THE VOICE THAT CAME BACK FROM SILENCEO
Aksel Schiotz, the famous baritone, used to be a famous tenor — but that was before the tumor was cut from his acoustic nerve. This is how he overcame paralysis to sing again
THE MEDICAL DOSSIER on a Dane named Aksel Schiotz begins with a dinner party in Copenhagen in 1946. Gerd, his wife, joined the party alone. Schiotz was in Glyndebourne. England, rehearsing for the tenor role in Benjamin Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia, and Gerd was to leave the next day to join him.
For several months Schiotz’s usual well-being had been disturbed. He was a muscular man of six foot two, strong and vital, but for some time he had been showing unusual tiredness. He had been suffering, too, from headache. More than once he noticed that he missed sounds with his right ear. He ignored these symptoms. Their friends, and Gerd herself, assumed that Schiotz’s physical condition was a normal reaction to the dangers of the past six years.
During that time the Schiotz family had lived under the German occupation. Schiotz gave concerts in almost every village in Denmark in spite of the constant expectation that the Germans would arrest him for his activities. This work, for which he was decorated by King Christian X, had left a residue of tension to which he attributed his minor complaints.
At the dinner party Gerd found herself overhearing the conversation of a stranger who was describing the illness of a friend. She only half listened as the story rambled on, finally touching on the preliminary symptoms of the illness itself, a kind of brain tumor. Today she still remembers how, at that moment, she said to herself, “That’s what’s wrong with Aksel.”
PLANES WERE THE SIGN
Dr. Herman Levison, a neurologist and a friend, was also a guest at the party. Gerd went over to him and told him what her suspicions were. His reaction was “nonsense,” but he gave her the name of two neurologists Schiotz could consult in England. In addition he left her with one warning: “If, by any chance, Aksel should begin to see double, he must go to a doctor immediately.”
The following day she joined her husband in England, where his triumph at the Glyndebourne Festival was the peak of his career. He was acclaimed by the critics as a lyric tenor of brilliant and unquestioned greatness, and was immediately flooded with bookings that would fill the next three years.
After Glyndebourne, Schiotz and his wife traveled through England. His fatigue increased and he noticed that
“the tone of my voice wasn’t quite right. Something was missing — I didn’t know what.”
Schiotz’s fortieth birthday was celebrated with ceremony in London, in September. It seemed as if everything lay before him. “The next day Aksel was looking out of the window of our hotel room, trying to decide if it would rain or not,” Gerd recalls. “He saw two planes crossing the sky, wingtip to wingtip. ‘Look,’ he called to me. ‘How strange!’ I ran to the window. There was only a single plane.'”
She tried, unsuccessfully, to get her husband to see a doctor “about his eyes.” The small matter of seeing double was not important enough to fuss about during a concert tour.
In Denmark, several weeks later, Schiotz, still insisting that it was unnecessary, finally went to Dr. Levison. He had not avoided going to doctors because he was afraid of what they might tell him; he simply didn’t believe that anything was wrong with him. Shortly after that visit Levison brought the Schiotzes the diagnosis: a tumor of the acoustic nerve. This was the kind of brain tumor Gerd had feared since the night of the party. “I knew what to be prepared for,” she says. Levison told them that unless Schiotz had an operation he would die within months.
A tumor of the acoustic nerve is uncommon. It grows on the nerve, behind the ear, and gradually involves the nerve that controls all the muscles on one side of the face, except the chewing muscles. Until surgery is performed, there is no way of knowing to what extent the facial nerve is involved. One-sided facial paralysis is almost inevitable after the operation but in certain cases the facial nerve may not have to be cut completely, which leaves some chance for its partial regrowth. Removal of such a tumor is exceptionally dangerous, because of the massive shock to the entire system.
In consultation with their Danish doctors Gerd and Aksel Schiotz decided to go to Stockholm to have the operation performed by Dr. Herbert Olivecrona. Schiotz, at this point, did not really anticipate facial paralysis. “All I worried about was how long it would be before I could sing again.
I was wild, furious, at the thought of the engagements I had to cancel — this illness happened at the worst possible time. The doctors wouldn’t give me a clear answer but I supposed it’d be no more than six months before I’d be back.” CONTINUED ON PAGE 30
The voice that came back from silence
Continued from page 22
He was deaf in one ear, almost blind in one eye; worst of all, one side of his face was paralyzed
The surgeon operated in December 1946. For ten days Schiotz’s life was in danger. Then he regained a wisp of strength; after three weeks he went back to Copenhagen on a stretcher. He could not walk, since his sense of balance, affected by the operation, was still lacking, and his control of the muscles of his right arm and leg had been greatly damaged.
