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How menstruation affects opera singers

By
Robert Rowat

A recent video from France Musique looks into a subject that's rarely discussed openly, but concerns half of opera singers: how menstruation affects the voice.

Citing a study by speech pathologist Jean Abitbol on premenstrual vocal syndrome, reporter Aliette de Laleu explains in the French-language video that, in addition to "swollen or painful breasts, distended legs, pelvic pain, cramps, nausea, mood swings, excessive perspiration, hot flashes, migraines, acne, diarrhea, back pain, insomnia, etc.," menstruation affects one's vocal chords.

According to the study, symptoms of premenstrual vocal syndrome include the loss of vocal power, range and harmonics, and a reduced ability to sing pianissimo. Also, drier vocal chords during menstruation make it more difficult to control vibrato. "This gives you an idea of what singers live through seven days per month," she adds.

She points out that some opera houses in Ukraine provide paid menstrual leave for singers, and explains that in the 19th century, some European opera houses did the same.

Watch the video below, and scroll down for a translation.


How menstruation affects opera singers

Aliette de Laleu

"Can we talk about periods? It's still a taboo subject in France and elsewhere in the world, where the the situation can be dramatic: [menstruating] women are isolated, don't have access to hygiene products, are forbidden from talking and are not allowed to touch food. Periods affect half of the population and for women, it isn't fun: swollen or painful breasts, distended legs, pelvic pain, cramps, nausea, mood swings, excessive perspiration, hot flashes, migraines, acne, diarrhea, back pain, insomnia, etc. — so many symptoms that impact the lives of women, notably those of opera singers.

"Speech pathologist Jean Abitbol was among the first to study the effect of periods on the voice, and he concluded that there is in fact a premenstrual vocal syndrome, which has since been confirmed by a number of studies. Before or during menstruation, the singer loses vocal power, range, harmonics and the ability to sing pianissimo. Gastric reflux dries the vocal chords, which makes it difficult to control vibrato. The vocal chords also swell. The result? One singer told me it gave her the sensation of having gravel on her vocal chords when she sang during her period. To this, add pain and tension in the lower abdomen (making breathing difficult), the psychological effects of mood swings, and fatigue and you'll have an idea of what singers live through seven days per month.

"Every woman experiences these symptoms differently, and while singers aren't the only ones affected, they're certainly a special case. So special, in fact, that certain countries (for instance, Ukraine) offer menstrual leave for singers. And this isn't new: at the end of the 19th century, a number of opera houses in Europe proposed singers shouldn't sing during their period — time off that was paid.

"So, what are we waiting for, to take care of our opera singers? While the studies on these symptoms have advanced, the first ones date only from 2016 and don't propose anything beyond the contraceptive pill or the famous hot water bottle or herbal tea to treat these symptoms that affect 80 per cent of women."

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