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Singing opera with someone else’s lungs
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Singing opera with someone else’s lungs

By , Published: May 27

Growing up in a family of 11 children, Charity Tillemann-Dick accumulated what she calls “a lovely collection of scars”: pinched skin from the time one of her brothers accidentally twisted her right arm in a playground swing; a teenage shaving nick on her right shin; a pockmark, also on her right leg, from tripping in a pothole in Russia.

But the masterpiece of her collection is hidden from view: Splitting the chest of this 29-year-old opera singer is a long, narrow ridge beneath her breasts that marks not one but two double-lung transplants.

For an opera singer, lungs are a musical instrument — like a Steinway to a pianist or a Stradivarius to a violinist. They expand and contract, carefully expelling air to create beautiful arias and emotional duets. Singers spend years training their lungs. To lose them is to face losing one’s dream, and, of course, one’s life.

“I always loved the heroines in opera. They were these beautiful, strong women in impossible situations,” Tillemann-Dick says. “When I got sick, it felt like I knew these stories and now I was living one, music and all. The question,” she says, “was how to outsmart the tragedy.”

Today Tillemann-Dick continues to perform — better than ever, she says — thanks to the lungs of a middle-aged Honduran woman.


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