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

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 Ad

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