When Schiotz was finally able to take stock of the condition he was in, this is what he found. The acoustic nerve had been cut and he was totally deaf in the right ear. He could see very little with his right eye. The right side of his face was paralyzed. Consequently the right side of his mouth was lifeless. Enunciation, phrasing, and many of the other qualities of singing depend largely on the control of the facial muscles. The doctors said that it was “not completely impossible” that there might be some eventual regeneration of the facial nerve since they had not had to cut it entirely. Constant exercise was the only method of treatment they could suggest.
But Schiotz’s control of his vocal cords was intact. His voice was faint and squeaky because of the general feebleness of his body but, he says, he “could feel that it was still there. It never occurred to me that I might not sing again. If it had, 1 probably would not have recovered.” His wife says, “He was simply too weak to think about it.”
Six weeks after his operation, his weight was down to 140 pounds from a normal 200. Before his illness he had received an offer to sing at the Edinburgh Festival in the summer of 1947. Now, in January, he decided to accept that offer. Even though Gerd knew his decision was almost madness, she humored him by bringing him the contract to sign. He did not have enough control over his muscles to make the fingers of his right hand grasp the pen. “Our doctors told me that it was my duty to prepare Aksel to accept the end of his career,” his wife said recently. “But I refused. I had to agree that they were probably right; but as long as he believed, I felt that my real duty was to encourage him.”
The Schiotzes had two sons and three daughters and no means of support other than the royalties from Aksel’s recordings, which were selling well in the United States and, Gerd says, “saved our lives.” Schiotz had been a schoolteacher for eight years, singing as an amateur, before he committed himself to a professional career. He could have gone back to teaching and been assured of a living. “It would have been a sort of defeat,” he says. “I couldn’t give up what I had been — I wanted to get there again. To be myself meant only one thing to me — to be able to sing.”
During this bleak period Gerd and Aksel Schiotz lived by borrowing money from friends. Then, one winter morning, Gerd found a basket on their doorstep, filled with early spring flowers, three bottles of champagne, and a large silver cigarette box. Gerd opened it and discovered a pile of banknotes. An unsigned note said, in part:
Friends of yours and admirers of your art ask you to receive this gift as token of their deep gratitude. Nobody has been able as well as you to interpret feelings hidden in our national treasure of song. Rich and poor alike have had comfort and encouragement from your voice and your courageous behavior during the occupation. . . . Your illness is a personal grief for the whole nation.
In the first days of spring in 1947, Schiotz tried to walk. Not only were his sense of balance and his muscular control severely affected, but his judgment of spatial distance had suffered and he had difficulty determining how far away
objects were. At first he left the house only at night, so that his attempts to balance would not be seen. As soon as the weather grew warmer the family went to stay on a remote farm in North Jutland. There Schiotz started singing again. Within a few steps of the farmhouse there was a wild, solitary beach where he sang to an audience of birds and waves.
Schiotz was attempting a kind of voice rehabilitation that had never been accomplished before. There was no known guide, no known course of therapy. He experimented with al! kinds of exercises, but singing itself turned out to be the best exercise of all.
Because Schiotz had had such an extraordinary natural voice, he’d had little formal training. Now he had to invent a technique almost from scratch. He taught himself. He had once recorded many Heder (they are still circulated on longplaying records released by Scandinavian Odeon) and hundreds of Danish songs. He played them over and over again, painfully imitating himself. He was angrily competing, he says, with the voice of “that boy,” as he called himself. At the same time, with the help of Danish radio technicians, he began to make tape recordings, which he played back so that he could measure even the slightest sign of progress. “I was too weak during this
summer, and for months afterwards, to work more than a quarter of an hour, or half an hour at the most, in the morning, and again in the afternoon. But every day, every hour, I tried to make my mouth move.”
In the fall 1947 a Swedish shipowner invited him to continue his convalescence aboard a freighter that was to make a seven-month voyage. Gerd stayed behind with the children. During the long cruise Schiotz kept strictly to his schedule. He decided to learn Die Winterreise, a Schubert cycle of twenty-four songs, which he was eventually able to sing standing up, as if for a concert. This in itself was a triumph — he was regaining control of his legs. Excitedly he reported this advance to Gerd in letters home. When she joined him after five months she expected to find him enormously improved. She found his facial paralysis unchanged. Three days after her arrival, he was able to twitch the right side of his mouth a fraction of an inch. “Gerd’s visit was shock therapy” he jokes now.
This was the turning point in Schiotz’s battle. Now that he had taught himself to control even a twitch of his mouth, he had proof that the facial nerve was growing.
