Progressive deafness ran in the family, but Britain’s Janine Roebuck wasn’t worried. She’d never had problems before, so she continued to pursue her love of music. However, while she was studying at Manchester University, she noticed that some sounds were starting to fade. After a hearing test, she was told, “Sing while you can, because you’ll never have a career in music.” Despite the prognosis, Roebuck continued her studies at the Royal Northern College of Music before moving on to the Paris Conservatoire and the National Opera Studio in London.
For 10 years, she kept her hearing loss a secret from all but her closest friends. She didn’t even tell conductors, because she was worried about losing roles, or worse, getting roles simply because they felt sorry for her. So she found ways to hide her disability and adapt to her hearing level as it deteriorated. However, the stress of keeping up her charade became too much and she finally decided to get fitted for hearing aids. She was surprised to find that, rather than be scared off by her disability, many conductors were inspired by her courage, and her career has continued to grow. Shortly after she made her hearing loss public, she began working with the Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID), the UK’s largest charitable organization working for the deaf and hard of hearing. She became a trustee of the group in 2007 and has become one of the most vocal and respected proponents for the deaf community of Britain. You can watch a clip of her performance at the 2009 AMI Awards here.
As a child I never worried about losing my hearing, even though many other members of my family had done so. My great-great-grandmother was stone deaf and half her children inherited the gene. The pattern continued through the generations, but at first it seemed I was one of the lucky ones. When my mother tested my hearing by dropping a tea tray behind me, I jumped.
At 13, I made my debut in a school production of Gian Carlo Menotti’s opera Amahl And The Night Visitors and knew then that I belonged on stage. I read French at university, but singing in the opera group and Gilbert & Sullivan Society was as important to me as my studies.
I had a lovely voice and felt confident about my singing, but I noticed that if I didn’t sit at the front in lectures, I would struggle to hear initial consonants. The opera group was run by a professor in the department of audiology, so I asked him to give me a hearing test. “Sing while you can,” he told me, “because you’ll never have a career in music.” I felt suicidal, my ambitions crushed by a diagnosis of incurable, progressive nerve deafness.
Either bravery or foolhardiness persuaded me to stick to my plans and I went on to study at the Royal Northern College of Music, then at the Paris Conservatoire and National Opera Studio. I kept my deafness a closely guarded secret, convinced that admitting it would blight my career or evoke a sympathy vote. I won roles on merit, but the added fear and anxiety at auditions consumed me. I dreaded facing panels who mumbled from the stalls. If I couldn’t hear, I’d tell them what I would be performing and hope for the best.
At 28, I made my debut at New Sadler’s Wells Opera. But my hearing loss was accelerating. I couldn’t hear myself sing well any more, especially in the top notes. To compensate, I brought my voice “forward” to hear better, but then it didn’t travel as well in the auditorium. I didn’t want to be a liability and was petrified of singing out of tune. It took a terrible toll on my nerves. Before every performance I’d get a feeling of dread and want to flee. As a singer, stress-engendered tension was the last thing I needed, because it closes the throat.
I struggled in noisy rehearsal rooms, and after one performance, when the sound fed back to the on-stage singers failed, a perceptive critic questioned whether I could hear the orchestra at all. I was humiliated when a conductor made me repeatedly rehearse my part for a cadenza with the flute, because I couldn’t hear the flautist properly. I desperately needed help and finally went to the Royal National Throat, Nose and Ear Hospital, where I was classed as severely deaf.
Thankfully, a superb technician fitted behind-the-ear analogue hearing aids to amplify the upper frequencies I’d lost. I wept on hearing birdsong for the first time in a decade, but the bulky devices caught on my stage wigs, making me self-conscious. Tiny, in-the-ear aids with digital sound quality were a huge improvement and, thanks to technology, my confidence grew.
I was fast learning to adapt, singing by sensation. I stopped listening to myself, which is bad technique in any case, because everyone has a skewed perception of how their voice sounds. My singing teacher taught me to trust my technique, sing on the breath and from the heart. I rehearse all my numbers in every new venue, and with every new orchestra, because the acoustic always varies, and I watch colleagues’ breathing to ensure we always come in together. Recording music is a joy and acoustic sounds through the headphones help me relax.
Improvements in technology mean my latest hearing aids are wireless, and my performance is at its peak. I continue to tour the world, perform on radio and TV, and am hoping to record some solo albums. This year, I decided it was time to be proud, not ashamed, and, with support from the RNID, went public as the only deaf mezzo-soprano in the world.
Over the years I’d confided in colleagues I could trust and inevitably word spread. Responses have varied from astonishment to admiration. One conductor told his orchestra I was deaf only after they’d heard me sing. Their standing ovation is the reaction I treasure the most.