Opening the Curtain on Cannabis in the Opera

High Times spoke with the self-proclaimed “Willie Nelson of opera singers,” Michael Mayes and his wife Megan Marino about the role cannabis plays in the opera.
Megan Marino as Despina in Mozart’s Così fan tutte at Central City Opera / Photo by Amanda Tipton

Before getting started, I need to confess; my only exposure to the opera was back in the early 90s when I watched Bugs Bunny play maestro Leopold Stokowski.

Regardless of my lack of experience with and attendance at the opera, with cannabis’ popularity apparent in the theatre, I couldn’t imagine a world in which cannabis wouldn’t make opera better.

The opera house lights dim, the curtains open, and the music starts. A fluttering flute followed by a single, boisterous voice echoing Italian or German, neither of which I speak, but I can understand the emotion behind the words more intimately.

This is my romanticized vision of attending the opera, and I might not be that far off.

But does cannabis play a role in the lives of opera singers? And if so, what are the risks and benefits of consuming as it relates to their career?

Anonymous Opera Singers on Cannabis Consumption

Some opera singers prefer to go off the record when speaking about cannabis consumption. That being said, several anonymous opera singers on Reddit weighed in on the conversation.

One elusively elevated opera enthusiast on Reddit claimed that singers perform while high in top opera houses throughout the world.

A second nameless Redditor said, “Weed made long tech rehearsals bearable.”

According to another unknown Redditor, “From my experience, older generation of singers drink vodka and cognac, younger guys smoke, but not tenors.”

Another unnamed Redditor said, “Soprano here, just sang the Brahms Requiem stoned out of my f*cking mind on Sunday.”

And, my personal favorite anonymous statement on the increasingly apparent: “Only tenors and sopranos get high.”

Michael Mayes / Photo by Michael Yeshion

The Self-Proclaimed “Willie Nelson of Opera Singers”

Michael Mayes, a professional opera singer and the self-proclaimed “Willie Nelson of opera singers,” discussed his experience with cannabis in the opera.

“There’s a boatload of opera singers who use cannabis,” Mayes said. “I don’t think I’d have gotten to where I am in the industry without it.”

“Cannabis really helped me get through a traumatic time in my life and was much less devastating to my health than my old vices that just weren’t working anymore, and were in fact taking a real toll on my health,” he added. “It also provided me with much needed relief from my chronic pain, which had become a real barrier to my expression on stage, without the side effects that a lot of pain relievers have that can be detrimental to the voice.”

But like others performing in the opera houses, he and his wife, Megan Marino, a Mezzo-Soprano, didn’t advertise their cannabis use early on.

“It used to be such a taboo thing in our industry. People were really cagey about it, and it definitely had a real sort of insider stoner kind of vibe—like a weird fraternity of pot smokers who could sniff each other out,” Mayes reminisced. “We definitely didn’t advertise the fact that we used cannabis early on—but once legalization hit Colorado, that all changed.”

Edibles & The Opera

Edibles seemingly brought cannabis use into the mainstream of opera; performers then had an accessible way to consume without damaging their vocal folds.

“Singers could get the benefits of the plant without having to pull smoke across our vocal folds, which for a lot of singers is just too harsh a delivery system,” Mayes explained. “The demands that we make of our voices are so heavy (think elite athletes) that inhaling smoke was just a non-starter for a lot of singers.”

“I find edibles to be the best for me,” Marino added. “Though I do partake in flower when I’m on a long enough stretch between jobs. I barely notice the effects smoking has, but I don’t want to push my luck. I’ve been making my own edibles, butter in particular, since 2005.”

As a benefit of union membership, Megan has access to free online college courses and is pursuing a cannabis concentration as part of her degree. Cannabis justice reform is important to her, and she hopes that by continuing her education, she’ll play a role in changing it.

