The sound of an orchestra, swelling from a boom box, filled the Paul Revere Mall in the North End one recent Saturday afternoon. Towering over a circle of tourists, a 6-foot-4 man, dressed all in black, took a deep breath before announcing himself with a penetrating baritone voice.
Wesley Thomas extended his arms to passersby when he sang of loss. He gestured more gently when he sang of love. And he stared forward, tears welling in his eyes, when he sang of hope.
“One man, scorned and covered with scars,” he thundered from “Man of La Mancha,” “still strove with his last ounce of courage to reach the unreachable star.”
Dozens of tourists stopped to listen. They didn’t know this was part performance, part therapy — and that’s how Thomas preferred it.
Here, he was simply Boston’s self-proclaimed “Opera Guy,’’ who sings arias and show tunes at train stations, in parks, and throughout the city, instead of a man with a troubled mind.
“He’s able to get up in front of an audience as if he was at the Met,” said Caroline Whiddon, executive director of the Me2 Orchestra. The Vermont-based group for musicians with mental illness invited Thomas to perform with the ensemble last month. “If he hadn’t told us he had a mental illness, we wouldn’t have known,” Whiddon added. “That’s a powerful thing.”
Once, Thomas might have had a shot at the Metropolitan Opera. His voice is that good. Making it, however, proved more challenging than mastering musical runs. Mood swings, temper tantrums, and alcoholism derailed his dreams.
“I couldn’t easily control my temper,” Thomas, 46, said in an interview at a Harvard Square coffee shop. “I knew something was a little different about me when I was a kid. . . . But it wasn't something that was really talked about.”
It was decades before family and friends understood his inner struggles, before he found employers who did not tire of his emotional instability, before a doctor properly diagnosed his mental illness and put him on an effective treatment.
Now there is a growing realization that people with mental illness can function at a high level in the workplace, that psychiatric conditions often impose no greater limits than other chronic illnesses. This is particularly true in the creative arts, which can be therapeutic and offer a world where differences and eccentricities draw much less attention than talent.
Yet success for people like Thomas seldom comes without a community, without the support of people who understand and even face similar struggles, said Dr. Gary Sachs, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry and founding director of Massachusetts General Hospital’s Bipolar Clinic and Research Program.
Such acceptance was missing for most of Thomas’s life.
Mesmerized at an early age
Thomas was 13 when he fell in love. Watching a production of “Carmen,” he was mesmerized by the opera’s seductive gypsy, by the characters who told their fantastical stories through rhapsodic songs.
This was where he belonged. The opera stage, he thought, was a place where he could sing, act, even dance. He could lose himself in the characters’ stories with his bellowing voice, too loud for a chorus.
The boy who never fit in had found his home.
At school in Westbrook, Minn., Thomas never could play sports with the other boys. He had poor balance and limited coordination. A caregiver had shaken Thomas too hard several times when he was 3 years old, said Cheryl Thomas, his older sister, causing a traumatic brain injury.
By fourth grade, Thomas was spending days in bed instead of in class. His father had died of lung cancer a year earlier, and Thomas was too depressed to leave his pillow.
But when he found opera and his voice, his mood swings and depression seemed to disappear. After school, he would belt out songs in his room, often to the dismay of his four siblings or neighbors.
“I’ve been in large churches when he was singing, and the stained glass is rattling,” Cheryl Thomas said.
Near the end of high school, Thomas landed an audition for the prestigious Boston Conservatory and secured a place in the freshman class. The small-town boy from Minnesota traveled the 1,500 miles to Boston, an academic and musical metropolis.
That fall, Thomas often spent his weekends performing at the conservatory and with local groups, or rehearsing, still managing to earn high marks in his classes.
“He had the attitude that it takes to be a performer. . . . He certainly had a lot of confidence,” said Elisabeth Phinney, who was Thomas’s voice teacher at Boston Conservatory. “Vocally, he definitely has a world-class instrument.”
