Working with an arsenal of high-tech diagnostic equipment, Kessler assesses the trouble and then dials through a laundry list of traditional and natural remedies, including humidification, antibiotics and, if the situation warrants, referring a patient for surgery. (He stopped operating about four years ago.) Kessler considers himself “aggressive” medically—especially if a curtain call is looming. “I would rather give the medicine that might not be needed as opposed to finding out later that they should have been on something three days ago,” he says. “I don’t want to overmedicate, but I want to get results quickly.”
Naturally, the stakes are sky-high when A-list voices are in play, a fact Kessler knows all too well. In the late Nineties, he was sued by Julie Andrews, who alleged that she wasn’t sufficiently briefed about the potential downside of an operation he performed to remove noncancerous nodules from her throat. Andrews claimed the surgery resulted in permanent damage to those legendary Mary Poppins pipes. The case was settled out of court in 2000, and while he refuses to discuss the matter, Kessler does concede that it still saddens him.
Since the early days of Kessler’s career, the field of “voice medicine” has all but exploded. “When I first started, there were only a few doctors—maybe three or four—at the A-list level,” he says. “Now every hospital has a voice center.” And thanks to the advent of American Idol, YouTube and countless cable channels, there are more showcases for singers than ever. Kessler counts at least one Idol spawn—Clay Aiken—as a patient, and at times he has ministered to the entire Broadway casts of such shows as Wicked and Hairspray. In appreciation for his hand-holding, his patients pile on the comp tickets. “I don’t want to feel like I’m too old, but I just can’t go out every night,” says Kessler, a father of two and an accomplished illustrator whose strangely beautiful renderings of the human body have appeared in several medical textbooks. “My wife and I will go if there’s an opening night invitation, which is always pretty glorious,” he admits. “And we’ll go to concerts when Madonna is in town, or Mariah.”
During a performance of Der Rosenkavalier at the Met years ago, Kessler nursed mezzo-soprano Tatiana Troyanos backstage. “She was sick as a dog,” he says, “but she was determined to go on.” As the curtain was about to rise, Troyanos asked Kessler to help her to the stage: “As we got closer, her sinuses dried up, her face lit up, she started taking deep breaths. I’m not spiritual, but it was like watching a miracle.” She brought down the house. “She was just magnificent,” he says, smiling at the memory. “So resonant, so full.”