In the fall of 1948 he made a comeback in Copenhagen. He was still frighteningly weak, but he chose a taxing program for his concert. Gerd remembers that the audience was as nervous as he was. There was an audible gasp when he walked on. His facial paralysis was then much more pronounced than it is now, and his gait, now normal, was stiff and uncertain. But after the first few songs a great wave of relief was felt to fill the theatre. This was the sound the audience remembered and loved. True, the voice was diminished in resonance, but the critics reported that the most important qualities had survived — the beauty of tone, the flexibility, the poetic and moving interpretation of mood.
After this success, Schiotz’s next thought was to sing in a city where he could be certain that critical judgment would not be colored by the emotion of his countrymen. He chose Town Hall in New York. News of a failure there would be heard everywhere in the world of music.
“I felt that I had to face the psychological pressure of a critical audience again. In many ways it is like teaching school. Twelve-year-old boys know instinctively if you’re equal to the task or not. . . and they make you know it too.”
Lovers of Heder jammed Town Hall that night. Their curiosity was intense; confused reports and rumors about Schiotz’s illness had reached everyone, but no one knew what to expect. Some of them, like the famous ballad singer Richard Dyer-Bennet, came from as far as Colorado. Lieder enthusiasts are as passionate as bullfight aficionados, and just as hard to please. Again Schiotz had to face the problem of making the audience “listen with their ears, not their eyes.” David Hall, music editor of the HiFi-Stereo Review, remembers that the opening numbers were “nervous and a little tentative. The former ringing quality of the top notes was no longer there but the Schiotz artistry was evident in the fullest and most poignant measure.” At the end of the concert the audience roared approval.
Schiotz then went on to Montreal, where he was to give a recital with a leading Canadian accompanist, John Newmark, who is now an old friend. “As soon as I’d entered his studio, without discussing tempi or pitch as you usually do, we went right through all of the Schumann Dichterliebe cycle—perfectly! When it was over we just threw our arms
around each other and wept. Sentimental story, isn’t it?”
After the Montreal performance, Schiotz sang two more Town Hall concerts. He was close to a breakdown from the exhaustion of the past weeks and his voice betrayed the state he was in. But he had proved that the most difficult audiences would accept him again.
He returned to Denmark and found that there was a great demand to hear him. “During the war so many Danes heard me sing that now they wanted to see for themselves that I hadn’t changed. Of course it wasn’t true. I had changed, after all. I knew that after a concert many of them would go home and play my old records and compare — and be disappointed, perhaps.”
In 1953, after appearing at a Casals Festival in France, he decided he would sing, from then on, as a baritone rather
than a tenor. Although this was an acknowledgement that he could not recapture the past, it made a great deal of sense. He simply did not have the tremendous physical power needed to produce the top tenor notes without straining. “Moving down the scale meant learning a completely different way of using my voice,” he says. “A whole new field of music opened up for me.”
Gerd, too, was working hard. Although she had never written before, she and Aksel completed a book about their experiences during and following the war. Immediately it became a best-seller in Denmark. Soon she was writing a weekly magazine qplumn and doing radio scripts and translations.
One of Schiotz’s first pupils was Roy Schuessler, professor of singing at the University of Minnesota, who in 1953 spent his sabbatical year studying Heder. In the next few years pupils came from many countries. In 1955 Boyd Neel, dean of the Royal Conservatory in Toronto, invited Schiotz to teach at the summer school. That summer he sang at the Stratford Festival, and in the fall he
accepted a teaching post at the University of Minnesota. The Schiotz family spent three years in Minneapolis. Each summer they went to Vancouver, where Aksel taught and gave recitals at the University of British Columbia. In 1958 they moved to Toronto, where he now teaches at the Royal Conservatory.
Students from all over Canada come to his studio in the crowded old Conservatory. When he teaches he loses all traces of the slight reserve he otherwise shows. He is a vigorous teacher, on his feet most of the time, radiating joy in his
work. He punctuates his lessons with laughter and jokes, although a student says, “After a half-hour class with him I’m limp.”
One young student, awed by Heder, said not long ago that he felt he was “treading on sacred ground” when he sang Schumann. Schiotz replied, with a roar of amusement, "If, by sacred ground, you mean that it’s darn hard to sing, maybe you’re right.” But few people know as well as Aksel Schiotz how difficult it is to sing. Today, at fifty-four, he is still working at it. He says, “To be a
singer is a daily struggle.” Of his singing, the New York Times of March 15, 1961, said :
When Aksel Schiotz completed Schubert’s “Die Winterreise” Tuesday night at Town Hall, the audivence burst into applause. Then, as the applause continued, people began to stand up. By the time the Danish baritone returned for his seventh bow the whole audience was standing and many were cheering. ★