has been forced to teach herself a certain form of bravery. For it is at the very moment of faltering, of incipient timidity, that one can see most clearly what the performer's bravery is all about.

Besides, I find myself feeling rather honoured that Renée Fleming turns out to be one of us Timid Souls. "Do you ever get nervous now?" I ask. "Oh sure. There are still high-pressure engagements and I'm very happy when they're over," she says, and then qualifies, "I'm always comfortable once I get on stage. It's the week or two in advance or the three days in advance when I suffer. And I've always had this strange coping mechanism, in a sense a sort of 'deal' with myself that if I suffer enough in advance, then I can perform well."

This is, of course, one of the dominant myth-cum-clichés of the artistic life, but it is also the very definition of "virtuoso". The word's etymology lies in the 17th-century notion of purchasing musical mastery with many "virtuous" hours. There is even a long-obsolete usage dating back to 13th-century Norman French that takes "vertu" to mean "valour", the "vertueux" a virtuoso of courage. Clearly, however remote the artist and the warrior, there is some primordial, shared DNA here.

Renée Fleming makes one point about the differences between real and perceived jeopardy that particularly stays with me. It comes as we discuss a psychological study of opera singers in London in the 1980s that found steeper levels of performance anxiety among singers with voices in the higher registers, tenors and sopranos. Technique or temperament, I wonder out loud.

"No," says Renée Fleming, "I think it's the level of risk. We who sing high have a great deal of risk, tenors most of all because the raison d'être really for a tenor is a brilliant high C or a brilliant high tone. And sopranos have the same pressure to a slightly lesser degree. But, you know, every voice type has difficulty." ("Difficulty", I have worked out by now, is one of Fleming's euphemisms for fear.) "One of the things I've discovered," she concludes, "is that whoever perceives that they are under pressure will have more difficulty than whoever doesn't."

Whether you are crossing enemy ground under fire or singing Donizetti, there is no escaping how very subjective fear can be; and bravery too.

From 'The Society of Timid Souls, or, how to be brave' by Polly Morland is published by Profile Books (£14.99)

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