Famous Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky speaks about his diagnosis, ups and downs, terrorism and social networks in an exclusive interview with TASS
On openness and privacy, on diagnosis and getting aware of what it means, optimism and realism
- On your website you’ve posted a new recording of the World War II song Wait for Me and I’ll Come Back. We’ve been waiting. Not so much for this sound track as for your comeback , Dmitri.
- Thank you. I promised and now I am back… As for the song you’ve mentioned – as you may remember, it was Konstantin Simonov, a World War II frontline reporter, novelist, playwright and poet who authored the lyrics – it’s from the same-name album featuring eighteen pieces addressing the World War II theme. I recorded it especially for the 70th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany and this release is very important to me. On the same disc you will hear Dark is the Night, Where are You Now, Comrades in Arms? A Hilltop with no Name, and Wartime Roads.
- Early last summer you broke the news you had to suspend your concert tours for health reasons. Then there followed a period of lull several months long. There was no news from you except for one brief statement that the course of treatment was proceeding normally. So nobody felt surprised when a two-minute video clip, posted on the Metropolitan Opera website showing yours and Anna Netrebko’s joint rehearsal of a scene from Il Trovatore, had more than a hundred thousand views in just 24 hours.
- Strictly between you and me. This is a great secrete of mine: I don’t run my website or page in the social networks myself. I rely on assistance from trained specialists. Naturally, they do everything with my prior consent and approval, but I don’t write posts in Facebook myself or place photos in Instagram. I don’t even remember the passwords to them.
- Why so?
- I don’t want to. Probably, I am wrong, but I don’t see much sense in all this. True, social networks have become an important part of many people’s lives. But not of my own. I learn about the number of likes I get and the number of viewings of my recitals from other people. But what I’ve just said by no means diminishes my gratitude to all those who’ve shown they really care about my life and display sympathy. I do feel people’s attitude and their love. There’s no way of not noticing them. Yet I am not prepared to let outsiders too deeply into my inner world, to pour my heart out. I don’t think it’s the right thing to do. True, my profession implies a great deal of publicity, but I am a closed type of person and I painstakingly guard my private space. It belongs to me and nobody else.
- And still you preferred to say it yourself that you have a brain tumor…
God is my witness, I didn't have the slightest intention of bolstering publicity using rumors about my illness and other people’s curiosity
- As the disease got worse, I had to cancel event after event. I did not want to breed any rumors and speculations. I just stated the hard facts. It was a very logical step for me to take. Possibly, the decision looked not very common, but each one is free to decide for oneself. Life is simpler for me that way. In any case I would’ve had to make some comments afterwards and to explain something. So why not say it all at once to close the subject right away? I am not in the habit of telling lies or misleading people. I gave thought to it, gauged the consequences. I had a word with the family, with my dear ones, with Mark Hildrew – a good old friend of mine, who is also my agent… There was unanimity: we are going to tell the truth.
God is my witness, I didn't have the slightest intention of bolstering publicity using rumors about my illness and other people’s curiosity.
- An offer of help here, in Russia, came virtually in no time, but you refused to accept it.
- I have everything I need. It’s those unable to support themselves that deserve assistance. Besides, it’s important to understand the psychological condition of a person who has just learned about one’s illness, possibly a lethal one. At such moments you don’t feel like socializing with anyone. We gladly share joy and happiness with the world around us, but when we are in trouble, it’s better to stay alone. Getting accustomed to the new realities is far easier when there is no one around. You must get over it on your own. Nobody will help. Nobody will ever manage, however strong the wish to help may be.
- And there is no way of getting ready for this in advance.
- You know, the illness was not breaking news for me. Apparently, I had anticipated something of the sort. For a long time I had been unable to shrug off pessimism. I tended to see only the dark aspects of life. I felt apathy and fatigue. I could no longer get pleasure from work. I had this feeling of never-ending tiredness and indifference to what was happening around. Possibly, my physical condition was to blame, but I had remained unaware of that until a certain point.
- And then?
- Then it dawned upon me that something was wrong. At first I thought it was a different kind of ailment – vertigo, caused by middle ear inflammation. It upsets the vestibular function. It’s hard to stay in balance. Dizzy spells are frequent and each movement gives you a feeling of nausea. After a while I thought that the cause might be different and far more serious, although all of my acquaintances and colleagues kept telling me that I was inventing things and the illness would soon go away. It didn’t.
- When was the diagnosis confirmed?
- I underwent several examinations. Here in Russia, in Britain and in the United States. The first and most thorough one was at the Burdenko Hospital. All of the brightest medical minds gathered for a conference to discuss my case.
- Did you hear the word “cancer”?
- No, but the gist of the verdict was already clear.
- That examination at the Burdenko Hospital – it was in May 2015, wasn’t it?
- Yes, at the end of the month. From Moscow I flew to London, and from there to New York. I didn’t waste a minute. Staying idle and waiting patiently for your fate to be decided for you is against my nature. If something must be cleared up, I go and find out. And then I decide what is to be done about what I’ve learned.
- What was your first thought when the fears proved well-founded?
The main message I heard from the doctors was this: “You won’t die”
- I was stunned. It couldn’t have been otherwise. A normal human reaction! You always hope for the best but sometimes agree that the worst is possible, too. I tried to drive bad thoughts away from my mind, but they kept coming back time after time… I did my best to turn off my emotions, to think rationally. And I realized that I just cannot afford to leave this world so easily. There are close people around me, my parents, my family, and my kids. Nina and Maxim are still very young.
