The life of Brazilian tenor Ricardo Tamura has been full of unexpected twists, beginning with the fact that he never imagined he would become an opera singer. A gifted scientist who earned two bachelor’s degrees in geology and physics by the age of 20, he began taking voice lessons for the sheer pleasure of singing, and ended up studying at the Juilliard School in New York as well as privately with famed soprano Licia Albanese and, eventually, in Italy under the guidance of illustrious tenor Carlo Bergonzi. He settled in Europe as his international career blossomed, and has lived primarily in Germany, performing throughout Europe as well as in South America and Asia. In 2013, he made his Metropolitan Opera debut as Mario Cavaradossi in Tosca, returning in subsequent years for additional leading roles. 2017 brought Ricardo a second chance at life as he miraculously survived a near-death experience. I am grateful that he took the time to talk to me about that and about the current challenges of living as a freelance performing artist in Germany.
You live in Nuremberg. Please give us a sense of how the situation is there and throughout Germany. How is the vaccine process going?
The coronavirus crisis has been catastrophic for the performing arts in Germany. Singing is currently for the most part “forbidden” in closed environments. Most theaters have been, therefore, unable to do any performances. Singers with a “Festengagement” (permanent engagement in an opera company) who work on a yearly basis, are still being paid, with relief-money from the Central Government. But for freelancers the market has broken down, and there are no big perspectives of a quick return to normality. Some timid attempts have been made by some opera houses, but opportunities are very scarce. A few colleagues have done open-air performances in big gardens, or even in parking lots (singing for cars!). But real opera performances have become rare in Europe, as a whole. However, different European countries have been adopting different approaches to the crisis, and, in a few of them, some “almost normal” theatre performances have taken place.
The vaccine-question is also a big one: there has been evidence that the vaccine does not prevent that a person could get the virus and be contagious. So, the possibility remains that even a vaccinated singer could still infect the audience through his/her exhalation while singing, and this, if confirmed, would not improve the theaters’ situation in any way. Leaving aside the issue of some heavy side-effects, which apparently have been more and more frequently observed, as well as the actual efficacy of the vaccines, we still have the problem that not enough vaccine units are available in Germany, and the vaccination has been proceeding quite slowly.
Are you able to travel?
Traveling within the German borders is still possible, but European travel on land or by plane has become quite difficult.
In 2017 you experienced a miracle, a “second birth” as you have called it. You had a stroke that could have ended it all, yet not only did you recover almost fully but you started singing better. Please tell us about this incredible comeback from being on the edge of death. And how are you feeling now?
On October 1st, 2017, I suffered a massive brain hemorrhage (hemorrhagic stroke). The emergency care doctors told my wife that she should not expect me to survive, for the damage to the brain had been huge. According to them, even if I, somehow, managed to survive, I would most likely be completely unable to live a normal life, with heavily impaired ability to move, speak, remember or understand. However, to everyone’s surprise, I woke up at the hospital seeming “perfectly normal.” Although I still felt really weird, I could move, walk and talk normally, and I could understand and remember everything! From my perspective, this was a real miracle, and I began considering that date as my second birth! Of course, the big brain damage had consequences, but these are invisible to other people: nobody can tell that I have ever had a stroke, just by meeting me for a short time. The main damage occurred in my visual cortex, and even this is very hard to describe. Apparently, I have gotten “holes” in my visual field: the eyes see everything, but the brain cannot process information coming from those “holes.”
I don’t actually see “dark holes,” because the brain fills in the gaps, based on the information from my surroundings, just like a photo-processing software. If, for example, I look at a roadway, I see no interruptions, but a continuous picture. But if a dog would run across the road in front of the areas of my vision where the “holes” are, I wouldn’t see it because my brain doesn’t know that the dog is there as it completes the picture. This, of course, has a number of neurological and neuropsychological consequences, but I am progressively learning to cope with them. Here is one of the curious examples: apparently, our brain compares what it sees right now with what it has seen a few seconds ago. If the images are identical, the brain assumes that nothing has changed, and we are still in the same place and the same situation. If the images do not coincide, though, the brain assumes that the outside situation has changed and concludes that we are at a different place, which it recognizes, by using its recorded memories.
In my case (because of the “holes”), whenever I move my head to a different direction and back – unless the “holes” go back to the exact same position – the brain doesn’t recognize anymore the place where I am and tries to identify the location by means of visual cues it recognizes in sections of the whole picture. So, it is common for me to be walking on a street in Nuremberg and suddenly get the impression from my brain that I am actually in another city. Because a certain wall, a window or the pavement are very similar to other stored pictures in my memory. Consciously, I KNOW that I am still in Nuremberg, but it FEELS as if I were in Cardiff, or Verona or São Paulo, depending on what familiar visual information hits the brain. Even though this can be quite annoying, and even dangerous, I consider it a very small price to pay for having no other handicaps. And I have no complaints!
Were the doctors able to explain how you survived? What saved you?
What actually saved me remains a mystery. The hemorrhage had caused a “ventricular collapse” in the brain, which is virtually as bad as such a stroke can get. The “massive damage” had taken place, even though I got immediate help. My wife reacted very quickly, the ambulance was fast, and the emergency doctors who took care of me were wise: they inserted a drainage tube into my skull and were able to take a lot of blood out of it. The remaining blood created a “hole” in my brain that was about the size of a tennis ball! But, somehow, all this damage did not cause any loss of the visible brain functions.
