My brain surgery Aria

Slovenian opera singer Ambroz Bajec-Lapajne shot to fame this year when a video of his brain tumour operation, during which he performs Schubert’s Gute Nacht, went viral. We caught up with him recently to get the behind the scenes story, and find out what he’s learned about health, well-being and YouTube fame.

iSing: So tell us a bit about your early career: how did you get into singing?

Ambrož Bajec-Lapajne: I used to be a ballroom dancer, so I started my singing career quite late. When I stopped dancing, there was a friend of mine who wanted to sing in a university choir in Slovenia. So I went with her to the audition, and they asked me if I wanted to audition as well. And I said ‘I don’t really know what I’m doing here, but ok!’ And then I started singing in that choir, and it was an amazing experience. The first time I sang with them, there were eighty people around me singing the same song, and I had goosebumps all over. I thought ‘This is what I want to do with my life.’ So then I suppose my destiny in music was sealed from that point on.

iSing: Then you discovered that you had brain cancer. How did you find out?

ABL: I didn’t know what was going on for quite a while. I was standing on stage one day, and singing a duet, and suddenly I couldn’t breathe properly. That had never happened to me before, and I remember thinking ‘This is really weird.’ I thought it was something to do with nerves or emotion or something. Looking back now, I realise that was my first epileptic seizure. The seizures started to become more and more regular and it really started to affect my performances. So I went to the doctor and then a neurologist, and they ran some tests. The MRI showed a huge tumour in my brain.

iSing: So you’re going to have surgery – and you decide to sing throughout the operation! How did that come about?

ABL: When I went to see my neurosurgeon, she already knew that I was a singer, and she advised me that because singing is so complex, and requires so many different muscles and capabilities – language, diaphragm control, control of the voice box, and so on – that it would be best for me to sing throughout the surgery, to prevent the chance of my vocal cords being severed during the opera-tion. The team wanted to make sure that they didn’t touch anything that was vital for my singing. So I was all for it, really.

iSing: What was the experience actually like?

ABL: I was completely aware of what was happening the whole time, and obviously it takes quite a while. It wasn’t very pleasant, but I knew that already. I’d prepared myself psychologically by doing as much research as I could beforehand, and watching videos online, that sort of thing.

iSing: Would you say the operation has affected you and your career?

ABL: Yes, definitely. There have actually been so many positive effects. For example, I don’t care so much about the little things anymore, the things that used to irritate me. I don’t let them get to me. You start to think, what’s a little stage fright, compared to what I’ve been through? So it gives you perspective.

I try to think that not every concert or performance that I do is the most important one of my life, which is what I used to think. I try not to worry too much if things don’t go as well as I would like them to. There’s less pressure there now. And I don’t go for everything that I’m offered. Now I think about whether it would fit in with my life, with my schedule. Before, I always used to be juggling all these different things – now, I just don’t put myself in that position. I want to spend time with the people I love and with friends. My priorities are different now. I’m not as career-driven as I was before. I don’t jump at everything that is offered to me.

iSing: The video has made quite an impact online. What has been your experience of the response?

ABL: I’ve been stunned by the response. Even in the comments online, I was amazed by how much in-terest it’s generated and how nice people are. It’s brought me into contact with people who have experienced similar things, too: like there was an organist who was operated on by the same team, who played the keyboard while he was having his operation! He reached out to me, and we’ve been in contact. Also, another singer from India reached out to me, who had also had a brain tumour – these things really bring people together.

And because it’s singing and singing is so primordial – everyone has a voice – it touched so many people on so many completely different levels. It engaged all sorts of people, from those who were interested in the medical side of things, to those who just wanted to comment and say, ‘You have a great voice.’ It’s reached such a vast community.

iSing: Given your experience, what would you say to singers, in terms of looking after themselves and their bodies?

ABL: You really have to listen to your own body. When I had the first meeting with the neurologist, she told me she was going to show me where the brain tumour was on the screen. And I just touched the right side of my head, above the ear, and I said, ‘It’s here, isn’t it?’ And she looked at me and said, ‘How did you know that?’ and I said, ‘I just know that there’s something there.’ There was something not quite right. So, I would say get to know yourself. Know what your body needs, how it reacts to different foods, different situations. Know what happens to your voice if you go out and you have to talk loudly – that always makes me hoarse, for example. So if I have a big concert coming up, I don’t go out to noisy pubs the night before, because it will end up affecting my voice. So I would say, know yourself and know what you like and follow that.


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Christine Gilland is a freelance writer and editor who moved to London from Australia in search of adventure and is now living in South East London. She trained as a classical singer and loves the fact that she gets to meet interesting artists, write about music and call it a job.