Waking from a disturbed dream, disoriented and upset, I stay still as the remnants of sleep creep away. Who was singing? Was the orchestra real? I take a few minutes to adjust, feeling my path back to the real world. Remembrance of my plight crowds into my mind, transporting me into the present muttering,
‘Of course not, those days are long gone.’
I find the small box on the bedside table which contains my last connection with the world of sound; my hearing aid.
As I insert it into my right ear, it warbles and tweets, reassuring me it is ready for work.
‘I’m thankful this ear works, sort of. The left is shot.’
Memories of the dream begin to stir again. I traveled, worldwide singing in the grand opera houses with the finest orchestras, how amazing it was.
‘Maestro, I’m so sorry, I won’t be in La Scala this year, or any other, anymore.’
‘That’s enough, dear, no more self-pity.’
Now classed as hearing impaired, the kindliest form of saying deaf, it makes my old life appear so distant, trivial and frivolous. It was easy to take hearing for granted, conversation with people so simple and singing, always singing since my earliest recollection. Sound, glorious sound, I rejoiced in it. All those hours spent training, practicing, committed and dedicated to opera, starting in the chorus and working up through the ranks proved rewarding. When offered my first role, excitement gripped me, and I realised this was the direction to recognition as a virtuoso.
Invitations for roles increased over the years as my reputation spread. The excitement, enjoyment and simple hard work of learning parts, studying various languages, Italian, French, Russian and the anxiety and thrill of premiers became the only way to live. The world of opera is not so different from that of a professional sports person with endless hours of practice required to stay in peak physical condition. I had to look after my voice, so late nights and parties were a treat. Constant travel and living in hotels, no matter how grand can take its toll, but Harriet’s company, companionship and loving care counteracted the grueling routine.
Losing my hearing changed my life. It declined gradually but steadily, starting with small errors and trouble deciphering speech in crowded places. Those around me proffered excuses of weariness, absent-mindedness, or the more uncharitable, arrogance. However, a time came when avoiding the issue was hopeless. This incident is memorable; it showed that something was awry. One day, preparing for a dress rehearsal, Harriet shouted over her shoulder,
‘See you in the car.’
‘No, I won’t go far’ I said.
‘What are you talking about?’ she said eyeing me with a puzzled expression,
‘I think you need your ears checked; now hurry, we’ll be late.’
Deterioration continued until roles became too difficult to perform. Although I knew them so well, keeping in time with the orchestra, recognising the cues for entrances and the subtleties of tone and timbre, all those skills disappeared and my colleagues began to notice. Rehearsal became impossible, as my voice sounded tinny and tuneless to my ears. I couldn’t pitch a note, I couldn’t hear the piano well, and it sounded like the plinking and plunking of so many out of tune tin cans.
Even more sinister was the onset of tinnitus. It began as high-pitched buzzing, softly at first but slowly increasing in volume. In retrospect, the process took a long time, years, perhaps even as far back as my first solo role in Tannhauser, involving a huge orchestra and cast. As with most Wagnerian operas, it was loud and very long. I sang that part many times, and with every season, the volume of buzzing in my head increased, together with the variety of noises. One night after a particularly memorable performance, I came off stage with the now familiar chorus continuing between my ears. Later that evening, the buzzes and throbs became so loud I was sure everyone else in the room could hear.
‘Can you hear that noise?’ I asked Harriet as she passed me a glass of champagne.
‘What noise?’ she said.
‘That buzzing and scraping’ I replied.
‘Don’t be silly; there is no buzzing, just too many drunks in here!’
Then I realised the sounds were finally too loud to ignore. That night sleep eluded me, as the assortment of squeaks, buzzes, whirring and popping sounds were worse than usual too. The more I tried to ignore them, the more insistent they became, not to be denied. Eventually, exhaustion won, and I slept, but the next morning, the interior chorus was still there, on and on, at a volume so loud, I didn’t hear the phone ringing beside my bed. Harriet bustled in.
‘Really, can’t you hear that? Do I have to do everything around here?’
