Montreal·Special Report

Voices of Hope: A choir of survivors

Living with cancer is one of the most difficult experiences a person can go through. Voices of Hope is a local choir composed of survivors, who have made the brave step to focus on life and healing despite illness.

Cancer surviors find hope and support in song

Regine Breyton sings along to “Thank you for the music" - a sentiment shared by many in the choir. (Sara Cornett/ Concordia Journalism)

Living with cancer is one of the most difficult experiences a person can go through.

Voices of Hope is a local choir composed of survivors who have made the brave step to focus on life and healing despite illness.

“The people who come here are often self-aware, positive people, who want to help themselves,” says Ginette Quintal-Solomon, one of the volunteers and founders of the choir.

“They know that time is precious and they want to make the best of what’s left. They are extraordinary. I learn how to cope from them.”

They know that time is precious and they want to make the best of what’s left.- Ginette Quintal-Solomon, Voice of Hope co-founder and volunteer

The choir rehearses once a week for two hours at the Wellness Centre in the heart of Côte-des-Neiges.

In any given year, there are usually between 20 to 25 members from various cultures.

There are no auditions, so some members come with experience, while others do not.

One of the volunteers, Michèle Hekimi, trained as a professional singer at a music conservatory in Geneva.

“To share my knowledge with the choir is important to me,” she says.

Everyone is welcome.

“We’re such a cohesive group—it’s marvellous,” says Nina Cass, 92, the oldest member of the choir.

Beginnings

Voices of Hope started more than six years ago when Quintal-Solomon, a lawyer by profession and trained singer, proposed to establish a choir at Hope & Cope, an organization that provides support to cancer survivors and their families.

It was a dream come true for Suzanne O’Brien, Hope & Cope’s executive director, who had long wished to have a choir at the Wellness Centre.

After receiving O’Brien’s blessing, Quintal-Solomon asked Vincenzo Guzzo, a trumpet player, to join as the choir director and Michèle Hekimi as a soprano soloist.

All three together started the choir and, to their great delight, they were joined by MusicaCamerata’s co-founder and pianist, Berta Rosenohl, who volunteers her time and talent as an accompanist.

“We are so lucky to have Berta,” says Guzzo.

“There are better choirs who have less accomplished piano accompanist working for them.”

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The Voices of Hope choir performs two concerts a year: one in December, and another in June. 

They learn completely new songs for each concert, repeating only their theme song, I have a dream by ABBA. Choir director, Guzzo, hopes they can produce a studio-quality album one day that reflects the diversity of the choir members and showcases its best songs.

Presently, the choir only has women, but men are invited.

In fact, to fill the void, the choir hires four male singers from the Opéra de Montréal to join them for their concerts.

More than 300 people regularly attend these concerts, and proceeds from ticket sales go to Hope & Cope.

The concerts include solo performances by volunteers and special guests, namely Gino Quilico who has performed with Voices of Hope for the past three years.

'It’s about making music from the heart'

Membership is in constant flux— some choir members return to work after finishing their treatments, some pass away, others have been there since the beginning.

“Choristers can stay for as along as they want,” says Guzzo.

“If they come when they’re sick, they can come when they’re healthy.”

Having lost his own wife to cancer, Guzzo feels a strong connection to these women, as do Quintal-Solomon, who has also lost loved ones to cancer, and Hekimi, who is herself a cancer survivor.

An enthusiastic member, Pierrette Lamothe, is grateful to be a part of the choir.

Several years ago, when one of her friends was fighting breast cancer, she discovered Hope & Cope and told her friend about it.

Little did she know a couple years later, she herself would also be coming to Hope & Cope for support.

Lamothe says that chemotherapy and surgery affected her respiratory system and vocal chords, a common side effect. 

Some survivors say their voices are permanently changed. Guzzo admits he had to adjust and be more patient as a choir director.

Although Quintal-Solomon agrees it is sometimes a challenge for the choir to sound the way it should, she says it is still possible to make beautiful music.

“It’s about making music from the heart. That’s what makes it beautiful and satisfying,” says Quintal-Solomon.

“It’s not the beauty of the voice. There are many well-known singers who did not have particularly beautiful voices, but they touched people by putting emotion and heart into their singing.”

Lamothe says singing has helped her a lot.

“Singing not only lifts up my spirit, but it also helps my breathing. I can hold my breath much longer now, whereas before, I was short of breath all the time.” 

About the project

Côte-des-Neiges Chronicles is a collaboration between CBC Montreal and the Diploma Program of the Department of Journalism at Concordia University. Students from an online journalism course were asked to report on Montreal’s Côte-des-Neiges ​neighborhood. They were also asked to push their storytelling skills through the use of photos, video and information graphics  The result is a wide-ranging look at the history of Côte-des-Neiges, its key attractions, and the individuals and communities that make up one of Montreal’s more diverse neighborhoods.