Enrico Caruso on stage fright from Caruso and Tetrazzini on the Art of Singing, New York, 1909...
The most visible phase of the opera singer’s life when he or she is in view of the public on the stage is naturally the one most intimately connected in the minds of the majority of people with the singer’s personality, and yet there are many happenings, amusing or tragic, from the artist’s point of view, which, though often seen, are as often not realized in their true significance by the audience in front of the orchestra. One might naturally think that a singer who has been appearing for years on the operatic stage in many lands would have overcome or outgrown that bane of all public performers, stage fright. Yet such is far from the case, for it seems as though the greater the artistic temperament the more truly the artist feels and the more of himself he puts into the music he sings the greater his nervousness beforehand. The latter is of course augmented if the performance is a first night and the opera has as yet been untried before a larger public.
This advance state of miserable physical tension is the portion of all great singers alike, though in somewhat varying degrees, and it is interesting to note the forms it assumes with different people. In many it is shown by excessive irritability and the disposal to pick quarrels with anyone who comes in contact with them. This is an unhappy time for the luckless “dressers,” wig man and stage hands, or even fellow artists who encounter such singers before their first appearance in the evening. Trouble is the portion of all such.
In other artists the state of mind is indicated by a stern set countenance and a ghastly pallor, while still others become slightly hysterical, laugh uproariously at nothing or burst into weeping. I have seen a big six-foot bass singer, very popular at the opera two or three seasons ago, walking to and fro with the tears running down his cheeks for a long time before his entrance, and one of our greatest coloratura prima donnas has come to me before the opera, sung a quavering note in a voice full of emotion and said, with touching accents: “See, that is the best I can do. How can I go on so?”
I myself have been affected often by such fright, though not always in the extreme degree above described. This nervousness, however, frequently shows itself in one’s performance in the guise of indifferent acting, singing off the key, etc. Artists are generally blamed for such shortcomings, apparent in the early part of the production, when, as a matter of fact, they themselves are hardly conscious of them and overcome them in the course of the evening. Yet the public, even critics, usually forget this fact and condemn an entire performance for faults which are due at the beginning to sheer nervousness.