Making It When You Don’t Make It

Meet ‘Stella’

Being a singer is part of Stella’s identity. She could no more stop singing than stop using her hands to talk. In her culture, singing is part of everyday life and everyone sings. For her father, a first generation Italian-American, singing was the way to lift himself and his family out of poverty and the difficulties of being a struggling immigrant family.

Stella’s father was much more than just another Italian singer. During his Broadway debut, he brought the house down on an out-of-town opening, earning a bigger ovation than the male lead. Before the show opened on Broadway, the composer wrote an additional song for her father to sing. He won two Donaldson Awards (which later became the Tony Awards) for “Best New Comer” and “Best Supporting Actor.”

The next year, Stella was born. For the first six years of her life, her father was either on Broadway or on the road. When he was on Broadway and living at home, her parents frequently entertained, and Stella sang for the guests. She sang in school and in church. She also played piano and accompanied the school chorus, but she preferred being in the spotlight, at center stage.

Stella had big dreams, but by the time she began expressing them her father’s career was on the rocks. Her heartbroken, embittered father began a serious and long campaign to keep Stella from going into show business. He was afraid she would experience the same pain and disillusionment he had suffered and he did not want that for his daughter. He told her she didn’t have what it takes because he didn’t think she could handle what he had experienced. He did not see that he was crushing her dreams.

Stella’s father permitted her to take piano and voice lessons, but she was forbidden to take dance lessons or participate in any musical activities outside of church and school. The dance lessons were a sore spot for her because she wanted to sing on Broadway, where she knew she would need to move well. She tried to make the best of what she was permitted, pouring her talent and energies into her activities.

When it became clear to her father that she could not be distracted from her career aspirations, he let her know that he would support only a college education—she was forbidden to audition at Juilliard, or anywhere else in New York City.

When Stella auditioned outside the city for a music education degree program, the chairs of the Voice and Education departments were so pleased with her singing that they asked her to audition for the assistant opera department chair, who immediately offered her a slot in the opera program. Her father would not allow it—Stella was permitted to study music education only. She felt like a racehorse stalled at the gate.

The school offered Stella a great scholarship, and against her better judgment she began as a music education major. She had not yet learned to stand up for her dreams and to pursue her passion regardless of what others, even her own parents, had to say. In her desire to be an obedient and respectful daughter, she allowed their fears to continue to squash her dreams and hopes.

Early in her freshman year, Stella’s upper register began to display some mysterious problems. She was confused and worried, and her teacher offered little help. People at the school knew whose daughter Stella was. The school took a hands-off approach with Stella because she was the daughter of a star. She felt abandoned and desperate. Every time things did not go perfectly, Stella felt she was shaming not only herself, but also her father, in front of the entire world.

Her first college crush offered Stella a means for escaping her feelings of isolation, and provided a distraction for her constantly wounded ego. He was not in the music school, and she was able to get away from her problems when she was with him and his friends. Her voice teacher disapproved and predicted that the young man would be her ruin. Prophetically, a tick bite—most likely incurred on a fishing trip with this boyfriend—infected her with chronic Lyme disease, an affliction that would go undiagnosed for years.

Many factors worked against her voice during college, but she stayed in the game. She was shy and embarrassed, but she kept singing, and she stayed in school. To her father’s dismay, Stella changed her major first to voice and music education, and later to applied voice.

After struggling for four years with the same teacher and getting nowhere, a very kind, young voice major suggested she try another teacher. Stella did, with much greater success. During this time she first sought the help of an allergist and learned of her severe seasonal allergies. She also married her college crush. She sang her senior recital six months pregnant with their first child, and graduated shortly before the birth.

By now Stella recognized that she needed some distance from her father and the school she believed had let her down. She needed to figure out who she was on her own. The newlyweds moved after graduation to create a new life for themselves. Stella gave up singing and focused on nurturing their young family. Over the next five years she had two more children.

Eventually Stella’s church pressured her into joining the choir and functioning as a cantor, and she began slowly to sing again, rebuilding her confidence. Then she found a local voice teacher and began to rebuild her voice. She still didn’t know what was wrong with her body, but she took medications to alleviate various symptoms.

The new teacher changed Stella’s voice, her attitude, and her life. With her guidance, Stella developed super support, a ringing tone, and lots of confidence. Thanks to all that study and rebuilding, Stella was singing all over town. She sang at opera restaurants, small opera productions, dinner theater, with local bands and orchestras, and even had a guest spot on a local television talk show. She also took up acting, and appeared as an extra in some feature and industrial films. Her father was surprised, pleased, and finally supportive.

Not long after she began to perform again, her marriage ended. Suddenly she had a very messy divorce to deal with. Her ex-husband eventually abandoned their children and stopped providing any financial support. On the rebound, she remarried and continued singing.

During that second marriage, her health began to deteriorate seriously. In addition to and exacerbated by her still undiagnosed Lyme disease, she suffered from medullary sponge kidneys with recurring stones and infections. Except for her church job, she stopped performing altogether in 1995. Her second marriage ended a year later.

Stella had begun to teach piano and voice part time soon after her first marriage ended. With the support her ex-husband was stilling paying her and the children at that time, her teaching, and her singing and acting gigs, she was easily able to make ends meet. Once the support disappeared, she was forced to take on a full-time teaching position with a local parochial school. She parlayed that into a full-time position with a local public school system that offered her a subsidy for earning her state teaching license. Eventually she ended up auditioning for a teaching position at a local community school of music, giving up her school system job after the first year.

A year and a half later, as a result of the obvious deterioration of her singing and piano playing, the other symptoms she reported, and subsequent testing, doctors diagnosed chronic systemic Lyme Disease and multiple co-infections: chronic systemic strep, chronic systemic salmonella, Legionnaires’ disease, and a respiratory infection. The treatments began.

Those treatments were dramatic, and caused so much pain and swelling in her joints that singing or playing the piano was agonizing. Stella underwent nine months of I.V. antibiotic infusions, along with megadoses of oral antibiotics. The malaise and fatigue were so severe that some days it seemed impossible to climb out of bed. She had a peripherally inserted central line catheter for nine months and needed weekly visits by a home nurse, after which the treatment continued with oral medication only and was less intensive.

Today she is still in treatment, but believes the worst is over. She is chemically sensitive and highly allergic as a result of the megadoses of medication, and remains in the care of both the Lyme doctor and a team of alternative care practitioners. She has only just begun trying to rebuild her voice once again. She just turned 53 years old and hopes to be out there singing again before too long.

Stella is determined to find a way back. She is a singer and she will sing.

Michelle Kunz

Michelle Kunz is a professional certified life coach, helping individuals reduce conflict, gain clarity, and get more from their lives and careers. She has sung with the Washington National Opera Chorus on the Kennedy Center Opera House stage for over 15 seasons, where she also serves as Children’s Chorus Master. She serves on AGMA’s Board of Governors, representing the Washington/Baltimore Area, and on the Board of Andover Educators. Contact her at www.PELcoaching.com.