How does a singer know when the voice is in decline?

How does a singer know when the voice is in decline?


norman lebrecht

June 12, 2016

Bruce Duffie bravely put that question to Phyllis Curtin, who died this week at 90.

Phyllis, unflinching, said: ‘I remember when I was about thirty I was changing techniques altogether, and he (my teacher) said, “You know, my dear, every singer has to learn to die twice.”  That’s a very interesting thought when you’re thirty; quite a wise statement.  When you’re sixty it says something interesting, but all along, if you’re canny you begin to notice things….

Read on here.



  • Nick says:

    Never having heard her ‘live’ before, I was at a Joan Sutherland concert when she was 63. I was saddened at how threadbare the voice sounded. It improved a little as the evening went on, but it was so desperately disappointing.

    Tenors and basses seem to have the ability to extend their singing lives. Alfredo Kraus sounded marvellous at 70. But even in these days of mass air travel and the greater stresses on voices, I do think sopranos are now more careful of their instruments and can continue well into their 60s if they wish. Perhaps it is because some, like Kiri Te Kanawa, give up opera earlier which enables them to conserve their voices for recitals and perhaps recording. Christa Ludwig was performing into her 70s, including a couple of opera farewell performances.

    • Nick says:

      Apologies. Christa Ludwig was well into her 60s! She retired finally aged 66. But Helga Dernesch was still appearing in opera in Munich aged 70, despite the vocal problems which hit her 40 years ago and forced her down to mezzo,

  • Ruben Greenberg says:

    I’m sure there are doctors reading this, so I ask them: what is it that goes? Do the vocal cords wear out. Is it the respiratory capacity?What accounts for old people’s shaky voices? I might add that it is better to have had a voice and lost it than never to have had a voice at all.

  • Mather Pfeiffenberger says:

    Ms. Curtin was 94 at her death.

    • Max Grimm says:

      Indeed. The SD thread 4 days ago that reported Ms. Curtin’s death claimed that she was 93 (although the source quoted stated 94) and now Ms. Curtin is to have been aged 90 at the time of her passing?

      Phyllis Curtin
      * 3. Dezember 1921 in Clarksburg, WV; † 4. Juni 2016 in Great Barrington, MA

      • Max Grimm says:

        I meant * 3. December 1921 in Clarksburg, WV; † 4. June 2016 in Great Barrington, MA …thanks autocorrect…

      • Claudia d'Alessandro says:

        Phyllis Curtin was born on December 3, 1921, and died at 94, having ‘retired’ from teaching in 2015.

  • Nick says:

    And does smoking affect the longevity of a voice? Again I think of Helga Dernesch who smoked at least until she lost the top of her voice and, after a year’s break, reverted to being a mezzo. Yet she still sang superbly up to 70 (and beyond for all I am able to discover).

    • Max Grimm says:

      While I do not have the necessary expertise to answer your question (if I had to guess, I’d say ‘yes’), I’m reminded of Walter Berry who started smoking before his beginnings as an opera singer and continued to do so during his +40 year career and beyond, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau who smoked during a large part of his career but stopped and of René Pape, who is still active and a long-time smoker.

      • Max Grimm says:

        Also, are the voices of sopranos, mezzos and tenors more susceptible to change due to smoking, compared to baritones and basses?