An Opera Singer's Facial Cancer
And Life Transposed
REARRANGED tells of leaving the operatic stage for a starring role opposite the Big C. Bone cancer in my cheek ended my career as an opera singer and brought me face to face with mortality, disfigurement, the meaning and uses of beauty—and a lot of left over pieces.
A small corps of medical elites convened to excoriate my diseased bones with surgical wizardry and lethal toxins, and stayed on to restore me to myself through a brutal alchemy of kindness and titanium screws.
REARRANGED is a tale of letting go to hold on, of putting old pieces to new uses—and of the unlikely arrangements that make it all work out.
READ AN EXCERPT:
THE DENTAL DRAMA SUBSIDED while we awaited my test results, and Evie and I returned to our happy status quo for a couple of weeks. Evie juggled legal taxonomies. Our pair of sibling tabbies did silly, endearing things, daily refreshing us, Evie especially. I returned to my day job as a magazine assistant art director, and by night, I took my turn on the Metropolitan Opera stage.
Most Extra Choristers come to both rehearsals and performances directly from our day jobs, briefcase or messenger bag in hand. One baritone I knew took to his cell phone whenever possible, to resume brokering real estate deals. Between cues, an alto beside me often pulled out a red felt-tip and a folder of first drafts.
Veteran Regular Choristers have lots of ways to occupy off-stage downtime during performances, notwithstanding a strict morals clause in the bylaws of this job—which entails, among other things, recurrent states of partial undress. For example, a few guys I knew carefully hung up their costumes to join a standing poker game in the dressing-room in their undershorts, while principals onstage engaged in love, death, high notes, etc. Some singers took to their cubbies to finish household paperwork or study the music for an upcoming performance. Some liked to grab supper or a snack in the cafeteria. Others I knew snuck a shot of schnapps. But in the first productions of my first season, I always watched the stage from the wings, rapt in the offstage darkness, intoxicated by the nearness of world-class artists, on every side, all evening long.
“The child is alive!” whispered a tenor friend, watching me gawk.
So she was. In one extraordinary performance, during a long scene for principals only, I found myself alone in the wings behind the fantastical three-story-high Zeffirelli set of Puccini’s Turandot, as international-superstar-tenor Placido Domingo began his big aria, the famous “Nessun dorma”. I had to tear myself away and hurry into position for my next chorus entrance. My path took me across a wide vault of darkness, toward a faint spillover of light from the stagedoor.
Out on stage, Mr. Domingo was coming into the stretch, orchestra mounting beneath his voice, urging onward, “Vincero-o-h…” gathering upward, “Vincero-o-o-h…” and finally resolving, “Vi-i-i-n-[atch]-E-E-E-E-EH-r-o-o-o-o-h!” A frenzy of wild applause and bravos did not wait for the triumphant coda in the orchestra.
As the ecstasy in the audience burst over the orchestra, over the tenor, and into the wings, the stage door swung open. Silhouetted in the backlight from the hallway was Dame Gwyneth Jones, Ice Princess of the evening. In resplendent costume and bejeweled headdress, her silky sleeves spread wide upon the doorjamb. I had the fleeting impression the explosive applause was for her, rather than the tenor, and the roaring ovation, my own bliss flowing toward her.
Dame Gwyneth checked her step as I veered aside, grateful to be swallowed in shadows. She continued to her marks on stage as I did to mine, concluding an interval which to me seemed the epitome of Gesamtkunstwerk—Richard Wagner’s coinage for the layered, all-embracing experience of high arts and artists, altogether, all at once. And proving to me that I was exactly where I was meant to be.
As I waited for my next dentist appointment, I began preparing my annual Met re-audition, coming up in three weeks. One evening, routinely checking the answering machine on the shelf by the kitchen, Evie and I heard the subdued voice of the New England oral surgeon:
I apologize for my delay in calling and for delivering this important news in a recording, but I believe you need to know that you have cancer, and time is of the essence.
Evie blanched. I equivocated, remaining calm. Weirdly calm. I returned the call.
“I used my privileges at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology to confirm your diagnosis before calling,” said the oral surgeon, explaining the delay. He had spared me a costly time-sink of inconclusive analyses.
“Thank you, Doctor,” I said, a line of dry recitative, advancing the plot.
He read to us from the pathology report:
Well-differentiated chondrosarcoma... low-grade malignant proliferations... Most unusual... possible extension of a neoplasm into the gingival tissue... Deeper excision of the bone... Additional neoplastic tissue.
I wasn’t following very well. But his words began to add up.
“So, you’re saying. . .”
He’d mentioned cancer before, I guess, but. . . Cancer? Hmm. . . Cancer. Geez.
“Well. Thank you, Doctor,” I said with unnatural detachment, trying to match his gravitas. “So... What now?”
“Oh! Why,” he cried, “you have to get to a head and neck surgeon! Right away!”
“Yes, of course,” I said. “Thank you, Doctor.”
He said goodnight with warm good wishes.
A head-and-neck-surgeon. Is that even a thing? Do people know about this? I heard the term only in a category of oddness. Head and Neck Surgeon. Big and Tall Men. The Great and Powerful Oz. Wherever would I find one?
On national television at the time, the President of the United States was giving evasive answers to impertinent questions about his skeevy sex life. Absurdity was everywhere. And I had no idea how to play my part. I hung up and turned to Evie. She looked small, gathered into herself and pale, her rosy accents gone gray.
“What now?” I repeated.
During the last year of my mother’s gruelingly protracted illness, my father briefly made a practice of calling me at my day job in Manhattan. A casual chat at lunch time, just to check in, though we had never chatted casually, ever, in our fraught relationship. He kept me abreast of developments at home, and of how he was holding up, caring for my mother mostly by himself.
On the day my mother died, my father said into the telephone, with his essential preciseness, “Kath. Your mother stopped breathing at one o’clock.”
His inflection betrayed the daily domestic strain, but nothing unusual. I’d grown accustomed to a measure of martyrdom in my father, not wholly undeserved, I grant—after long years of my mother’s struggle with Type 1 diabetes, the relentless cycles of hope and disappointment, collapse and recovery, spiraling ever downward.
That day I didn’t grasp his meaning. Fumbling for phrases to wrap up our make-believe father-daughter chat, my mind full of childish resentments, I heard myself say,
“Yeah? Hmm. And then what?”
And then what!
It was crushingly inappropriate, but I simply had not understood. My Dad’s delivery of this shattering news sounded so like the many times before when he had overstated my mother’s latest emergency, almost willing her deliverance—and his own deliverance. I was sure he would go on to tell me her breathing had resumed within minutes without intervention. I even braced to hear him say he’d saved a few dollars by cutting back the home health aides’ hours that week.
“Well, she’s dead!” choked my father, gorge rising in a noise unfamiliar to me, sounding something like surrender to an old and bitter foe.
I thought of the Witch’s Castle troops in MGM’s Oz, the craggy Captain of the Winkie Guards, in his ridiculous uniform, gazing up from his knees beside the puddle of the Wicked Witch of the West. She’s dead! Frightened. Amazed. Delivered. But too craggy and formerly mean to evoke much sympathy for himself.
“And then what,” I had said into the yawning abyss of my father’s loss. The surprise and helplessness in his voice chastened me and splintered my heart.
And now to the physician whose lot it had been to deliver my death sentence, I had said, almost as carelessly, “What now?”
An opera singer's facial cancer
And life transposed