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Blog Post: June 9, 2021

OTSL’s Partnership with the Voice and Airway Center

St. Louis is an amazing place to enjoy live opera, but the environment can be less than hospitable for performers. When the singers of Opera Theatre are having trouble during the notoriously harsh St. Louis allergy season, it’s the medical staff of Washington University’s Voice and Airway Center to the rescue.

The physicians at the Voice and Airway Center specialize in otolaryngology, which is the medical and surgical management of problems with the ear, nose, throat, head and neck (ENT). They focus mainly on issues with the voice, upper airway, and swallowing. Dr. Joseph Bradley, one of the laryngologists, became interested in the specialty when he realized the fundamental importance of the human voice.

“I fell in love with the anatomy, fell in love with the fact that the ENT takes care of what defines us as human beings: how we interact with the world, how we hear things, how we taste things, how we speak and communicate with others, and how we’re perceived by the world,” said Bradley.

OTSL has a longstanding relationship with the Voice and Airway Center via Megan Radder, a former member of Opera Theatre’s Gerdine Young Artist Program. Radder performed with OTSL in the 2008 and 2009 seasons and later pivoted to the medical field, becoming a speech-language pathologist. “I’ve always had this dual love for singing and science,” said Radder.

In the past when singers needed treatment for vocal issues, Opera Theatre had a difficult time finding doctors. It can take three to four weeks to develop allergen sensitivities, which is just about the time when rehearsals end and performances for the Festival Season begin. The Festival Season also coincides with the busy season for many ENTs. As Artistic Director Emeritus Paul Kilmer recalled, “We would call around to see if we could get singers in to see someone and they would say ‘sure, we’ve got something open in three weeks’ which wasn’t going to work.”

“I was kind of craving that scientific knowledge that a lot of voice teachers just aren’t exposed to, and a lot of singers aren’t exposed to. Like how does singing work? What are the things I can do that are research based? What exercises can I do that are shown to reduce muscle tension, which is really the primary culprit for most voice problems.”

The initial workshop was a success, and Dr. Bradley was so impressed with the Gerdine Young Artists that in 2018, he proposed the establishment of a formal relationship with Opera Theatre, with the Voice and Airway Center becoming the exclusive provider of acute vocal treatment for all OTSL singers.

For Dr. Bradley, a choral singer, connecting with local artists is key to preventing long-term voice issues. “I think it’s really important for otolaryngology programs to try to partner with the singing companies and groups within the region because singers get sick. Singers have issues that need to be dealt with and often I’m a big proponent of being proactive.”

To Radder, it just makes sense to provide more robust information to our singers.  “We have this knowledge, we can help you, it’s a different kind of exercise that we would focus on that you’re not going get at a voice lesson. And this is going to help keep you healthy for your whole career.”

The presentation includes a brief overview of the anatomy of the throat and vocal folds, common problems singers may encounter, and therapeutic techniques they can incorporate into vocal warmups. Singers also get to see examples of Dr. Bradley’s surgical work.

“Dr. Bradley showed a group of singers some photos of a larynx he had performed surgery on and they spontaneously applauded when they saw how good it looked. Singers are very tuned to their instrument, so they feel connected to what he does,” said Kilmer.

The partnership between Opera Theatre of Saint Louis and the Voice and Airway Center has been crucial and meaningful. The talented performers who bring opera to life on stage receive the care they need to sing long into their futures, all due to the dedication of medical professionals who understand the importance of the voice as an instrument and a fundamental tool.

As Megan Radder said, “Our physicians are wonderful, I would trust them with my own voice. And we have a wonderful group that are highly skilled and have great outcomes with their surgeries but won’t recommend a procedure if you don’t need it. We really try to do whatever is best for our patients. So, if that means therapy, surgery, or a combination thereof, I think people are in really great hands with our group.”

The Voice and Airway Center takes patients at their West County location – 1044 N. Mason Rd. Medical Office Building 4, Suite L20, Creve Coeur, MO 63141 and at the Center for Advanced Medicine on the Barnes-Jewish Hospital campus.