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The tenor who nearly lost his tongue

Visitors to Slipped Disc bring us amazing, unsuspected glimpses into the great unsung dramas of performing life. These are tales that generally go untold beyond the backstage bars and the friendships that performers make throughout their careers.

We are privileged to present the extraordinary story of the English tenor Brian Galliford, presently singing in ENO’s Caligula. It’s a life-and-death struggle equal to anything you will see on stage. Here’s what he told us:

A year after moving to Amsterdam in 1991, suspect tissue was found under Brian’s tongue. He had regular check-ups and was assured all was well. Meanwhile, he sang Old Deuteronomy in Cats for 6 months and got regular work with the Dutch National Reisopera. ‘A big break came in 1997 when I was booked with one audition to sing Piet vom Fass in two separate productions (of Ligeti’s Le grand macabre) for Hanover and the Reisopera. I went on to sing Piet 60 times in Hanover, Lisbon, Antwerp, the Netherlands and in Barrie Kosky’s production at the Komische Oper Berlin between 1997 and 2005.’

Brian auditioned for the Royal Opera in 2001 and was engaged as The Rector in the 2004 Grimes, as well as Tanzmeister with Welsh National Opera. He sang Herodes for the Landestheater Bregenz in February 2006 and went to Glyndebourne in 2006 to sing Lopez in Prokofiev’s Betrothal in a Monastery. But that’s when the cancerous tissue began to mutate.

‘At Glyndebourne I was in quite a lot of pain. At the beginning of September 2006 my specialist in Amsterdam said it was too dangerous to continue without a thorough investigation as if the cancer took hold I wouldn’t make it past Christmas. After several weeks of tests a malignant tumour of 5cm deep by 3cm wide was found in my tongue, which had to be treated immediately. My specialist was a jaw surgeon and his preference was to cut everything out, which would have left me severely disfigured. However, there was also a proposal to treat with just chemo and radiotherapy. In any case I wasn’t expected to sing again. The chemo and radiotherapy treatment was successful, but not before the hospital had made a mistake and I suffered blood poisoning and kidney failure.

‘A few months later the infection was discovered to have severely damaged my heart, with the consequence that in April 2007 I underwent heart surgery to install an artificial heart valve and a double by-pass to repair an abcess in the wall of the heart. There was one final month in hospital when my leg blew up like a black ham with an embolism where veins had been removed for the heart surgery.

 ‘During the Spring of 2007 as the muck in my mouth was clearing up, despite all else that was happening – it became clear that my tongue was still (unexpectedly) functional. In July 2007 I started exploratory singing lessons with Peter Harrison for the next year as we re-built my voice and singing technique. I was grateful for some financial support from The Royal Society of Musicians (with Sarah Walker, David Wilson-Johnson and Peter Beaven as sponsors) and the Musicians Benevolent Fund.’

Not many people have the determination to return from such misfortune. Brian is made of stern stuff. He got back onto stage in September 2008 in Amsterdam as Missail in Boris Godunov. Since then he has been re-engaged for A Dog’s Heart, Soldaten and Rosenkavalier. ‘A wonderful twist of fate came when I was engaged out of the blue as Don Jerome in Betrothal in a Monastery for performances in Toulouse and Paris, directed by Martin Duncan. It was my French debut and first time ever in the lead part … I’m pleased to say it was also a huge personal and professional triumph with rave reviews. After Paris I came to London for my first adventure with ENO as Iro in Ulysses and am now back in Caligula.’
After Caligula he goes on to Holland Park and then to Vienna as Piet vom Fass – for the first time since his illness. Toulouse have him back as Ménélas in La Belle Hélène at the end of the year, after which you can catch him at La Scala in A Dog’s Heart in Simon McBurney’s production, conducted by Valery Gergiev.
‘So you see,’ says Brian, ‘life is indeed wonderful, delicious, exciting and I’m enjoying it to the full. I believe I’m singing better than I ever did before and being on stage fills me with such pleasure … it’s a better drug than all the morphine that was pumped into me during those dark months.’
He’s not the only one who is lucky. We are all fortunate to have him back. Go catch him where you can.
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  1. A BIG HUG to Brian!

  2. Marianne says:

    What a horror story! And how fantastic to have Mr. Galliford back on stage! Toi Toi Toi!

  3. I had the privilege of seeing Brian’s performance last night in Caligula at the Coliseum. World class! An even greater triumph considering the medical hurdles he has overcome.

  4. Rosalind says:

    What an inspiring story. Toi! Toi! ToI! for all your upcoming performances!

  5. Wauw! What an inspiring story! I am so sorry that Mr. Galliford had to go through this horrible time, but so happy for him that he’s back!
    Go for it!

  6. Madelon says:

    Not many people would be so brave! I think this is one of the most heartwarming stories I read in the last months. I congratulate Brian Galliford with his recovery and hope he will be singing for many years after this horrible experience!

  7. Inspiring and – best of all – with a happy ending.

  8. How brave Brian Galliford is, to have gone through that horrific experience, and come out smiling, at the other end! And how wonderful that he is singing again, enriching his own life, as well as the lives of others. I think only another singer can feel the power in his words “being onstage fills me with such pleasure.” I send prayers to him, and wish him such pleasure for as long as he wishes to sing.

  9. Jan Cooper says:

    I have the honour and privilege of having Brian as one of my friends – for more years than I care to remember! If anyone deserves to have this second chance it is him. He is a wonderful man, kind, funny, witty, intelligent and with a fabulous talent. You rock Brian!

  10. janet shell says:

    Yes Brian – he is a fighter and a winner and we should never undersestmate the power of music and performance to fortify us

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