Opera Singing Mamas : Part 1

Hear from some of the industry’s top artists on how they prepared for, navigated, and recovered from their pregnancies while striving to keep their vocal and physical health in top shape. 

Susanna Phillips seven months pregnant in recital with pianist Myra Huang at the Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago, 2017

Anna Christy, Kiera Duffy, Jennifer Feinstein, Cecelia Hall, Susanna Phillips, and Amanda Woodbury are international opera stars in the prime of their singing careers. While they share a passion for the classical performing business and have mesmerized audiences in nearly every major hall worldwide, they also share a more personal experience: motherhood. 

In an industry where the physical demands of an opera singer are extremely high, the equally demanding physical and emotional experiences of pregnancy, labor, delivery, and postpartum are woefully under discussed. In a fascinating two-part interview with these singing mamas, their individual experiences with the pregnancy, labor, postpartum processes, and the impact on their instruments and careers are revealed. Part one of the series focuses solely on the voice and body. 

 

Let’s begin with your mindset prior to conception. What questions or concerns did you have regarding your body and instrument during pregnancy, labor/delivery, and postpartum? 

Jennifer Feinstein: Before finding out I was pregnant, I had heard that the voice can change, becoming more dramatic and darker, so I was looking forward to that if it were true. I was absolutely terrified of having a C-section—the thought of my stomach muscles being cut and having to recover from major abdominal surgery before returning to singing shortly after birth. 

Amanda Woodbury: I had some concerns about how the hormonal shifts would affect my voice. You spend so much time training the voice you have, and I was worried I would have to retrain a new voice and that I wouldn’t be happy with the changes. 

Kiera Duffy: I wondered how my breath would be impacted. Would I gain a lot of weight? Would I be able to lose the weight? Would I get morning sickness and how would that affect my singing? 

What would labor pain be like? Would I be able to have a vaginal delivery—and if I had a caesarean, would that have a lasting negative impact? How long would it take me to recover physically from pregnancy? How sleep deprived would I be, and how would that affect singing? 

What about hormone fluctuation? Would my vocal range drop? Would my voice get richer? Would my voice be irrevocably negatively affected? 

Susanna Phillips: Honestly, I wasn’t sure how it would impact my body or my instrument. Pregnancy, labor, delivery, and postpartum experiences seem to be so unique to everyone. I was nervous because I had heard some pretty tough stories. But I’d also seen many women recover physically and professionally. So I entered into it with optimism. 

Anna Christy: I didn’t worry too much about how the instrument was going to fare during and after pregnancy because I was just going to have to figure it out along the way and was having babies no matter what. I was mainly concerned with figuring out how to provide a stable, consistent environment for my children. 

 

Was your instrument impacted during the first, second, and third trimester? What were these changes throughout the nine months? 

SP: I have two children, and each pregnancy was different. With my first, I had a lot of difficulty. My physical support system was severely impacted, my energy was depleted, and my day-to-day health vastly changed. 

For that pregnancy, my instrument was impacted throughout. But in my second pregnancy, nearly the opposite happened. I felt great. My breath support deepened, and my voice felt richer and fuller without weight. 

AC: My two pregnancies were very similar to one another. Both first trimesters were marked by nausea coming and going at all hours of the day. It affected my singing in that I often felt like I was going to vomit all over my colleagues. 

The second trimester was a breeze, and during the third trimester, I was just very big and uncomfortable. In my second pregnancy, I performed really only during the third trimester. My main issues were frequent urination, sleeping discomfort, and some reflux. My voice itself seemed fine throughout, and I didn’t really notice any major changes with my cords or breathing. 

AW: I didn’t have any vomiting to contend with throughout my pregnancy. I did feel very nauseous and worried about throwing up in rehearsals, but it never came to that. I noticed changes once I reached the third trimester: my breathing felt more crowded because the baby’s growth was starting to encroach on my breathing. But because I continued to practice through the pregnancy, I found that the singing helped to keep my breath long and sustained. In some ways, it was really nice to have something to push against to support my singing. 

KD: In my first pregnancy, I had almost no nausea and never vomited beyond weeks 5 to 10. The symptom in those early weeks that affected my voice negatively was acid reflux, and it made singing considerably more difficult. By the second trimester, my voice felt more supple and flexible than it ever had. The color felt warmer, and I almost always felt warmed up, strangely. 

The second was a much harder pregnancy for me as I was nauseated the entire time. In the first trimester, I threw up once or twice a day, and that took a toll on my voice. I sang later into this pregnancy than my first pregnancy and, overall, my voice felt good except, strangely, for my very highest notes. 

