Q & A: Soprano Ilanah Lobel-Torres on Her Cancer Journey & Return as a Young Artist

By Chris Ruel

American soprano Ilanah Lobel-Torres is making a name for herself as a young artist with her captivating voice and performances. Originally from New York City, Lobel-Torres received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Vocal Performance from the New England Conservatory of Music and Mannes School of Music, respectively. In 2019, she joined the prestigious young artist program, L’Académie de l’Opéra National de Paris, at Opéra National de Paris.

During her time as a young artist, Lobel-Torres has sung on the stages of Opera Bastille and Palais Garnier. Her debut at Palais Garnier in January 2020 marked a significant milestone in her career. Her journey took an unexpected turn, however when she was diagnosed with primary mediastinal B-cell lymphoma in September 2020.

Undeterred, Lobel-Torres underwent intensive treatment, completing six rounds of chemotherapy. Six months after her treatment, she returned to Paris for the 2021-2022 season.

In this interview, we delve into Lobel-Torres’s courageous battle with cancer. Her story serves as an inspiration to artists and audiences alike.

OperaWire: When did you know you wanted to be an opera singer?

Ilanah Lobel-Torres: I first started with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus in New York, where I took voice lessons. While with the chorus—I think I was probably 11—we sang in the chorus for “Tosca” at Carnegie Hall. We could sit in the hall while the singers rehearsed, and I remember time just stopping. My jaw was open—like, whoa!—and I knew I wanted to sing. I loved how emotional it was and that a human being could connect with others in such a way. When I wonder why I want to be an opera singer, I remember that moment.

I attended Performing Arts Middle School and then LaGuardia High School for singing. One of my teachers at LaGuardia suggested I pursue opera in college, and I went to New England Conservatory for my undergrad and completed my master’s degree at Mannes.

OW: How did you decide to audition for the young artist program at the Opéra de Paris?

ILT: Six months before I graduated with my master’s, I was kind of grasping at straws, thinking, “Okay, I guess I’m supposed to audition for young artist programs.” I came across the Opéra de Paris opportunity on YAP Tracker and figured, “Why not?” It was the last day to apply, and it was free. I sent them videos just to see what would happen. Well, I got an audition. Having never been to Paris, I thought, “I’ll treat it as a vacation, and I’ll do this little audition that probably won’t work out.” But it did. And it changed my life; my entire world opened up. The experience showed me I could actually pursue opera as a career.

OW: Can you explain the circumstances around your cancer diagnosis?

ILT: I began the artist program in September 2019, and then COVID hit in March 2020. I had been in the program for a little over six months before everything shut down. During that time, I was experiencing severe shoulder pain. We were in lockdown for approximately three months, but we were able to return to work for the last month or so, from late May into June. When we resumed singing, I noticed I couldn’t sing through long phrases as I normally could. It wasn’t about new repertoire; it was with pieces I had been singing before. Yet, suddenly, I couldn’t make it to the end of the phrase. Sometimes, when warming up, if I ran out of air, I would start coughing.

I initially thought it could be COVID or allergies; you know, you invent explanations to avoid confronting the actual issue. However, the main problem was intense shoulder pain. I managed to push through with singing, taking more breaths than I usually would, and I rationalized it, thinking perhaps my voice was changing. Yet the pain persisted throughout the summer, leading to my second season. It got to a point where my fiancé told me that unless I sought medical help, I couldn’t complain about it anymore because I would never stop talking about the pain. So, I agreed and went for an X-ray. However, after leaving the clinic, thinking everything was fine, they chased me down, urging me to come back. This happened in France, when my French wasn’t as proficient as it is now.

OW: What challenges did you face when receiving medical information in France?

ILT: I had been in France for less than a year, and I spent three months in my apartment, primarily speaking English. So it was overwhelming when I received a lot of information in French, a language I wasn’t entirely comfortable with at that time. Fortunately, my fiancé was with me, so I had support. I met with a doctor who wasn’t certain about my condition. Since I didn’t have health insurance in France, I decided not to stay even though the costs wouldn’t compare to those in the U.S. without insurance. I wanted to be with my family, so we flew back to New York immediately. On arrival, I went to Memorial Sloan Kettering, and I began my treatment about three weeks after the diagnosis. Everything progressed very quickly.