I can think of two explanations, but none of them is very solid. The first, more “scientific” one: it is known that musicians’ brains, and also the brains of children who learn a lot at an early age, have an abnormally large number of synapses—this can protect the brain from damage when such a stroke happens. Having been a child who could read and write at two-and-a-half years of age, and a musician, I might have gotten an extra amount of protection, which might have saved me…. Or the second, the more “esoteric” explanation: maybe my time was not up yet! Although I had never really been afraid of dying, the possibility of dying alone without saying goodbye to anyone or even making a sound was a very terrifying feeling for me, and it strongly motivated me to do everything that I could in order to come back and say farewell the right way. About two days after leaving the stroke unit, while still at the hospital, I suddenly felt I was going to make it. And about a week later, I was sure I would go back to the stage. I believe that my story is (probably) not over yet.
You mentioned that, after the stroke, your relationship with your voice improved greatly. In particular, this past year of isolation, reflection, and experimentation has crystallized your understanding of operatic singing at an even deeper level. What did you discover?
I grew up to be a scientist. Changing to a career in opera was a big “accident” that I had never planned or intended. From my beginnings as a singer, it had always bothered me that there is not a 100% way to predict how a sound will be coming out of my mouth before it comes out. Some methods of technical thinking work most of the time, but none work all the time. Countless times in my life have I said ‘Oh, now I understand what I need to do, when I sing,’ just to find out that, a month later, that method did not work in the same way anymore. It is often possible to sing in an acceptable way, but the way to “sing perfectly” feels differently all the time.
This state of things is not acceptable for someone who grew up in the inevitability of mathematics or physics. And, so, I have always dedicated a big part of my life to understand what really happens with the voice. In 2016, I took up a teaching job at the Berlin Opera Academy; supposed to be—before Covid—a yearly summer teaching program. There, I had to teach young singers from different parts of the world, of all kinds of different backgrounds, how to dramatically improve their singing, in just a few lessons over a few weeks. I had to really dive into the subject and, combining information from many different sources together with my own experience and scientific inquiry, I was able to develop a very efficient method of teaching that could completely change the way my students sang in just a few lesson hours.
Although my own singing had also improved in the process, when performing, I would often fall back on the techniques I had originally learned—which are not what I teach. After my stroke, when I asked doctors and therapists if I would ever be able to sing again, they all said that if I should ever go back to my career, I needed to find a way to sing without raising my blood pressure, because, otherwise, this could hugely increase the risk of a new stroke. Curiously, in my first recovery days at the stroke unit when I still had no idea of what was going on around me, I felt the wish to sing, and started enjoying singing in full voice, sometimes during very late-night hours. I became very popular in the stroke unit, and a few times received visits of other patients, nurses and doctors, who had been thrilled to hear me sing at 3 a.m. in the previous night. That singing sounded quite nice and was totally easy.
Coming back home, I tried to sing in the same way and measure my blood pressure. And I noticed that this way of singing not only did not raise my blood pressure, but it lowered it. In the attempt to understand what was happening, I realized that I was using for the first time the exact same technique that I had been teaching in Berlin. Further investigation has given me enormous insights into the correct way to sing. And I have realized that most of the things I had been told by some of the great singers of the past that I had the privilege to meet in person were actually based on the same principles. I just had not been able to fully grasp them at the time, because my thinking had been influenced by the technique I used to apply in those days (the technique I had originally learned from my first teachers). Now, suddenly, almost all the phrases that those great singers used to say make perfect sense to me.
Are you teaching at all now?
After Covid hit, I had to completely concentrate on teaching, and I had gotten many new students. Right now, though, the current German restriction measures do not allow me to have a student and a pianist at the same time in my apartment. I am still teaching, now and then, but in a very restricted way, only with the students that can do some meaningful work with me alone, without a pianist.
I know that this is a difficult question, but what if it takes a long time for the local theatres to open and hire again, and you cannot find work? Do you have a plan B?
I assume that it will take quite some time until regular performances become possible again. And I am not quite sure if this profession will keep existing in the same way, five or ten years from now. I do have some different ideas of how to survive if the worst-case scenario becomes reality. But I don’t really have a set plan. My life experience has taught me that I am never in control of anything. When I was only a small step away from reaching all my goals in a scientific career, I ended up becoming an opera singer. I have acquired a kind of inner faith that doors will open that will lead me in the right direction. In that context, a plan is not necessary, just the attention and the impartial judgment to recognize and understand which way is being pointed to me.
In the days after my stroke, I strongly considered changing careers. Among other reasons, also because a few of my performances in the years that preceded the stroke—a time where I had already had a number of mini brain hemorrhages as MRT scans have shown—had not been great and had also been kind of traumatic experiences because I didn’t know what the problem had been at the time. I had interpreted each event in a different way, thinking of food poisoning, dengue fever (never confirmed), or just having a bad day. But, after the stroke, absolutely all the signs had been insistently pointing in the direction of a soloist career as a singer, and/or a voice teacher: everything I did in these directions seemed to work easier than any other activities or other possible career choices. As long as this remains the case, I will go with the flow.
Do you see yourself returning to New York again, to visit or to perform?
Jumping out of the career train when my stroke happened, since, following the predictions of my doctors, my wife had to cancel all my upcoming engagements, has been a big setback to my international career. Therefore, I don’t know if I can expect to go back to the Metropolitan Opera to perform. A visit to New York remains always a possibility, when and if air travel goes back to normal again. But, deep inside me, even a new career at the Met remains a concrete possibility, especially since, as I said before, all the “signs” have been pointing towards the continuation of my career. Therefore, I try to stay serene and detached, and to lean back and enjoy the trip: maybe it will take me to quite unexpected destinations!
For more information about Ricardo Tamura, please visit his website.
Top: Ricardo Tamura – Photo by Ruth Kappus