Cecelia Hall: I had a bit of nausea and fatigue during the first trimester. My singing wasn’t affected, but I had to make time to sleep more than usual in order to have enough energy to perform. Around four months into pregnancy, my voice got a tiny bit thicker, similar to how it feels during my period. It didn’t really impact my singing, but I had to be more attentive to warming up slowly and staying hydrated. About a month before giving birth, I felt like my vocal cords were thicker and less flexible, so I put my feet up and enjoyed my last month of quietude! 

 

Was your instrument impacted after going through the labor process or giving birth? If so, how did you tackle those changes and challenges in the postpartum months? 

AW: Yes, my instrument was impacted. My throat was more relaxed than I had been able to make it before; it was deeper. My connection to the lower registers had opened up as well. The high voice definitely changed, and it was a different tone than I was used to. It was a little more forward and could veer on shrill, so I had to adjust. 

SP: With both children I had a condition called cholestasis, which caused them both to be delivered early. The first was via failed induction, followed by an emergency C-section. The second was born by scheduled C-section. My body was severely impacted by my first labor and delivery, mainly because of the C-section, and I needed time to recover. 

JF: Luckily, I didn’t have diastasis recti in my abdomen, so the stomach muscles were still together. But it took me several months to really feel them begin to work again. It was a lot of slow, specific work to make sure the support would be there when I went back to singing. 

KD: I think in many ways I emerged rather unscathed, physically speaking. I was fortunate to have had two vaginal deliveries, which I understand to be far less traumatic to the body than caesarean section. With my first, I had a seemingly endless labor and, as a result, I emerged from labor and delivery utterly depleted, on top of the normal exhaustion of new motherhood. In both births, most of the postpartum vocal issues I faced were related to sleep deprivation. 

AC: From my first delivery onward, I focused on strengthening my core for singing with actual core muscle exercises. The impact of delivery on my voice was not vocal but more an issue of support: less control of air and a tendency to “sit” on my cords. My youngest is five years old now, and I still have to do core exercises before I sing. Recovery after the second birth took a lot longer for me than after my first. I definitely would not have been singing anytime soon thereafter as I was in quite a lot of abdominal pain. 

 

Did you practice regularly during your pregnancy and postpartum? If so, did your routine change or remain consistent? 

CH: I began singing again around six weeks postpartum, and I was very gentle with myself. The first step was getting used to my body again and finding my breath. Yoga and barre workouts helped me find both mental and physical stability. Then I used occlusion techniques to learn music and slowly began to sing again. 

JF: During pregnancy it remained the same, but after, it was impossible to just warm up beyond 15 minutes like I might normally when I’m singing consistently. It took longer to get myself into a singing place postpartum, so I’d start a lot slower and take up to 45 minutes to get ready to sing. Practice sessions became a two-hour extravaganza, whereas I normally don’t like to go for more than an hour. 

KD: Since having kids, I found that my practice time actually presents a wonderful opportunity for self-care. I have always enjoyed practicing, but now it just feels so luxurious to be able to focus solely on myself. In addition, because time comes at such a higher premium when one is a parent, I find I am far more efficient and thoughtful in my practice. I know the specific issues I want to work on, and I try to work in an intentional and focused manner to address them. 

SP: You must sing throughout pregnancy and postpartum to maintain a cohesive instrument. If you stop, it’s exponentially difficult to regain. I did my best to rest as much as I could, take care of myself physically, and practice every day even if it was just for a few minutes. My routine changed a little depending on my physical abilities, but overall it remained consistent. 

Anna Christy seven months pregnant as Morgana and Joyce Di Donato as Alcina in the English Concert’s production of Alcina, 2014

 

Did you find that your normal vocal exercises continued to work for you, or did you need to restructure your exercises due to vocal and bodily changes? 

JF: Yes, I had to change some exercises. I’m a big fan of moving the voice quickly while practicing and warming up—keeping it agile and not too weighty as I move through the passaggi, and it just wasn’t happening the way it normally would. I had to really pull myself back and start very slowly, using long scales and slow work on a single vowel, while trying to get the support mechanism coordinated again. The semi-occluded vocal tract exercises worked great for me, lightly making a sound and buzzing through the full range of the voice to manage the air flow. 

AW: In some ways, I had to restructure exercises because I did experience significant changes. I’ve never been of the mindset to sing through all the hardest passages before I rehearse or perform because it can tire my voice. I found that if I focused on very gentle middle voice warm-ups for 15 minutes with a few check-ins of the high voice—allowing it to sound as awful, creaky, and dusty as it may—then the whole voice and body was ready to go later in the day. But I had to do this early or it wouldn’t have had the same effect. 

KD: I didn’t change what I did, but I did modify how and when I did it. Just like an athlete who’s reconditioning, I made sure to take my time to ease into things. Which meant lots of SOVTs [semi-occluded vocal tracts], attention to breath, and a thorough warm-up before diving into repertoire. As long as you are patient, it does come back! 