“‘Reefer Madness’ propaganda and Nixon’s drug war is no longer popular in American culture,” Marino explained. “We’ve seen the dangerous effects of alcoholism and the opioid epidemic. Let’s give folks, especially those dealing with chronic pain or stressful jobs, legal access to the safer option of cannabis.”

Megan is continuing with her education and shares her infused foods with her friends and colleagues.

“I used to make lots of confections (from the traditional brownie or cookie to pies & patisserie) to share with friends and colleagues in almost all corners of the biz—from my fellow singers to rehearsal pianists, stage managers, directors, administrators, artist managers—at ALL levels of the business and nationalities,” Marino said. “Now that it’s so readily available and legalized for medical, adult-use, or decriminalized in so many of the places I work, that part of my sharing is less frequent.”

“Anecdotally, I would say that I know more administrators now who use/have used cannabis that don’t, and they will often pick my brain about making their own edibles and extracts,” Mayes added. “This is something I would never have dreamed of contemplating 10 years ago.”

Marino as Rosina in Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia with Opera Colorado / Photo by Matthew Staver

Other Consumption Methods in the Opera House

Those in the limelight of this genre are also familiar with other consumption methods, but the preferences among opera singers vary.

“Once the cartridges came out, a lot of folks found that they could use them without much stress on their cords, but the way inhalable cannabis affects the voice really varies by the individual; a lot of singers just won’t inhale smoke of any kind, while others don’t seem to suffer any fatigue or negative effect on their singing whatsoever,” Mayes explained.

Tinctures are popular, too. While living in Colorado, Mayes and Marino grew cannabis and made tinctures. After recreational cannabis became available in the Centennial State, there was a shift in the attitude surrounding it in the opera house.

“As more singers began to use cannabis—and spoke freely about using it—administrators’ attitudes began to shift toward acceptance, and now acceptance has become almost ubiquitous among admins—especially in legal states,” Mayes said. “They’re the ones who do the hiring and the firing, so this was a welcome development for those of us who partake.”

Mayes also cleared the air around his own consumption.

“I’m never high before or during a performance when I’m singing opera … just too many moving parts and things that could go wrong,” Mayes explained. “But when we’re playing with our bluegrass/Americana band, that’s a different story…”

Cannabis Smoke & the Voice: What Does Science Say?

So, we’ve heard how opera singers feel about cannabis consumption. But data-backed insights are essential to pair with anecdotal evidence, especially in the cannabis industry.

Research published in The Journal of Voice and reported on in PsyPost highlights how smoking cannabis affects the voice.

“Marijuana use has been common among rock and popular singers for decades, but it also occurs among other professional voice users including classical singers, teachers, politicians, clergy and many others,” study author Robert T. Sataloff, a professor and chairman of the Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery at Drexel University, explained.

“Until very recently, it was not possible to study the effects of marijuana on voice prospectively because the substance was illegal. It still is in many states. Nevertheless, anecdotally laryngologists have seen adverse effects from marijuana,” Sataloff added.

The researchers surveyed 42 adult patients from Sataloff’s clinical voice center. Around 77% of the study’s participants reported that they’d tried cannabis during their lifetime.

Those who’d tried it reported on their beliefs about perceived changes to their voices that resulted from cannabis consumption. Around 42% of the cannabis users believed that smoking cannabis immediately altered their voice, and 29% reported that they think their consumption had a long-term impact, including vocal weakness and hoarseness.

“Smoking marijuana can cause voice dysfunction. For high-level voice users such as opera singers, intoxication or alteration in cognitive function from any cause can alter fine motor control and result in voice injury. This is true of marijuana, as it is of alcohol,” Sataloff told PsyPost.

One other study published in 1980 showcased how cannabis use can affect the voice. This research offers some evidence highlighting the darkened vocal folds of cannabis smokers. However, researchers still must conduct other studies to learn how cannabis impacts the voice.

The opera community has spoken. And it makes sense that the opera house is becoming more cannabis-friendly, especially with legality budding in states throughout the country.

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