No, I haven’t won the lottery and decided to gallivant around the planet for a year! The truth behind the meaning is one that ‘us singers’ shouldn’t really discuss.
Two years ago I was offered two roles with Opera Holland Park; one smaller part in Wolf-Ferrari’s I Gioielli Della Madonna and the second as Cio Cio San in their young artist version of Madame Butterfly.
I finally felt like I was taking the steps to where I wanted to be, but all the while something was lurking in the depths…
I began my singing escapades at Sheffield University almost by chance. I’d always sung for fun, and took acting a lot more seriously, but spent my first year as a pianist until I was dragged along by a friend to an audition for a contemporary opera about Henry VIII and his six wives. ‘The odds aren’t bad for being offered a role’, I thought!
Back then, I didn’t sing above a C above middle C. Seriously. I’d already had soft nodules once *shock horror*, but they’d come back, and I had just thought it was an allergy to smoke (in those ghastly days before the ban). Every time I returned from a night out, I sounded like someone who should be working for a night-time call centre, if you catch my drift!
Speech therapy was again underway, and after time, my range increased to one of a healthy mezzo-soprano. It was great to have those notes back, but every time I sang for a decent amount of time – say, an hour’s coaching session, or a particularly strenuous rehearsal, my voice would gradually become husky and the following day I was left with no head voice. That would last for about three days, or longer if I didn’t rest my voice and hydrate myself to the point of explosion!
Somehow, I managed to keep this under wraps and my voice became my new instrument of choice. In all honesty, I didn’t know it wasn’t normal for me to lose my voice as I always had done since first losing it at football match when I was 15 years old (I always knew Crystal Palace FC would have a lot to answer for).
Fresh out of uni, I tried my luck and it turned out I had something about me which opera companies quite liked. I did a couple of tours for some small-scale companies up north and then was offered a place in the 2007 Aldeburgh Festival Chorus which were also fortunate enough to collaborate with the Bregenz Festspiel. Not bad for a 22-year-old who’d only been singing for a year and a bit.
I’d fallen in love with singing. It was a no brainer for me; act and sing at the same time, and dress up in costumes; what’s not to love?! I figured it was time to take it seriously and auditioned for some postgraduate vocal courses in London and gained a place at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
All the while, though, I was still losing my voice. The same pattern: sing for a while, my voice would warm down, get husky, and bang goes that head voice for three days. How I covered it up for a decade I’ll have no idea, but it became a real worry and I sought professional advice.
Apparently I had silent reflux.
Yes, we’ve all heard of it, many of us suffered from it, and the fact it is named ‘silent’ seems somewhat ironic.
I started off on the usual Omeprazole and Gaviscon. It didn’t really help. Then I started to get these non-silent symptoms of heartburn and acid indigestion which was less fun, so back to the consultant I went for a gastroscopy. They doubled my dose of omeprazole both morning and night, suggested the usual Gaviscon as and when I needed it (I must own shares in that bloody company by now!) and then a tiny little innocent looking drug called Domperidone. Not champagne I’m afraid, but essentially an anti-sickness drug that stopped anything from coming up and I was to take one of those every time I practiced or sang at length. By the time I was on the opera course, that was quite a lot. A flippant comment from my ENT stated that the possible long-term effects of taking that drug can lead to Parkinson’s disease, so I wasn’t overly keen on continuing with that one for longer than necessary.
Alongside all these pills was the standard advice: raise the bed head, don’t eat after 7pm (does anybody else find that difficult as a jobbing musician?!), cut out caffeine, fatty foods, fizzy drinks. Some people find citrus bad, others cucumber… It got a bit ridiculous, to be frank.
I did all I could, though; gluten-free diets, took supplements until they were falling out of my eyeballs, read up information on forums (joking aside, carrot juice is NOT the answer to everything!) and eventually followed a path that lead me to very nearly having a bracelet of magnets being tied around my oesophagus which would supposedly make it all stop, but I wasn’t suitable for the op. A sign from above, perhaps?
I found myself feeling miserable most of the time, never really knowing when I’d wake up with no voice and be that ‘unreliable singer’ that everyone avoids like the plague. I’d also stopped living life as a twenty something year-old should. I didn’t go out and socialise, never drunk a drop of alcohol, monitored my diet to the point of obsession and consequently lost so much weight, my Mum thought I had stopped eating altogether. I even avoided speaking on the phone. I was, however, managing to get good work after leaving college even after making the transition from mezzo to lyric soprano, but I still worried ALL the time. I had become the singer I never wanted to be; neurotic and all-consumed by my trade, but not in a good way. This was not what I signed up for.