But by his second semester, music history and foreign language classes proved troublesome. Thomas couldn’t focus. He would be euphoric one day and unable to get out of bed the next. And no one seemed to understand him.
Thomas turned to alcohol and marijuana. Soon, he was 5½ years into college with no foreseeable graduation date.
He was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, he said, and the medication seemed to help.
But some school officials still urged him to leave.
“Just go, have a career,” Thomas recalled their telling him. “Quit bothering with school.”
So he did.
Or tried. It wasn’t long before Thomas found himself in a homeless shelter, struggling with alcoholism. But after a few months, he got sober and found a place to live. His life seemed back on track.
He had started singing on Boston’s streets during college, and he took it up full time in 1996. Three years later, he was hired at Boston Lyric Opera, New England’s largest opera company, for which he had several leading roles and sang in the chorus. He also got a weekend job at King Richard’s Faire, a family entertainment complex. He was singing or acting seven days a week.
He grew tired and felt overworked. A doctor diagnosed him with depression and prescribed Prozac, he said, but his mood swings and depressive states only worsened.
He showed up for work sporadically, and when he did, he often lashed out at co-workers and customers.
Eventually, he was fired from both jobs.
In 2002, he ended up back in a shelter. He had nowhere to sing.
A turning point
Two years later, when Thomas was 36, with his life in disarray, he started seeing a psychiatrist. They worked together almost every day, and soon, it was clear: Thomas had bipolar disorder.
The depression medication he had been taking the past four years had only aggravated his mental illness, his psychiatrist told him. With new medication, he slowly gained better control of his temper. His mood swings lessened. He could return to singing on the streets, collecting money to live on.
He started rehearsing for plays again, and he worked with local singing groups and opera companies.
He still envisioned himself on the Met’s stage.
His crisp voice soared and softened effortlessly as he performed arias at the University of Vermont Recital Hall with the Me2 Orchestra last month. Dressed in a tuxedo with half of his waist-long silver hair neatly pulled back, he sang with his entire body, from his expressive eyes to his constantly moving arms.
He felt safe in that 300-seat hall, where no one cared about his past. Twice the audience stood and applauded.
“It’s nice to fit in and it’s nice to be in a group where I’m accepted for not only being the soloist, but being part of the group as someone who’s got some of the same issues as many of them do,” Thomas said.
After an article about the ensemble ran in The Boston Globe and other publications, musicians from Massachusetts and around the world e-mailed Whiddon, the Me2 Orchestra’s executive director, saying a group for people with mental illness was something they longed for. That led the orchestra to decide to expand to Boston in September, because of its numerous music schools and companies, and its proximity to Vermont.
“Music can be used to further a social mission,” Whiddon said. “Here, nobody has to dwell on the fact that they’re living with a set of challenges.”
Opera as a salve
Thomas counted the bills and coins after performing for three hours on the Paul Revere Mall.
One hundred eighty-two dollars. A pretty good day.
He bent down to pick up his boom box, his hair spilling over his shoulder. He picked up the red-and-green “Thank You” sign he had perched on a backpack and headed home.
Each of Thomas’s setbacks — his father’s death, the unfinished degree, the bouts of homelessness, the misdiagnoses of his mental illness — has left an invisible scar. But opera carried him through, and he can’t imagine a life without it.
“If he doesn’t practice or doesn’t sing regularly, he becomes very depressed. He sleeps more often, he has trouble concentrating, he seems to be more aimless,” said Thomas’s fiancée, Misty Dawn, who shares an apartment with him in a complex for people with disabilities.
“When he’s singing, he’s got purpose, he’s got drive, he’s got energy, he’s all over the place.”
He continues auditioning for various roles. In November, he is scheduled to perform as a soloist with the Masterworks Chorale, at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre.
Thomas still hopes to one day sing at the Met.
He knows he has the voice; it’s simply a matter of finding the way.