Heart and soul: David MacAdam sings for his life

David MacAdam

David MacAdam will tell you that he comes from a long line of “stubborn bastards.”

When you think of his chosen profession and know of the trials of his life, you understand that that part of his DNA has stood him in good stead.

MacAdam is a classically trained tenor and has sung professionally for 30 years in Canada and the United States. He’s also worked as an administrator for various organizations and as a stage director. In Ottawa, where he has lived for many years, he teaches voice at Carleton University and at the Orléans Vocal Academy.

It’s a life of hard work and dedication and much fulfillment.

All the more powerful, one realizes, when you learn about the heart transplants he has survived.

MacAdam has had four hearts, three human and one artificial, and he’s survived and, one might say, thrived as an artist and teacher all for the love of music.

He is preparing to deliver his latest recital on Sunday at Ottawa Pianos, 1412 Bank St. It is an evening of French Art Song, by Berlioz, Saint-Saens, Duparc and Reynaldo Hahn with his colleague, pianist Joanne Moorcroft.

He is dedicating the concert to a well-known mentor.

“I had the opportunity to work with Gérard Souzay, who was one of the major practitioners of what is known as mélodie.”

MacAdam was at university in Buffalo, New York in the late 1980s when his teacher at the time took a sabbatical and headed to France. MacAdam had a choice: study with someone else, take a year off or go to France. Wisely he chose the latter.

“When I got there, he said, “I tried and failed to order a hot dog and a coke. That’s how bad my French was.”

He’s pretty bilingual now and some of that, no doubt, is due to his working with Souzay, who instructed him in a number of masterclasses. Their professional relationship continued after MacAdam returned to the U.S.

“There is an elegance in his artistry. I got the feeling from him that it was always about the music and that’s how I feel.”

The last time he worked with Souzay was during a tour of the U.S. in 1988.

“He was at a festival in Princeton, New Jersey and he gave the opening night concert. He was 71 and his voice was showing its age slightly but his artistry was off the chart.

“He sang several encores. Before last one he said, ‘Ladies and gentleman, I’m old and tired. Then he simply said, ‘Schubert An Die Musik’. And he smiled and then he sang as, I think, a personal tribute to music.

“Of all the things I have ever seen and experienced that was the most profound,” he said.

“I learned a lot of things I had been doing wrong when I worked with him. He was tremendous interpreter. he taught me that it was an important thing to get inside the space of the text in a song.

“A lot of people look at opera or musical theatre as something different from art song. To me they are not different. Art song still presents a story; it is still has a character. If anything it’s likely to be more personal, nuanced and subtle.”

MacAdam, who has a long background in opera, including with Opera Lyra, and with several companies in the Buffalo area,  knows how important that understanding is.

He also knows that being an opera singer is a hard row to hoe.

Why does he do it?

“I can’t not,” he said.

“I have friends tell me, ‘You need to quit. You need to get a job, you need to stop living like this.’

“I have thought about it but I can’t turn my back on teaching, I can’t turn my back on performing. I can’t turn my back on opera. It is a big part of who I am.

“We all wake up in the morning with the blues sometimes but as soon as I walk into the studio and start teaching, it’s gone. I am in my element. It’s the same with performing. It keeps me alive.”

MacAdam approaches teaching the same way.

“Sometimes it is just making money, but for me teaching is paying it forward. Every time I sing, it’s dedicated to my principal voice teacher, Gary Burgess. We stayed close friends all his life. For better or worse I have ended up modelled after him.

“My students feel they can come and talk to me. I’m not an easy teacher but I’m not a cruel teacher or someone who screams.”

That is certainly good news for the 25 to 35 students MacAdam works with at any one time.

These days he said, heart No. 4 is working just fine. It’s been with MacAdam for some 19 years now.

It’s not an easy topic of conversation, he said.

“I don’t like to make it about me, but I have gotten more comfortable about talking about this.”

MacAdam was diagnosed in 1995 with the early signs of congestive heart failure.

He was married at the time and his step-daughter was playing soccer. He wanted to help out as a referee but thought a check up was a good idea.

His family doctor noticed an irregularity “and that’s how I came to be diagnosed. It didn’t stop me from refereeing.”

But, by Christmas 1999, he was in trouble. On Christmas Day he blacked out couple of times. On Boxing Day he had a heart attack at home.

He was on the list for a heart transplant but the attack moved him up the list. Eventually on Jan. 3, 2000, MacAdam got a new heart, but it was not viable. The doctors, he said, took the organ because it was available, and he would have died without it.

But he needed another heart.

The doctors suggested trying an artificial heart. They gave MacAdam a four per cent chance. His then wife said, “‘You do your job and my husband will do his’.” So they operated again and then they left him in a closed operating room because they were concerned he would die if they moved him.

After doing his job for five weeks, he received the heart he has today. With the record for a heart transplant at 36 years, MacAdam fugues he has some time to go.

“Ultimately, at some point, it is very likely it will go south.” So why not sing?

That too is not without a bit of drama.

Along the way, MacAdam has also developed a mild debilitating lung condition.

He should have trouble breathing but “I have normal breath function because of singing.”

He’s always taken “tempi on the slow side. Before I was transplanted I could sing ridiculously long phrases.”

That training has helped him maintain the function of his lungs … to the surprise of his respirologist.

When MacAdam first met his respirologist, “he said I may never recover” and he told MacAdam that his lungs would gradually deteriorate.

“But I came back to see him a year later, he was shaking his head and laughing. My breath function had improved and he said that was not supposed to happen.”

So MacAdam has kept up his concerts and “part of the reason for all that is because one of the prescriptions I have from the respirologist is I have to keep performing. ‘You must keep singing, it’s great therapy. You can’t stop’,” he said.

Soirée de Mélodie Française
David MacAdam, tenor, Joanne Moorcroft, piano
Where: Ottawa Pianos, 1412 Bank St.
When: Nov. 25 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information: eventbrite.ca

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.