This is the third and final part. To read Part 1 click here. For part 2 click here

It was a suggestion by my partner that I try a chiropractor. I didn’t really have a lot to lose by this point so I made appointment at my local chiropractors. My first appointment consisted of x-rays which showed both my spine and pelvis were out of alignment. On top of this, because I’d had trouble walking for so long, that the muscles in my legs had atrophied. That was pretty upsetting to hear. When I say upsetting, I mean I absolutely sobbed all night. Nevertheless, after only three sessions I was able to sleep through the night and after three weeks (or three sessions a week) the pain disappeared completely. I was able to start walking again, though I couldn’t even manage five minutes at first. I still had limited flexibility, particularly on the left side, and some stiffness in my lower back, but gradually over the next 6 months this improved considerably, and I managed to start singing again. Initially, I still struggled with support and breathing, to the point that I would get light-headed on sustained phrases, and boy was it knackering. Regardless I continued, doing seven productions over a twelve-month period, went back to work, and managed to finish college with a distinction no less.

My problems weren’t entirely over, I still suffer from terrible cramp in my left leg, I think as a result of the muscle wastage, though it’s getting less problematic as my fitness improves and I rebuild the muscle. I also had to deal with anxiety over leaving the house and even dealing with my workload. As much as it sucked being stuck in the house there was also a sense of relief of not having any responsibility. After years of working six or even seven days a week, not having to worry about anything except my heath was a little liberating, even as the pain and the lack of surety of my future brought me back down. Suddenly dealing with a lot of singing work was a bit of a shock, not to mention finishing college, and two part-time jobs and I definitely struggled with my mental health.

I’m pleased to say though, a little over a year later and things are looking a lot better. To say this has been a tough would be like saying Brexit isn’t quite running smoothly, and while I still have to look after myself (and don’t we all), I’ve danced, been pushed around, thrown to the floor, behaved like a drunken harlot and even done the can-can (ok I know I’ve already mentioned dancing but I feel this particular one deserves a special mention) with no problem. I couldn’t have imagined that last year and seeing what I have manage to achieve in that period is incredible and I’m incredibly grateful to the family, friends and health professionals who helped me deal with it, and ultimately recover.

It hasn’t been easy writing about this, but as I said at the beginning of this endeavor, hearing about obstacles, problems, illness and injury other singers have gone through and overcome really gives you hope. It’s truly inspiring, and whilst I know that not everyone is fortunate enough to have an ending like I have, I hope that by being open about my struggles will help someone else overcome there’s. Or at the very least feel less alone.

Evolution of man showing my recovery (two legs good four leg bad!)
Evolution of Lisa

 

If you are struggling here are some links to organisations that can give you support:

British Association for Performing Arts Medicine

Help Musicians UK

Mind, the mental health charity

One thing I have found, when I relate my experience of injury to other singers, is that many of them have their own stories. Different physical problems, but the emotional effects seem universal. It takes a lot of time, money and effort to train as an opera singer and to have your body fail you is a very difficult thing to deal with. Sometimes it isn’t even a physical problem, but these are things we need to talk about. Hearing that you are not alone, and that other people have overcome problems like yours and are now enjoying success in their careers once again is both inspiring and reassuring. But it is never easy and is subsequent posts I plan to look at some of the ways we can focus on our mental health, a topic which is becoming increasingly less taboo.

As it should.

So this is what happened to me:

I realise the word “injury” conjures up certain images, like an accident on some sort. This wasn’t the case for me. It was more a case of “wear and tear” and stress. I use the word injury because of the massive impact it had on my life, and the time it took me to recover: two years.

My first term at college started well, but I had waited a long time to get there, my financial situation more or less prohibiting me from even applying. I got as a far as gaining a place for 2014, only to have to pull out two weeks prior to enrolment due to lack of funds. Simultaneously I ended up with no where to live, and I’d given up work in order to attend classes. Three months of traveling back and forth between my parent’s house over two hundred miles away and sleeping on friends’ sofas and floors, I was kindly helped by the charity Help Musicians to get myself a new place to live and managed to find some work. Unfortunately, four months after moving in I was assaulted by my flatmate and was forced to move yet again. So, there you go: stress.

