An Artist’s Take on Disability Creativity with David Salsbery Fry

Marianna Mott Newirth: Thank you so much, David, for joining me and Greg for a conversation about disability creativity in opera.

David Salsbery Fry: My pleasure.

Marianna: So, what inspired you to become an opera singer?

David: I came to opera through acting, musical theatre, classical music, and choral music. Opera synthesizes all of these performance genres into a single, powerfully affecting art form. The seeds were planted my sophomore year of high school when I saw my first operas, Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi, at Lancaster Opera Company. I joined the chorus then started college as a double degree student in pre-med biology at Johns Hopkins University and voice performance at Peabody Conservatory. I enjoyed singing so much I decided to make it my professional career. Singing really spoke to me.

Marianna: You are public about your hemophilia and what led to your decision to disclose your condition. Can you talk about the reaction you got?

David: That’s a difficult question. I made my disclosure in two stages. I was in conversations with the National Hemophilia Foundation to publicly disclose from an advocacy standpoint. They advised me to talk with my employer first, so I wrote to Peter Gelb, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera. He replied, commending me on my bravery—a theme that keeps coming back around. I hoped to begin a dialogue with the administration about representation of performers with disabilities on stage. They weren’t interested in anything other than legally mandated accommodations. I finished my contract and haven’t worked for them since.

Afterwards, I made a broader public disclosure and shared my experiences as a performer with a disability in an interview for Classical Singer magazine. A number of people read the article and talked about how brave I was, etc. But every single door open to me at the time was shut in the aftermath of that article. So I have been extraordinarily dismayed by the reaction since I made this disclosure in 2015.

My aim is to be as close as possible to someone who is not contending with a coagulation disorder.

Marianna: I hear you. I’m sorry. I know this is a hard question, and I appreciate your candor. Can you talk about any adjustments that a company has ever made to accommodate your needs?

David: This is another interesting question for me. There is always a risk of physical exertion or injury on the stage. All kinds of things can happen in a live performance. I manage my clotting factor levels to ensure they are high enough for me to recover from any injury. My aim is to be as close as possible to someone who is not contending with a coagulation disorder.

Marianna: But that’s on you to do.

David: Yeah.

Marianna: So is there anything that opera companies should do or have done for you to make that biological balancing act a little bit easier?

David: Before prophylaxis was widely available, I would infuse every other day or so. What was most helpful was having cold storage for my medication nearby in case I ever needed to intervene quickly. But any request for accommodation would reveal my condition. When I was a student at Juilliard I lived in Inwood, which is far away from the school, so I had to appeal to some committee to arrange reliable access to a small refrigerator. They approved my request but would not tell me who was on the committee. I spent the rest of my time at Juilliard not knowing who knew and who didn’t know about my condition.

This leads me to the need for opera company attitude adjustment. Later, I was working with a director who was unsatisfied with the physical characterization of my role. He came up to me after rehearsal asking why I carried so much tension in my elbows then proceeded to grab my arm and shake it. I have elbow contracture as the result of multiple injuries over the course of my life. It’s not tense; it’s chronically contracted. Any character I build is going to have elbow contracture! There’s nothing I can do about it. Had this director sought clarification from me about the cause of my elbow contracture, he would not have just assumed that I was tensing my elbows in a way that didn’t suit his concept for what my character should look like. As much as my elbow contracture may be a really overt example here, it’s relevant to the discussion of including performers with disabilities in the workspace. The need for attitude adjustment is universal. It is not confined to just performers with disabilities.

Marianna: Yes. It’s the practice of stepping outside of what we think we know to get into someone else’s world for a moment.

I look forward to the day when accommodation is an open dialogue between instructor and student or institution and employee, or coworker and coworker.

David: I say that as emphatically as I do because it’s arguably at the foundation of our work. Accommodation means embracing everyone’s humanity and individual circumstance. It’s the recognition that you are dealing with unique individuals. We should do this for everyone. I look forward to the day when accommodation is an open dialogue between instructor and student or institution and employee, or coworker and coworker. I hope that through collective action and advocacy we reach an inflection point. When that happens, maybe companies that were hesitant to hire me since my disclosure will be more amenable. I would like that very much.

Marianna: What good discoveries have you made since disclosure? Any upside to all you’ve dealt with?

David: The one comfort for me in all of this is that I am singing better now than at any other point in my life. I owe a great deal to my decision to disclose my hemophilia. Opera requires complete vulnerability and an unfettered infusion of emotion into vocal expression. If I withheld or concealed something from an audition panel, that concealment was reflected in my voice. I undertook the decision to disclose because the pressures of concealment affected my mental health. My elbow contracture was worsening, needle tracks from antihemophilic factor infusions were more prominent, and my previously non-apparent disability was becoming more and more apparent, so I chose to disclose. And only then did I discover my singing was better than ever before. Things that tied me in knots were suddenly free flowing. That’s beautiful, right?! I didn’t expect that, and I’m thrilled it happened.