More and more young singers are being cast in opera’s biggest roles. But how are their voices coping?

Why are opera singers getting younger?

The simple answer: to attract a wider audience. While the mainstream entertainment industry has long been dominated by the young and beautiful, opera has only recently caught on to the commercial value of a youthful cast. It may be no coincidence, then, that most of today’s best-paid opera stars are also good-looking. Australian-born soprano Danielle de Niese and German tenor Jonas Kaufmann (neither of whom would look out of place on a catwalk) earn a salary of up to €15,000 (AU$19,600) for each opera performance.

What does this mean for young singers?

Although aspiring young opera singers now have a greater chance of being cast in lead roles, long rehearsals and schedules of more than 100 shows a year can quickly take their toll on the inexperienced. In 2009, while still in his thirties, Mexican tenor Rolando Villazón had surgery to remove a cyst on his vocal cords after singing, he admitted, “too much, too fast”.

Why are young voices so fragile?

It’s all about the density of the muscle fibres in a person’s vocal cords. While vocal development continues throughout a singer’s lifetime, there is a peak time of change around the age of 30, when vocal cords become denser and less supple. The voice generally loses some of its agility, but makes up for this in strength. Before this crucial point, the vocal cords can tear easily, meaning young singers are at greater risk of vocal damage.

So when should singers attempt the big roles?

Generally speaking, serious opera training should not usually even begin until a person is in their twenties, when the body is strong enough to endure the stresses of operatic singing. The heavier dramatic roles, such as those of the Wagner operas, are usually considered the preserve of middle-aged singers, whose voices have the heft to compete with a large orchestra for hours on end. Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel, who boasts an unusually powerful voice, waited until the age of 45 before singing Wotan in the Ring Cycle.

Are opera singers today more conscious of maintaining vocal health?

Yes. While 50 years ago the causes of vocal damage were shrugged off as one of life’s mysteries, most singers of today understand that good vocal habits are required for a long singing career. Although Dame Joan Sutherland had a voice that reportedly did not tire – often singing a rehearsal in full-voice and performing the same evening – she had, according to a doctor who examined her in the 1950s, the strongest vocal cords he had ever seen. Others, like Maria Callas, Geraldine Farrar, Mario del Monaco, suffered from prematurely worn-out voices caused by overwork and misuse.