Needless to say, when I finally got to go to college the following year, I wanted to make the most of it. So, I literally went for everything I could. But of course, I still had to not only pay for my fees but living expenses as well. And anyone who has been a student in London can tell you that’s no easy feat. So, between college and work I was doing seven days a week. Let’s just say it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Towards the end of the first term I woke up with a stiff lower back. I thought little of it, took some ibuprofen and carried on, business as usual. After all it had happened a couple of times before and cleared up after a couple of days. This time though it didn’t. By Christmas two weeks later, the pain had spread from my lower back, down into my left thigh. I could barely walk or stand. I kept trying to “walk” through the pain, but it didn’t help. By early February I was in so much pain, the only respite came from lying down, but trying to roll over or get up again was agony. I managed to (literally) drag myself to the doctors, who told me that bed rest would sort it out, subsequently signing me off work for two weeks. Not a great thing for a freelancer to here, but during this time my partner had to physically hold me up in order to get me around the flat, because my back muscles wouldn’t support me. Unfortunately, two weeks in bed did very little for me except make me a little sick of Netflix. By this point I was on multiple painkillers, which did little to ease the pain, but I managed to get out of the flat again and tried to get on with college and work. I would get some days which were easier, and some days which were impossible, but I carried on regardless.

"Banished" by Stephen McNeff
“Banished” July 2015 at Blackheath Halls. Photo credit: Lidia Crisafulli

I’d been cast in the college opera that year, a new commission called Banished by Stephen McNeff (which was fabulous by the way). I’m still surprised that I managed to get through all the rehearsals and performances, because not only was the pain incredibly bad, but whatever was wrong was massively limiting my movement. Not only was I having trouble walking, I couldn’t lift my left leg more than an inch or so off the floor, bending was difficult and of course moving around the stage was incredibly tricky. I was frequently late because travel was so difficult, and I admit to crying A LOT in rehearsals. I can’t thank the cast and production team for being so incredibly supportive to me at this time. It was around this time though, after multiple trips to the doctors and a couple of misdiagnoses I was eventually referred for an MRI scan which showed I had a prolapsed or “bulging” L5 disc (the lowest one) which was pressing on my S1 nerve (the sciatic nerve, which happens to be the largest single nerve in the human body) that runs right from your lower back all the way to your feet). Miraculously though, as we moved nearer to the performances the pain mysteriously disappeared and a lot of my flexibility returned, allowing me to get through the performances with little difficulty (even, very carefully, scrambling up and down ladders).

I was cured! Nope, not so. Almost as soon as the production finished the pain and stiffness returned, though thankfully to a more manageable level. It was mostly sitting for too long, which made it difficult and painful to stand again, or being on my feet too long. I still had difficulty in getting dressed some days, but it was a manageable level. I had been referred to physio which I started toward the end of the summer, which helped immensely, and I thought it was over.

I was so very wrong….

A little over a two weeks ago marked the end of Opéra de Baugé, an annual opera festival in the Loire Valley of France. Over a period of three weeks (an incredibly intense period rehearsing and performing in 38°C plus heat!) a group of professional singers, dancers, instrumentalists, conductors and technical crew put together and performed three different operas, aptly aided by a band of volunteers. Locals could come and watch the performances, enjoying a picnic in the beautiful grounds of Les Capucins, the Chateau where the opera is held. Heaven, right?

While all of this was going on a group of children, French and English combined, aged from around 7 to 11 were working on a performance of their own. These wonderful kids managed to rehearse and perform, from memory no less, children’s choruses from operas such as Carmen, La Bohème, Werther, Cavelleria Rusticana, Albert Herring and Hënsel und Gretel (just to name a few), in Italian, French, English and German, aided occasionally by some of the professional singers (including yours truly). This wonderful concert was rounded off by four of the boys singing “Ombra mai fu” from Handel’s Serse, in a beautiful finish to the performance.

Some of these kids in particular are little stars in the making, giving brilliant and even hilarious performances, but perhaps more heart-warming was seeing some of them with their parents attending the opera productions. They came to see all three: Idomeneo, Orfée aux enfers and Rigoletto, and let’s face it if you were thinking about child-friendly opera, Rigoletto certainly wouldn’t be at the top of the list. Yet there they were, sporting matching grins and clutching their programmes as they then approached the artists for their autographs. The level of joy and excitement was absolutely genuine and for a genre I’ve often heard described as elitist by the adult world, and boring by the adolescent world.

It makes me recall the wonderful film Hip Hop to Opera made by Opera Holland Park, released earlier this year. The moment that springs to mind is when this group of inner-city teens see and hear bass Simon Shibambu sing the coat aria from Puccini’s La Boheme. The sheer astonishment on their faces is something to behold and they describe is as “sublime” and say they’re “flabbergasted”. Opera might not be “pop music” any more, but it still has the power to thrill, and it can still find relevancy for upcoming generations. Not every child is going to love opera, but there are plenty who do and there is a whole spate of operas now written specifically for younger ages, or aimed at families including Jonathan Dove’s Swanhunter, Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things are based on the popular book, The Firework-Maker’s Daughter by David Bruce inspired by the Philip Pullman novel and the ever popular Noye’s Fludde by Benjamin Britten to name just a few. So much can be gained from either seeing or partaking in these operas and from the performing arts in general and I say the more the merrier!

If you haven’t had a chance to watch Hip Hop to Opera you can watch it here.