But when you spend a decade dedicated solely to making it all happen, you can’t just give up. And to be fair, music had been my whole life since the age of four, so I felt I had no option but to crack on.
October 11th 2012, the afternoon of a Traviata performance in Inverness with Scottish Opera, I returned back to my B&B after lunch with one over-riding, consistently familiar thought: ‘my voice doesn’t feel right, my head voice won’t come out. What do I do? I’ll drink a sea of water and that will help… pop some antacids on top of my ridiculous number of prescribed meds.’ I started to feel dizzy.
I’d had a fit and had woken up in an ambulance. A passer-by thought I was drunk (if only!) but saw me shaking violently and, to their better judgement, called 999.
All bashed up with cuts and bruises, and two huge whacks to my chin on a wall and my head on the pavement, I regained consciousness and jolted upwards: ‘I have a show tonight. I need to get to the theatre’. I couldn’t even remember my name or age for the first few minutes, but I knew I had to get back to work. The show must go on, right?
I spent a couple of nights in hospital occasionally accompanied by the company manager. She was a star, but no substitute for my Mum! Staring at those ward walls gave for some good thinking time. They couldn’t find anything wrong as such, and asked if I was stressed. I chuckled. It was like my body was shutting down. The ultimate excuse for not being able to perform without having to admit ‘I HAVE CHRONIC REFLUX AND I CAN’T DO ANYTHING ABOUT IT’.
It was after six weeks of learning Madame Butterfly for Opera Holland Park that I knew I no-longer had it in me. Singing, and everything associated with it, made me sad. So sad. Nights crying to my ever-supportive boyfriend knowing I just had to make that decision and pull the plug. So I did, and now I don’t sing anymore.
I miss it every day. The joy that comes from expressing yourself by letting that sound out I so often crave for. Still wanting to support my wonderful friends, I attend their performances and silently sigh inside. I don’t even listen to opera in my spare time anymore; when I hear it, I feel betrayed.
In the grand scheme of things, it’s no big deal and I do know that. People start new careers every day, but I still feel hard done by. I never really acknowledged it as being akin to a pro footballer breaking his leg and never being able to play his beloved game again but I guess it’s pretty much the same. So now I teach singing, because I’ve done it on the side for years anyway, but it doesn’t satiate my love for performing. I’m also retraining to be an interior designer because I love the creativity side of things, but it doesn’t yet quench my thirst for expressing myself in the visceral way that singing that money note did. In my own eyes, I’ll always be the one that failed; didn’t make it; fell by the wayside. I do, though – despite my ramblings here – have perspective on it all and am forever grateful for all the wonderful things I do have in my life, and the fact that I even got to live my dream for a relatively short while was a blessing. Change can be exciting, and I urge myself to look at this situation in a positive light. I’m grateful, too, that I didn’t get further down the road and have to face an even bigger heart break.
It’s taken me two years to write this down and face it in black and white. It got me thinking: ‘how many singers has this happened to?’. Not just reflux, necessarily, but other issues that have got in the way of a blossoming career. How many of those felt they couldn’t divulge and share their experience, even if it were just a temporary blip? The stress in itself that comes from holding back the truth is enough to drive anyone mad!
And it’s not just singers. It’s all musicians and entertainers. Sportsmen. Carpenters that lose a thumb (I jest not; it happened to a friend of a friend just a few months back). Anyone who is prevented from doing what they love because of an insurmountable hurdle. In a day and age where careers are so important to so many, why – in college – for example, did they not tell us how to prepare for the career not happening? What to do when your voice isn’t at its optimum. Why didn’t they encourage us to not put all our eggs in one basket, as truthfully, anything can really happen. How many of us are ever ready for that kind of curve ball?
I so often hear of successful singers having to take time out on the quiet. In fact, on my own journey, I sought hushed advice from a few very inspiring individuals who had faced their own troubles, but it’s not out there to discuss freely. The subject is always taboo – vocal health in particular – and I’d love that to change; starting right at the bottom, in colleges, to the top, at the big opera houses, where they can be accepting of the fact that we are only human and, if you excuse the expression, ’shit happens’. It doesn’t make you bad at your job. In fact, I would go so far as to say it will make you a better singer and stronger individual if you come out the other side. Talking and sharing would lessen the burden for a lot of us, and then we could all sing a little bit better. Surely that’s the point?!
If you’ve struggled through – no matter what career – please share your story, and anonymously if you prefer. It’s incredibly cathartic, and others will feel a little better about their trials if they know they’re not the only ones to have been through these experiences.
Thanks for reading.
Kathryn McAdam – AKA ‘Soprano on sabbatical’