Brian May of British rock band Queen. Supplied image.
Brian May of British rock band Queen. Supplied image.

Cape Town’s singing surgeon teams up Queen’s star and other musicians to raise funds for children’s surgeries

By Sameer Naik Time of article published Oct 9, 2021

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Johannesburg - Dr Wilhelm Lichtenberg still can’t believe it.

The Cape Town based cardiothoracic surgeon battles to put the words together when asked what it was like working closely with rock star Brian May of legendary British rock band Queen.

“I’m still pinching myself. It’s totally surreal.The enormity and the extent of the privilege certainly hasn’t even begun to sink in,” says Lichtenberg.

Not only is the surgeon working together with the British rock star, but he’s also had the privilege of working closely with West End and Broadway superstar Kerry Ellis and two-time Grammy Award winners The Soweto Gospel Choir.

Lichtenberg and the legendary musicians have all come together to create a new version of Queen's mega-hit, Who Wants To Live Forever in order to raise funds for heart surgeries for indigent children in Africa as part of the newly found Young Hearts Africa Initiative.

The Young Hearts Africa Initiative, spearheaded by Lichtenberg, a passionate tenor singer, was formed to create more opportunities for children in need of lifesaving surgery during his days as a trainee heart surgeon at Red Cross Children’s Hospital and the world-famous Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town.

Cape Town based cardiothoracic surgeon Dr. Wilhelm Lichtenberg. Supplied image.

He came up with the idea to use his voice and his love of music as instruments of change, to carry the message to the world, for the sake of those most in need.

As part of the first project for the Young Hearts Africa Initiative, Lichtenberg, affectionately known as the “Singing Surgeon”, teamed up with the legendary musicians to recreate Who Wants To Live Forever, which was written by May for the motion picture Highlander in 1986. It has become one of the most recognisable melodies of all time.

The song has received a unique and spectacular classic rock crossover style makeover in a brand new arrangement by composer, arranger and music producer Riaan Steyn.

The new arrangement is scored for two solo voices, a rock band, a full symphony orchestra and choir.

Combined with Ellis's clear sound, schooled on Broadway and London's West End, Lichtenberg’s pure, powerful soaring tenor voice and the unmistakable energy of the Soweto Choir, May's unmistakable guitar playing takes the concept of symphonic rock to a new level .

West End and Broadway superstar Kerry Ellis. Supplied image.

Speaking about how he came to work with the British rock star, Lichtenberg says he took a chance to write to May, explaining his vision.

May was thrilled by the project and happily agreed to help.

“I’m acutely aware of how blessed and fortunate I am and how much I have to be grateful for,” says Lichtenberg.

“I want to help those who don’t have the same privileges. I simply took a chance to write to Brian and explain to him what the project was about and he liked the idea. It's all still a bit of a dream. I don’t want to live forever, but I certainly hope this dream does.”

Having been a Queen fan all his life, Lichtenberg says it was a dream come true performing with May as well as the other top-notch musicians involved in the project.

Two-time Grammy Award winners The Soweto Gospel Choir. File image.

“It has been nothing but a joy and an absolute blessing from the beginning. They have given of their time, talent and effort completely selflessly and have helped and assisted at every turn, no questions asked.

“Brian loved the idea from the outset and threw all his weight and energy behind it all the way. He’s the quintessential gentleman, through and through.

“The experience has been absolutely surreal. Especially because they are such unbelievably kind, friendly, humble, unassuming, nice people.”

He also wasn’t nervous to perform in front of the highly accomplished musicians, he says.

“I wasn’t really nervous, just enormously privileged. All I could do was my best. I’ve been singing since I can remember, mostly in the shower. I’ve wanted to become an opera singer when I was at school, so to team up with musicians of such calibre was a huge honour and privilege.”

While Lichtenberg has had the time of his life working closely with legendary musicians from around the world, he says more importantly, he is delighted to be raising funds for heart surgeries for indigent children in Africa, something that is desperately needed.

Cardiovascular disease is the third most common single cause of death in South Africa and the rest of the African continent.

Lichtenberg says that heart disease in children places a devastating burden on families and communities and the prevalence in sub-Saharan Africa is almost 10 times higher than in developed countries.

“With the prevailing global crisis, this situation is set to escalate further and, as resources are diverted, the loss of lives amongst the most vulnerable members of the population of these areas, ie, helpless young children, will devastate entire communities.”

Funds raised through this initiative will be donated to The Children’s Cardiac Foundation for Africa, in addition to benefitting the 1000 Hearts initiative by the Christiaan Barnard Division of Cardiothoracic Surgery at Groote Schuur Hospital and the Red Cross Children’s Hospital in Cape Town.

“My hope is that we can raise R250 million over the next five years. From there on we can build it up.The need is almost unfathomable. If you look at the figures and statistics, you will see that there are tens of thousands of children requiring this type of surgery.

Brian May, guitarist of rock band Queen, performs with British singer Kerry Ellis (not pictured) during their Candlelight Concerts tour in Valletta April 5, 2014. REUTERS/Darrin Zammit Lupi (MALTA - Tags: ENTERTAINMENT)

“An open heart operation costs in the region of R250k. Without health insurance, no-one can afford that. If you keep in mind that only about 15% of the South Africa’s population do in fact have that type of insurance, the extent of the problem becomes clear. In the rest of Africa the situation is far worse.

“No one can live forever, but by raising the funds needed to keep the hearts of Africa’s children beating, we can build on a legacy which will be there to serve our children long after we are gone.”

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