For many years, bass David Salsbery Fry (Graduate Diploma ’06, voice) harbored a secret that permeated every aspect of his life. He goes public in this article, which is adapted from one by Jason Vest that appeared in Classical Singer and is reprinted by permission. Fry’s upcoming engagements include Osmin in Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail at the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Opera in February and Master Chen in Scott Wheeler’s Naga, which premieres at Boston’s Cutler Majestic Theatre in September.
On a late summer day in a small Pennsylvania town on the banks of the Susquehanna River, a young boy makes his way out of his school to the playground. Potential bullies are a constant, subliminal threat, but more obviously he must avoid flying kickballs and reckless children who, at any moment, might collide with him, sending him to the pavement and subsequently to the emergency room. Trying not to attract attention despite the conspicuous helmet covering his wavy brown hair, he hurries to a bench with his book.
Many years later, this boy-turned-adult slinks into an elevator and winces as someone else enters after him. As the doors close, he tries to fade into the corner. He becomes aware that he is holding his breath—that he has always held his breath in the elevator. This poorly lit metal box provides no escape and every stranger is a potential threat. It is safer not to breathe on them. Doors open and as he exits, the man pulls his sleeves down to cover the needle tracks on his hands.
No, he’s not a heroin addict but, rather, a hemophiliac.
“Disabilities don’t create obstacles to overcome so much as they become an essential aspect of a person’s being,” says bass David Salsbery Fry. His disability has shaped every facet of his life and his singing career, including his decision to conceal the disorder for the past 20 years—until now.
Fry’s family discovered his hemophilia when he was just 3 months old. This was very fortunate, because Fry received early treatment that has improved his quality of life ever since. He was initially treated with cryoprecipitate rather than the factor concentrates derived from pooled human plasma that were already in widespread use. This decision, while obligating him to visit the hospital for each and every injury that required intervention, significantly reduced his exposure to blood-borne pathogens and is likely responsible for his escaping the widespread H.I.V./AIDS epidemic that decimated the hemophilia community in the 1980s.
Experiences early in Fry’s youth prompted his interest in performing. “My love of singing started with a love of theater,” Fry says. “The first solo line I ever had was in some elementary school Christmas show for kids where there was no snow but, instead, torrential downpours of rain. This was, of course, ruining Christmas. The only thing I had to do was say, ‘I’m drowning! I’m drowning!’ and when the time came to do this with an audience, I started yelling the line and making gurgling noises. It was my moment! Little things like that can hook you.”
Besides having a penchant for drama, Fry also sang in the choir, played in the band, and sang in musical theater shows during high school. When he saw his first opera, it seemed that everything he loved about music had been synthesized with everything he loved about drama. “It wasn’t until my sophomore year of college that I felt like I might be able to make a living of it,” Fry says. “That had partly to do with my frustration at being discouraged from going to medical school and partly to do with singing the title role in Sweeney Todd at Johns Hopkins.”
Throughout his childhood, Fry was an advocate for hemophilia and freely discussed his condition with those close to him. But early in his singing career, biases began to affect his opportunities. One such instance happened when he was singing his first opera role, in Candide.
“At one point early in the staging, the director asked me to hoist someone on my shoulders and carry them around,” Fry recalls. “As a plucky 19-year-old, I had no problem with that. One of the other members of the cast who knew me and with whom I had been open about my condition, yelled out, ‘But David, what about your health problems!’ The room fell silent and I felt hurt and betrayed by this person thinking she should impose a limitation upon me instead of me making that decision. I was quickly relieved of the responsibility.”
That experience convinced Fry that he should not be so open. “My solution was never to tell anyone again about my hemophilia,” he says. “I would rather have the assumption be that I am capable unless I say otherwise, instead of directors assuming that I am fragile and shouldn’t be asked to do anything physical.”
While drastically improved medication made this concealment easier over time, the physical and emotional challenges of concealing persisted. As an apprentice at the Santa Fe Opera, when he was in rehearsals for all day and performing at night, he had to drive eight miles to his apartment during dinner breaks, “get out all of my gear, infuse intravenously, and then eat whatever there was still time to eat before I had to be in the chair for makeup.”
Because of Fry’s height [almost 6 feet] and strapping appearance, stage directors often give him more physically demanding jobs. As a burglar in Carmen, he had to “run full tilt [and get beat up] by a bunch of choristers playing soldiers,” he said. “One time I got punched in the jaw so hard that I felt my teeth slam together.” When he sang the Commendatore in Don Giovanni, as he lay on the stage as a corpse, the floor got wet. “Our very exuberant Leporello slipped in the water, couldn’t stop his momentum, and kicked me in the jaw so hard that I spun like a top.”
He’s been able to hold it together because “knowing the demands of the profession, I have the responsibility to protect myself and still do the job.” He’s never missed a rehearsal or performance and he notes that “onstage I am functionally normal. I have the same ability to heal from injury as anyone else. The treatment of hemophilia has been a success story and that’s one of the reasons that I’m choosing to come forward now.”
When Fry talks about his secret life and the struggles of his illness, it’s quickly apparent that challenges can easily become strengths. “I don’t want opera companies to hire me in spite of my hemophilia,” he says. “I want them to hire me because of it and the perspective that it gives me. I will confess that the life that I have led takes me to fairly dark places. For that reason, I find affable everyman characters to be the greatest challenges and villains to be the most natural. Olin Blitch in Susannah is broken in a very different way than me—but he is broken, and I love playing him.
“Stephen Wadsworth gave a master class at Juilliard while I was there and he said, ‘Opera singers are damaged goods. Why else would anyone choose a profession that involves getting up in front of a room full of strangers and screaming “Ah!” at them?’ Some of the best performers who have graced the operatic stage have faced incredible challenges.”
Twenty years ago, doctors told Fry he might endanger himself should he choose to pursue a singing career. Now he wants others to find hope and inspiration in what he has accomplished. “I was told in no uncertain terms that my singing career was something I shouldn’t attempt,” he says. “If you don’t have an example of someone who has succeeded in the position you want, you don’t know that it can be done. You are told to find a sedentary profession and protect yourself.”
Being open about his disability is how he can pave the way—for both singers and opera companies. [Fry hopes disclosing his story will mean that] “no child with hemophilia will have to ask if it’s possible for a hemophiliac to be an opera singer or a stage actor, because the answer will be ‘yes.’ They can point to me and say, ‘He’s doing it.’ Likewise, if an administration is on the fence about whether to cast someone with my condition or one that is similar, every success that I have will help to put that concern to rest a little bit more. That’s a very strong motivation.”
Although Fry looks back with some regret, he also looks forward to the good that will come from talking openly now about his disorder. “In the end, concealing my hemophilia was both misguided and selfish,” he concludes. “I regret my decision when I was 19—and now that I’ve made a different choice, I’m excited to see how things will progress as I live in a more open and honest way.”