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After losing his voice to cancer, tenor Toby Spence learns how to sing again

Monday - 1/14/2013, 8:28am  ET

After spending a year regaining his voice, English tenor Toby Spence will perform at the Kennedy Center this week. (Courtesy of Mitch Jenkins)

Heather Brady,

WASHINGTON - When Toby Spence was diagnosed with thyroid cancer last year, his first response was denial.

The 43-year-old lyric tenor from England had built a life around his voice. The diagnosis and the need for surgery meant the muscles near his vocal chords would have to be cut so the cancer in his throat could be removed.

When he awoke after six hours of surgery and four hours of recovery, he discovered he had almost no voice at all.

"The horror began to dawn on me that I might lose my voice forever," Spence said in a phone interview from London. "I was worried that it was the end."

Nearly a year later, Spence will make his recital debut at the Kennedy Center Wednesday.

The journey back from what Spence calls a dark despair was built around his rehabilitation and learning how to sing again.

"When you can barely string two notes together, it comes home as a big shock," he says. "I suppose after nearly 20 years of singing, you lose sight of how far you've come as a performer (and) almost as an athlete as well in the musculature of the voice."

Spence says it was like being plunged down a mountain back to its base and then realizing how far he had climbed before. Luckily, David Pollard, the singing instructor who helped rehabilitate Spence's voice last year, had worked with people who lost their voice in similar ways.

"Having to learn singing was like walking out into the abyss -- I've never done it before," Spence says. "David very calmly led me through that darkness."

Pollard used a two-pronged approach that focused on physical and psychological aspects of Spence's recovery. He encouraged Spence to experiment with new, extreme sounds that Spence says were outside the envelope of his capabilities to help him rebuild his voice and the muscles that support it. But he also kept Spence calm.

"David always encouraged me to look at what has been achieved, and not what was yet to be achieved, to see how far we had come rather than look at how far we had to go," Spence says. "The healing process that I've been through physically has mirrored the healing process that I went through vocally."

There was a sense of urgency throughout Spence's recovery. Spence was set to make his debut at New York City's Metropolitan Opera in November 2012, singing the role of Antonio in Thomas Adčs' version of "The Tempest." Before Spence traveled to the United States, Met staff told Spence they would support him and wanted him to sing the part.

It was a race against time for Spence to get ready, but when he performed the role, he found that he could sing it without needing to adjust for vocal problems.

Shortly after he finished "The Tempest," Spence held a recital at The Frick Collection in New York using the same program he performed at a festival in Edinburgh, Scotland before coming to the city.

"When I did it in Edinburgh, the program gave me a lot of challenges," he says. "When I got to do the same program in New York after having strived to do the role at the Met … I found that the singing of the same program was infinitely easier."

The recital was a quantum leap, and he was overwhelmed with emotion when it ended.

"What led to the emotion afterwards was that I enjoyed doing the recital," he says. "I hadn't enjoyed singing since before my operation."

Last week, Spence went to a hospital in England to receive his last round of cancer treatment. He brought music with him and practiced singing in his private room for the upcoming Kennedy Center recital.

Spence says his piece "Zápisník zmizelého" (The Diary of One Who Disappeared) by Leos Janáček is magical because it is so human. He has performed it a few times before and says his understanding of the music only deepens when he performs it again. But Janáček's piece is poignant for him now because it balances emotions with a physical element, similar to the balance Spence's instructor strove for as he helped Spence recover.

"The music beautifully matches the extreme emotions that are contained in the piece," he says. "But Janáček, in dealing with his story, takes it further and deals with also the physical aspect of love. That's manifest in a movement which is only played by the piano, not sung at all, which comes at the heart of the piece."

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