 

How did you manage your changing breath support during pregnancy and postpartum? 

KD: As I got larger and there was less space for a low-belly breath, I thought about breathing in more lateral terms: a more thoracic breath as opposed to an abdominal breath. I also had to pay special attention to the expiration side of the breath cycle. Because my lung capacity was compromised in the later months, I had to really focus on efficient usage of the breath that I had. 

SP: It was different for my two experiences. My first seemed to take away my support, and I needed to rebuild that postpartum. With my second, my breath support deepened, and I mainly built upon that foundation postpartum. 

AW: The biggest challenge I had in breathing during pregnancy was the crowding [of the baby]. Once I figured out that the baby gave me something to push against for support, it was much easier. During postpartum, it’s like the whole body is loosened up, so it becomes a challenge to find that support again. I had to be patient for the first few weeks while my body mended itself, but eventually found that power again. 

JF: During pregnancy, it was really tough to not be able to respond to the musical needs of my conductors the way I normally could. I ended up just having to sacrifice some phrasing because my breath support was just gone. I was just simply running out of air. Postpartum, it was pretty much the only thing I focused on, and I made myself do the work to extend the lines and my breath capacity the way I had before pregnancy. 

 

Many women talk about vocal changes in the months and years following childbirth. Did your voice change at all? If so, what were those changes? 

SP: I felt my voice get fuller and a little darker. Not so much heavier, but fuller. I found that the mental focus that I needed to produce a free, unencumbered sound increased. Also, there’s the factor of time or, rather, the lack of time to practice, prepare, rest, rehearse, and study. But what I did find was that the less time I had to do all of those essential things, the more I focused during the time that I did have. 

AW: I felt like my voice was constantly changing because I was breastfeeding. As the [milk] supply changes, your hormones change, and you have to adjust. Sometimes that meant warming up more and sometimes less. It took two years to figure out that I need to warm up a few hours before a performance for 15 minutes, focusing mostly on the middle voice, and then doing a few high exercises. 

JF: My range was extended by a whole step on top. Before pregnancy, I wasn’t comfortable singing B naturals at all, and now I consistently sing high Cs. This could also be ascribable to the postpartum training, as I was retraining my entire support mechanism. The quality got bigger and higher, with the chest voice and low extension remaining, while I gained reliable top notes that I just didn’t have before. 

 

More on the Mamas 

Soprano Anna Christy’s principal roles include Lucia, Cunegonde, Oscar, Gilda, and Olympia with companies including the Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, San Francisco Opera, Opéra national de Paris, Royal Opera House, Santa Fe Opera, English National Opera, Teatro Real, Bayerische Staatsoper, and Teatro alla Scala. 

Mezzo-soprano Cecelia Hall’s notable roles include Xerxes, Idamante, Octavian, Marguerite, and Cherubino. She has performed on many of the world’s finest stages, including Bayerische Staatsoper, Santa Fe Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Canadian Opera Company, Opera Philadelphia, and Oper Frankfurt where she is a member of the ensemble. 

Soprano Kiera Duffy has appeared with many of the world’s elite orchestras and opera companies, including the New York Philharmonic, Berlin Philharmonic, London Symphony Orchestra, the Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and Opera Philadelphia. She is also the head of undergraduate voice studies at the University of Notre Dame. 

Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Feinstein’s notable roles include Donna Elvira, Giovanna Seymour, Amneris, and Maddalena. She has performed with Opera Memphis, Sarasota Opera, Opera Theater of Connecticut, Opera Orchestra of New York, Spoleto Festival USA, Fargo Moorhead Opera, and Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, among others. 

Soprano Susanna Phillips has sung at the Metropolitan Opera for 12 consecutive seasons in the roles of Musetta, Pamina, Donna Anna, Rosalinde, Micaëla, Donna Elvira, and Countess Almaviva. She has appeared with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony, and the Philadelphia Orchestra. 

Soprano Amanda Woodbury’s career highlights include multiple appearances at the Metropolitan Opera as Juliette, Countess Almaviva, Léïla, Woglinde, Tebaldo, Norina, and Antonia. She has also been regularly seen on the stage of LA Opera as Micaëla, Musetta, and Papagena.

Kathryn Leemhuis

Mezzo-soprano Kathryn Leemhuis has performed with the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Dallas Opera, Cincinnati Opera, Teatro Colón, Fort Worth Opera, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, the Florentine Opera, and Chicago Opera Theater, among others. Her significant roles include Dorabella in Così fan tutte, Suzuki in Madama Butterfly, Dido in Dido and Aeneas, Rosina in Il barbiere di Siviglia, and Hänsel in Hänsel und Gretel. She is an assistant professor of voice and opera at Temple University.