중앙데일리

A voice cancer struck down sings once more

Feb 21,2009
Last December in Tokyo Bae Jae-chul held his first recital since 2005 surgery for thyroid cancer. Provided by Bae Jae-chul
After thyroid surgery, Korea’s top tenor was told he would never sing again. But his fans and a Japanese surgeon believed differently.

Once upon a time, in the city of Daegu, there lived a little boy named Bae Jae-chul. Jae-chul loved to sing.

He decided to become an opera singer after winning a popular children’s singing contest on television. He was still in elementary school. After graduating as a voice major from Hanyang University in Seoul, he flew to Italy in 1994, graduated at the top of his class from the Conservatorio Giuseppe Verdi Milan in 1998 and launched into a career as a tenor. Word about his performances spread, and he began to win acclaim on the European stage. Music critics praised him as “one of the greatest Asian tenors of the century.”

Then, in September 2005, the fairytale ended. While performing in Verdi’s “Don Carlo” at a theater in Sabriken, Germany, Korea’s leading tenor felt something odd in his throat. He was subsequently diagnosed with thyroid cancer.

“When I first heard that I had cancer, I thought I could go back on stage about three months after surgery, as thyroid cancer is not life-threatening,” Bae said. But the surgery, scheduled for three hours, took over eight. His condition was worse than expected.

After the surgery, his voice was small and husky; specific words were difficult to form because the small nerves and muscles controlling his vocal functions had been cut.

Then came the devastating news.

“The German doctor said ‘Let’s say that there is a sprinter who uses two legs to run a 100-meter race,’” Bae recalled. “‘When you sing, you will be using only one leg to complete the same course.’”

Bae had no hesitation. “My instant response to the doctor’s words was, ‘Well, if I can still use one leg in the race, I can finish it eventually, even if I can’t run as fast as a sprinter with two legs.’”

He asked the doctor for options. The doctor said the only chance to restore his vocal cords was Dr. Nobuhiko Isshiki, a professor emeritus at Japan’s Kyoto University, and a world-renowned specialist in vocal cord reconstruction.

On hearing the news, Bae’s close Japanese friend, Totaro Wajima, a music producer, arranged for Dr. Isshiki to operate in April 2006. Many fans, upon learning the news about Bae, sprang into action and raised funds. After operating, Dr. Isshiki guaranteed Bae that he would be able to communicate, but stressed that he might not reach the level needed for opera singing.

“That was a challenge both for me and Dr. Isshiki,” Bae said. “He had never operated on a tenor before.”

With training, his voice gradually returned. And finally last December, three years after the surgery, he held a recital for his fans in Tokyo.

“I could hear some start crying when I started my first song,” he said. When the concert ended, there was a standing ovation.

“It’s a miracle!” said Dr. Isshiki, who attended the concert.

With his vocal range only 70 percent of what it once was, Bae is concentrating on gospel, but is confident that he will recover his past glory.

“I kept telling myself that someday I will be able to perform opera again,” he said. His next recital is booked for Tokyo in May.


By Kim Mi-ju Staff Reporter [mijukim@joongang.co.kr]


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