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Pained Notes

Marni Nixon is probably best known as the voice of Audrey Hepburn’s Eliza Doolittle in the film version of My Fair Lady . She continues her own stage career as well — most recently in a nationwide tour as Frau Schneider in Cabaret .

“Smog is the reason I don’t live in Los Angeles any more,” writes Nixon. “My children and grandchildren are now in the L.A. area; my husband wants me to move back. I could be busy with, maybe, other things besides what I do in New York, with more movies and TV. But I hate the smog.”

From time to time she receives offers of employment in Los Angeles. “I know, it always seems attached to a PR person who keeps implying that it is getting better and better, but that’s ridiculous as far as I’m concerned, and you may quote me.

“Smog affects the membranes of my throat,” she rants on. “It dries it out and makes everything hurt. I cough, and the sinuses get all messed up. Yes, I could take pills, I guess, to moisturize and deaden and coat. But it still hurts to sing when there’s smog in the air.”

There’s no question that the presence of particulate matter in the atmosphere, in whatever concentration, presents a singer — and especially a singer of classical music where exact realization of what the composer has set down on paper is of some importance — with a certain handicap. “Think of the body as a sound-producing mechanism: the generator, the vibrator and the resonator,” says David Alessi, a Beverly Hills physician with an ear-nose-throat specialty. “Any impurities that get into that chain of events along the way are going to clog the process, both the input and the output.”

The more singers you talk to, the more the impression emerges of Los Angeles as a prime booby trap for anyone who contemplates a serious vocal career. If the smog doesn’t get you, says Rhonda Dillon, who sang major roles and covered others for three years during the first run of Phantom of the Opera at the Ahmanson Theater downtown, the Santa Anas will. “Those dry winds got to me while I was still a vocal student at USC. Smog is one great enemy; the other is mucus. You choke on one, or you drown in the other. Early on, the most important thing you study is your own body.”

Natalie Limonick, the charming, smiling, white-haired woman emanating wisdom that you hear at nearly every vocal performance in the area, echoes her advice. Before your time and mine, she produced some of the best student opera performances in Southern California. “Even before you start to sing,” Limonick says, “you fortify yourself against the dangers by developing a strong speaking voice — like yours, for example. Better than anything you can take to medicate yourself — better than antihistamines, or cortisone, or Alkalol, or anything the allergists will prescribe — you work on yourself to fortify those membranes, and you have a chance against those impurities.”

No other hope? “Sure,” says David Alessi, “but it’s not very practical: maximum hydration. The more moisture you can create around yourself, the less you’ll be affected by outside impurities. That’s why people sing in the shower, after all. Surrounded by moisture, the human voice takes on a lot more resonance — men more than women. Equip our opera houses with a continual onstage water spray, and singers won’t have any problems with smog.”