OW: Tell me the first thing that came to mind after the diagnosis.

ILT: The first thing that came to my mind when they told me was a concert I had the following week. It was my immediate concern, which in hindsight, seems somewhat sad. They had just told me something very serious about my health, and I was thinking about my job. Singing is such an integral part of who I am. So the thought of it being taken away, and not by my choice, was really hard to cope with. What added to the fear was the fact that I had lymphoma, and my specific chemotherapy regimen could potentially paralyze one of my vocal cords. This was something we had to discuss before starting treatment. It was the most effective treatment they could provide, but because I’m a singer, they had to inform me about this side effect that occurs to many people. I didn’t refuse the treatment, and fortunately; it didn’t happen to me. When I had enough energy, I would sing, just to make sure my voice was working properly. Usually, I would only sing in the shower because I felt that was the only place I had the energy to do it. This always served as my little check-in.

OW: What mindset did you adopt when faced with the uncertainty of whether you would sing again?

ILT: After having that initial thought of, “Oh my God, am I ever going to sing again?” I simply decided that I was going back to Paris for the next season, and that was it. And you know, sometimes when I would meet with people or family, they were not concerned about me returning to Paris or continuing my career as a singer. They just wanted me to be healthy. I would get these looks as if they were thinking, “She believes she’s going back to Paris.” But I was like, “Nope, I’m going back to Paris.”

This attitude really helped me to pull through, because I viewed it almost like homework. I would think to myself, “Okay, this thing is happening. I have to do XYZ, which means six months of chemo, and then we’ll see if I need radiation or not.” Check, check, and check. And then, I’m going back to Paris, and I’m going to continue singing. I think that this was good because it really gave me something to look forward to and to strive for.

OW: What role did your support system play?

ILT: A bright side of it being Covid when this happened was my parents were home. So they could take care of me and drive me to my appointments. They were really, really there for me. If this had happened when the world was normal, they would be working. And they wouldn’t have had as much free time. I was so close to all my colleagues from the young artists program. They were so supportive of me. All of my friends in New York, my family… I just think because I knew I had so many incredible people to lean on, I could stay positive. It wasn’t an option for me not to be positive if that makes sense. I had so much love around me, which made it okay to not be okay.

OW: How did you feel when you resumed singing after finishing treatment?

ILT: When I came back, I really came back. Like, I had a very full schedule. I was in tons of productions, tons of concerts, and that’s definitely what I wanted. I wanted full steam ahead. I wanted to show, to prove, that I still deserved to be here. And that was another thing; they trusted me enough as an artist to let me come back six months after finishing chemo, which could have been risky. Because we didn’t know what the cancer, or the treatment, was going to do to my voice, and they still were like, “You’re coming back. If you want to come back, you’re coming back.” So I’m so grateful to them for trusting me and really supporting me, and bringing me back. So when I did, I was like, “I’m gonna show you guys it was a good choice to have me back.”

OW: What was it like when you sang again for the first time?

ILT: I distinctly remember feeling like I was pouring out emotion and everything I had experienced through the art that I was singing. I could truly connect, and that was the best part.

OW: How important is it for artists to prioritize their health?

ILT: What we do is who we are. And you need to be healthy. We have to take care of ourselves; we work very, very hard. We’re traveling constantly, and we have long days and hours. During my first season back, I did too much, and I realized now, looking back, I should have just taken a moment to check in with myself and then come back better. So I think it’s very important.

OW: Why do you believe it’s relevant for singers to embrace and share their authentic stories?

ILT: Sometimes singers feel like they have to present themselves in a very clean-cut way. I do this, this, and that, and that’s why I’m successful. We rarely get to hear about the bad parts or, not necessarily bad, but the struggles or the challenges. For me, personally, it’s more beneficial when I see someone tell their authentic story, and I get to watch them also be successful. And you’re like, “Wow, yeah, look what they’ve done. Look what they’ve been through. And they’re still shining.”


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