If it appears the Division of Gerontology, Geriatrics and Palliative Care is attempting to commandeer Birmingham opera, there is a reason.

Sam Perna, far left, Andy Duxbury and Ryan Nash are no strangers to opera or local theater. All three appeared in the Opera Birmingham production of Aida in January, as did their new “recruit,” Jim Raper.
“It’s because we are,” says Andrew Dux-bury, M.D., professor in the division. “We are taking over the opera.”

Duxbury, along with Assistant Professor Ryan Nash, M.D., and Assistant Professor Sam Perna, D.O., each appeared in the Opera Birmingham production of Aida in January. They also recruited Jim Raper, D.S.N., director of the 1917 HIV/AIDS Outpatient and Infectious Disease Clinics, to join them.

Opera and local theater have been outlets for Duxbury, Nash and Perna. Duxbury says they are an opportunity to flex the left side of the brain — something he believes is crucial in their line of work.

“In medicine it’s particularly necessary to have both your right and left brain actively engaged and well-developed,” Duxbury says. “That’s particularly true for us.”

Duxbury says when your patients are chronically ill — HIV, palliative care and geriatrics, among others — it’s essential to understand your patients as people, not as a disease. He says acting and performing help keep his mind sharp and promote strong communication skills.

“The vast majority of what you actually can do for these patients is understand them as people and their social situations,” Duxbury says. “Performers hone those talents for presenting and receiving information. Half of acting is reacting. You learn a lot about how to communicate and get the information you need from other people and how to give them information you want them to have.”

Opera as an escape
Aida, described by Duxbury as an intimate opera with a circus in the middle, is considered by Opera Birmingham to be its all-time biggest hit.

Aida is the story of a love triangle set in ancient Egypt. It pits Amneris, the daughter of the King, against her slave, Aida. The brave soldier Radames is the object of their mutual affection. The grand triumphal march in Aida includes one of opera’s greatest choruses and is complete with live animals.

Duxbury and Nash performed in the male chorus and Perna and Raper were extras in both performances this year.

Duxbury says the opportunity to work in theater provides the doctors with an escape from the pressures of their jobs.

“It’s a release for us, particularly when you’re dealing with patients that you know you cannot cure,” Duxbury says. “You’ve got to be able to keep yourself centered so you can do that kind of work. Performing arts is a way of staying centered. It’s certainly not the only way, but it is a way.”

“Opera has amazing stories that are full of typology, emotion, complex characters and conflict,” Nash says. “Those characters deal with death as well. In a sense, it is therapeutic to express oneself in emotionally charged art, especially when we have such emotionally charged work.”

Duxbury had a career in theater behind the stage that he gave up many years ago. He decided to re-engage in performing arts six years ago. Someone heard Duxbury sing and told him he had some talent and should pursue it.

“I didn’t sing in public until I was 42,” he says.

He began performing in plays around town and started to get known for doing middle-aged character roles.

Duxbury’s partner, Tommy Thompson, recruited him to the local opera scene that needed more male singers.

Nash began singing only two years ago after becoming convinced that more men should sing in church. A voice teacher and pianist encouraged him to study voice, which he says has “created a monster.”

Nash has sung with choral groups and often sings solos in his church. He sings at weddings, fund raisers and almost any other event for which he is asked to sing. In fact, Nash complained to Duxbury just this past year about not having enough opportunities to sing. Duxbury immediately pointed him to Opera Birmingham. He has since sung in Turundot and La Traviata — in which he also had a solo role — and with the Opera Birmingham chamber choir in their Christmas concert. After Aida, Nash will be singing in Marriage of Figaro — another Opera Birmingham production.

“I plan on performing as often as work and home life will allow,” says Nash, a married father of four girls.

Duxbury is certain Aida won’t be the last time the doctors take to the local stage.
“It’s something that’s just a lot of fun for us,” Duxbury says. “Plus, you get to wear silly costumes.”