Later I apologised and attempted an explanation of the interior soundscape taking over my head. Harriet listened, concern registering on her face,
‘I’ll make an appointment for you tomorrow.’
As it turned out, no appointment was available for two weeks. In the meantime, the inner chorus wailed and croaked, popping and buzzing ceaselessly, drowning out every other sound. Dr. Delany shook my hand gravely, managing a thin smile.
‘You’re having trouble, I gather.’
He blinked at me through thick spectacles.
‘Perceptive,’ I thought to myself, ‘why do you suppose I’m here?’
I explained as best I could about the menagerie inhabiting the space between my ears where once silence reigned.
‘Mmm, classic tinnitus.’
He nodded in agreement with himself.
‘Your years of exposure to sound at loud volumes have led to a deterioration of the delicate cilia lining your hearing canals,’
His elbows rested on the desk, fingertips balancing against each other.
‘What can I do?’ I blurted out; sure, that modern medicine could rescue me.
‘There is nothing to be done I’m afraid.’
He looked down his long, thin nose at me.
‘Hearings aids can help but only to a certain extent. They amplify sound for you, but there will come a time when even that won’t help much I’m afraid.’
‘What about the buzzing and squeaking?’ I asked in a trembling voice.
‘Well,’ he shifted in his chair and re-balanced his fingers,
‘You’ll find that the volume is louder when you are stressed or ill, but I’m afraid there is no cure.’
Understanding the implications and ramifications of this pronouncement took weeks to sink in. I cried and wailed. Harriet consoled me with endless cuddles and cups of tea, but eventually, I realised there was nothing to do but accept the inevitability of the diagnosis. I acquiesced and acquired my first hearing aid. I felt numb, my world shattered. I felt diminished as a person, attitudes towards me from friends and colleagues shifted. It’s not that people shunned me, but I was not the person they knew anymore; I had morphed into a being with a secret life, the life of crickets and whispers.
Since then I have had several models and updates to the original aid. After a few years, my left ear was pronounced totally deaf, but some hearing remains in my right. I hear very little though, voices sound mostly thin and tinny, only just decipherable but learning to lip-read has helped enormously. Those precious people, who look directly at me, speak slowly and are patient as I struggle to understand, are so special. Such small considerations for them mean a huge amount to me. Tinnitus remains, unwelcome, uninvited but there, there, all the time. At night especially, it drowns out sleep with its unvarying insistence, needing acknowledgment. I try listening to it; I try ignoring it, now it is my constant companion and more faithful even than dear Harriet.
Once my voice soared effortlessly over the orchestra, Puccini and Verdi were my favourite composers. Their delightful melodies are unfortunately becoming a distant memory. The music itself is impossible to listen to; it has lost its tunefulness, its colour and tone. I no longer have the ability to decode its delicacy, its subtlety, its power. Silence has come to this songbird.
I live now with memories of those glory days; not bitter, but I do wish for one moment that I could hear my beloved Mozart just one more time. However, with time comes acceptance. My dear Harriet is still my most loyal beloved; she encouraged me to learn sign language, so communication with profoundly and life-long hearing-impaired people are possible. Learning their stories and learning how they feel has been such an informative and interesting journey.
Now I realise that hearing is a very small part of the total world of human senses. Being able to read people’s faces, their body language and minute changes of expression give me so much insight, into their psyche, more than hearing them speak. Before I never really looked at those I was communicating with and missed the myriad signals being given off. The slight smile, rising of an eyebrow or turn of an eye tells the trained observer more than minutes of speech.
There is so much to explore in this new state in which I find myself and possessing some fame from my past life helps to open up new opportunities for others. Together, Harriet and I have formed a benevolent trust to help musicians in ill health, and I realise that my experience is increasingly common. I contribute as much as I can by speaking at functions to increase understanding of the finality of the loss of hearing in all its guises.
We still travel the world to visit the dear friends we have made, but opera is no longer on the itinerary. We are far too busy with this new direction; there is so much to do and so much to achieve. New friendships enrich our lives and constantly surprise with their depth of insight and understanding of others’ situations.