San Francisco soprano Alexandra Sessler isn’t letting cancer get in the way of her playing the lead in Puccini’s “La bohème.”
The 29-year-old vocalist, who had a golf-ball sized tumor removed from her neck in May, appears in West Edge Opera’s production of Puccini’s classic, onstage in Berkeley this week.
Sessler, a voice instructor and lecturer at San Francisco State University, even vocalized in her endocrinologist’s office on the appointment when she was diagnosed with papillary thyroid carcinoma. Before she learned about her condition, the nurse taking her vitals asked her to sing, so she chose “Donde lieta usci” (“Once happily leaving”) from “bohème,” because she had been working on it for her big debut as Mimi.
“Everyone in the office could hear me, and clapped from the other exam rooms,” she says.
She was told she might not be able to speak immediately following the surgery, but that her voice would come back, and that indeed was the case.
“Strangely and happily, immediately upon waking, while still on the operating table, I started crying and saying thank you to everyone for doing a good job on my surgery, and that I was so happy to be alive. Of course I was still high on anesthesia, but boy, was I happy to be making noise!” Sessler says.
Her extraordinary drama is still unfolding. After the surgery, she was prescribed a relatively new iodine therapy, which makes patients radioactive for a few days. Those undergoing the treatment are not allowed to be near people or pets, not even in the vicinity of hardscrabble opera singers.
Taking a potential big risk in order to keep the “bohème” engagement, as well as a recital in Mexico and recording with San Francisco Symphony Chorus Director Ragnar Bohlin’s new professional group Cappella SF, Sessler talked her doctors into postponing the radiation until September.
The singer’s decision to prioritize performance over medical advice brings to mind another Puccini heroine, Tosca, and her great aria “Vissi d’arte” (“I live for art”).
Upon being called brave, even heroic, Sessler demurs, instead pointing to the recent availability of health insurance under the Affordable Care Act and support from family and friends, who set up a website (www.crowdrise.com/AlexSesslersWellnessFund) to raise funds for her. She points out, “Without help, I would not have been able to take all of this time off.”
Meanwhile, West Edge Opera General Director Mark Streshinsky says, “Besides being a consummate artist, it’s clear that Alexandra brings something extra to the role of Mimi. There’s a vulnerability that is unmistakable and it’s clear that she identifies with the character in a very special way.”
IF YOU GO
Presented by West Edge Opera
Where: Ed Roberts Campus, 3075 Adeline St., Berkeley
When: 8 p.m. Friday, 3 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $55 to $100