With the passage of time I learned more about the illness and the likely methods of treatment and slowly regained calm. Obscurity, suspense is the worst scare of all: what’s inside the dark room? When you see a picture, even the most unpleasant one, it’s easier. You realize where you are and where you should move be moving.
Firstly, the main message I heard from the doctors was this: “You won’t die.” Of no smaller importance was the promise that I would be able to remain on stage and lead an active life. True, some restrictions might follow, I was told, but certain losses will be unavoidable anyway. For the sake of this goal it was worth struggling with the inconveniences chemotherapy and radiotherapy would entail.
- Sometime ago you recalled the details of a sinus surgery you had here in Moscow. You said it was so painful and uncomfortable that it felt like medieval torture. I reckon radiotherapy is still harsher.
- Experience shows that everything is relative in this world. You’ve got to remember what is at stake. True, the process of treatment should not be more tormenting than the disease itself, but you always have a choice between life and death… I can say once again that the sinus surgery is not the most complicated of all, but it is rather unpleasant physiologically. In other words, it hurts.
The worst problem with any chemotherapy is the duration of treatment. You should brace up for at least six months of systematic treatment. To clench the teeth and endure.
My wife’s support was very helpful. I would’ve found it far harder to get along but for Florence by my side. Flo never had the slightest doubt that there might be an outcome different from victory over disease. At first I was in utter dismay. As long as there is an audience in front of you, it is easier to retain self-control. I’ve long mastered the skill of looking unemotional, but when you are all alone… An illness can suppress you, break your willpower if you don’t counter it with something stronger and more important. Love, family, work and sports – grab your chance and fight for it tooth and claw.
I forced myself to go to the gym every day, although at that moment various complications occurred. I had an inflammation of the sciatic nerve. It was hard for me to sit down, to get up, to move and walk around…
- And the effects of chemotherapy?
- Rather radiotherapy. It lasted six weeks. It’s a hard blow on your body and causes great harm to your health. The latest session was on August 12, but its effects are clear to the naked eye.
- Like what?
- I’ve turned half-bald. Lost all hair on the back of my head. At a US hospital in Rochester I underwent a mighty biopsy under general anesthesia. Without that it was impossible to realize what method of treatment should be selected. In fact, I had holes drilled in the base of the skull. If you bring your hand close enough to the irradiated area, you will feel it is warmer than others. Occasionally, when blood rushes to this place, I have strong pulsations there. Feel pretty close to hearing music…
- And are the dizzy spells gone now?
- I’d been warned that to a certain extent I may have them from time to time for the rest of my lifetime. So I’ll have to put up with them. I keep doing certain exercises to maintain and strengthen the feeling of balance.
- Have you hired a special coach?
- I manage on my own. I’ve always tried to go to the gym at least twice a week. These days I do that more often. To do the set of exercises that has been developed for me I don’t need any special machines. Just a room that is spacious enough. Persistency and regularity are important. At first it was rather hard and painful, but I fight fire with fire. Gradually the muscles warm up and unpleasant feelings disappear.
Mine is a healthy body and this will surely help me cope with the illness. Surely it will. I know. Tomorrow will be brighter still.
I am not trying to simulate cheap optimism or show off. I believe that I am capable of making sane judgements. I am well aware of how serious my situation is. I won’t be pretending I am happy with life. Yet I am determined to carry on and use the slightest opportunity to stay on the bright side of life. I am a type of person the Americans call “survivor”, someone determined to stage a comeback and go on living…
- You even tried to overcome the fear of falling and even made parachute jumps for this purpose.
Life in general is about struggle and the ability to overcome
- I’ve had this fear since my younger days. Back in my teens I had a narrow escape when I almost fell off a cliff while rock-climbing in the Pillars of Krasnoyarsk nature reserve. It was a rainy day and my footwear was not very good for this type of exercise. I slipped and was about to fall. At the very last moment the instructor grabbed me to help regain balance. He saved my life. The fall would’ve surely been lethal. I’ve had no enthusiasm about extreme sports ever since. Even on a balcony I feel uneasy. Little kids may come up to the parapet and look down. When I do that, I feel chilly inside and a shiver down my spine. But I try to struggle with this phobia. Life in general is about struggle and the ability to overcome. One day I thought I’d like to fly on board a jet fighter, to feel the G-force effects. Here, near Moscow. As a passenger, of course. A friend of mine made an offer. It’s been my dream ever since. It almost worked, but at the last minute the plan was upset. Never mind. I’ll wait till next time and if doctors allow…
Let me say again: at difficult moments the daily routine is of great help. When I’m doing something, bad thoughts go away. I must keep my voice in the proper condition. It’s my working tool, and it has to be taken care of. However I may feel, I spend an hour or two a day on vocal exercises. I rehearse new pieces and perform familiar ones. This keeps me disciplined and in good shape. It’s essential not to give up and to go on doing this day in day out…
- But haven’t you ever taken a break?
- Never. I’ll tell you more. When I was already well into the radiotherapy treatment course I thought I should give a recital at the Russian embassy in London, although by that time I had canceled all scheduled performances. A very spontaneous idea it was. It suddenly occurred to me that I had never performed in front of our diplomats, although I’ve lived in Britain for more than twenty years now. I wished to show other people that I was still strong and in good form. The hall was packed to capacity. I invited some of my friends to the party. I must address special thanks to Alexander Yakovenko, Russia’s Ambassador to the UK, for the warm reception. It was a very cordial event and a very encouraging one. I checked if I would be able to cope with heavy emotional pressure again.