Thomas Glass, A Rising Opera Star with Type 1 Diabetes

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The tall, strapping baritone singer took center stage, belting out the role of Snug in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” with emotion, humor and beauty. His costume was huge, a giant lion’s head. His voice soared, thrilling the crowd. What no one knew wasn’t meant to be a secret: it’s something opera performer Thomas Glass has had as a part of him since he was a small boy. Inside that costume, just like every costume he wears, the wardrobe department had sewn a special pocket to fit Glass’ insulin pump. Because Glass, a rising star at just 26 years old, has Type 1 diabetes.

Now, Glass is signed with IMG Artists New York Vocal, one of the most prestigious agencies in entertainment. The news means Glass is moving closer to his dream of performing on the best stages in the world, a dream that came despite diabetes. To him, diabetes is just part of who he is.

“I’ve had it since I was five, so I’m just used to it,” he said. “I don’t know life without it, so I’m lucky I guess.”

Luck has nothing to do with the ascension Glass is experiencing in the world of opera. Once a hard-core jock football player, Glass discovered music was his passion as a young teen when, surrounded by the choral culture of Lutheran Minnesota, he started to sing in school. That led him to St. Thomas College where he majored in music and fell in love with opera. After a full ride and stipend to get his Master’s in Opera at Rice University, he joined the prestigious Minnesota Opera Resident Artist Program. A “tier 2” venue, it’s an honor to perform with them, Glass said. Next up, is a two-year spot in Houston’s Opera. After that, he hopes to move on to Germany. “The volume of work they put on is so much more than in the United States,” he said.

Does diabetes play a role in his performances? How could it not? On any given day, Glass said, he is “singing in another language while emoting the character and singing this 400 year old [composition] and oh, acting too. In a field where I have to be thinking about blocking, singing, language, acting, and all at the same time, it’s so important to be on.”

That means he needs to be on target with his diabetes management and clear of mind, for the sake of his performance and that of the entire show.

“You have to kind of treat it like you would a football game or any other sport,” he said. “You have to center your whole day around it. Even the rehearsals, you have to be sure you are on and ready – and prepared.”

“I can perform when I’m high,” Glass said. “It’s not great; but if I have to, I can do it. But low is when it gets wonky.” That’s where “be prepared” truly comes in. He knows to have rapid acting glucose that’s easy to swallow close by at all times, which can call for creativity.

“One time I was Jesus in “Godspell” and I had Skittles hidden in a set piece right on stage,” he said. “No one in the audience knew. But they were there for me if I needed them.” He also says pump therapy helps. Should he be trending below where he wants to be before an intense performance, he can suspend his pump delivery for a time.

And then there are the times he just has to punt. Like the summer of 2015. “I was performing in a large, baroque costume with layers and layers. It was just so thick. And ten minutes into the show, I felt it pull my infusion site out. There was nothing I could do except just keep going until intermission,” he said. “You know, diabetes adds another layer to everything. The more I can do to just be proactive, the better.”

Glass looks forward to performing  even more around the world, being represented now by IMG. As he moves closer toward what may have seemed like a dream, he has advice to those with diabetes: Don’t try to shake it off when you can’t.

“Here’s an example,” he said. “I had a new infusion set in and I felt high. I corrected, and got higher. I had to let the scheduler know I had to cancel the rest of the day because of it. I was so worried – you know: the whole ‘don’t let diabetes get in the way.’ But in this moment, it had to get in the way. And what I learned was this: It’s the same as if someone, say, got food poisoning. Things happen, we react as we must. No one judges people for that, and no one judged me for this. Everyone was totally fine. Good lesson.”

It also seems some lessons he learned in diabetes life having led him to his gig with IMG. When he got a chance to be seen by an agent, when he got a chance to talk to a representative,and when he got a chance to audition in New York, he harkened back to his childhood days of JDRF walks and what his mother taught him. “Always send a written thank you note,” she said. “To every person who helps in any way.” That he did this time too, and he believes it helped get him noticed.

To Glass, it all seems simple, even when it is not. Just as the easy way he melds diabetes into his challenging performance career, he sees his dreams as simple, too.

“I’m just so happy I have a job doing this,” he said. “ I just want to be able to support a family with music. The heights I reach don’t matter to me. I’m much more interested in simply singing music that matters.” And diabetes? It shouldn’t inhibit me. I’ve never met a person out here who wasn’t willing to help me figure this out.”

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