In March 2020, singer and performer Tanja Bage made a phone recording of herself for her children, then aged four and soon to be two. “I’m going to look a little different,” she told them. “You won’t remember that.”
Poignantly, she added, “I love my voice, I love the way I sound.”
Two days later, Bage had his voice box removed as part of his treatment for laryngeal cancer. She was unable to speak at all until a voice prosthesis was implanted in her neck, allowing her to form sounds.
This week, Bage will return to the stage to perform in a remarkable concert that celebrates the human voice by bringing together people who have experienced vocal loss with professional singers.
Alongside acclaimed soprano Lucy Crowe, Bage will tell the story of losing and recovering her voice. “I can’t sing now, and I miss it a lot. But I can do something creative and expressive,” she said.
The unique performance, Sound Voice in Concert, at Kings Place in London on Friday, is the creation of composer Hannah Conway, who has worked with some of the world’s greatest opera houses and orchestras for 25 years, and writer Hazel Gould.
Six operatic movements based on the stories and insights of people who have suffered voice loss – from causes such as laryngectomies, Parkinson’s disease and motor neurone disease – will be performed.
“I wanted to examine what a voice is and what it means when it’s gone,” Conway said. “I deal with the human voice every day, how we use our voices, how we convey an emotional narrative through our voices.” But it wasn’t until a close family member lost speech to illness that she “truly understood the intrinsic value of the human voice and how it intersects with our identity”, she said. declared.
She started the Sound Voice project, which works with Shout at Cancer, a choir of people who have had laryngectomy, a UCL research team, healthcare professionals and technology experts.
Conway and Gould ran workshops for two years to develop an understanding of what the voice is, which the pair then translated into operatic pieces for this week’s concert.
“Opera is one of the most extreme examples of what humans can do. This is paired with incredibly interesting new voices from people who have suffered or are in the midst of extreme trauma to create pieces that have real integrity, and are made for and with the people whose stories we tell,” Conway said.
“All of the tracks are emotionally powerful and heartbreaking, but at the same time they speak of hope and celebrate the beauty of these voices, and people are really reaffirming their identity with their new voices.”
For Bage, who was 38 when his cancer was diagnosed, the loss of his voice has “had a greater emotional impact than the physical changes and the changes in my anatomy that I live with every day”.
After her laryngectomy, she underwent intensive speech therapy to learn how to produce sounds using her voice prosthesis. Two years later, she says she has “accepted and accepted my way of speaking”.
She is no longer undergoing cancer treatment. But, she added, “I don’t think my voice will ever fail me. It was a grieving process. There is always a sadness about what I lost.