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)

Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
'Eminem's recovery from substance abuse has made him a more potent performer, with physical charisma and energy he never had before'
musicReview: Wembley Stadium ***
Arts and Entertainment
‘Dawn of Planet of the Apes’ also looks set for success in the Chinese market

film
News
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight

tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
    Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

    Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

    The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
    Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

    Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

    The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

    Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

    Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

    Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

    The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
    The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

    The Open 2014

    Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?