Making It When You Don’t Make It

The stories that the subjects of this series have shared over the past several months are far from the whole picture of these women’s lives, and I would like to thank each of them for their courage and generosity in sharing their evolving singer-selves with Classical Singer readers. This month, “Kristina” struggles with mental illness, domestic violence, and lack of self-discipline—and wins.

“Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.” —author Stephen King

Meet ‘Kristina’

“Kristina” began her musical career as a pianist when her parents gave her piano lessons for her fifth birthday. Naturally gifted, Kristina did not work hard, and thought talent alone would get her to the top. She entered college a year early as an eager but undisciplined piano major, and was stunned to discover the existence of dozens of pianists better than she was. She dropped out, her ego deflated.

Kristina’s highly religious and conservative background emphasized the importance of marriage. So at 19 she accepted the proposal of the first person to ask her, although she had serious reservations. After four years of trying to conform to a highly controlled paradigm that left her feeling robotic and rebellious, Kristina filed for divorce. She knew she didn’t belong in that marriage or that lifestyle and she began to forge her own path.

Kristina experienced depression and feelings of isolation in the months following the divorce. A friend suggested she try something different and recommended voice lessons. Discovering opera was like coming home; everything about it appealed to her. She began to envision the possibility of something entirely new for herself—an operatic career.

When Kristina’s teen sweetheart unexpectedly reappeared in her life, they were both swept up by fantasies of childhood dreams coming true. Three months into their marriage he beat her up during an argument. During the next year, he beat her up regularly. He pulled her hair out, threw her into walls and furniture, and punched and kicked her all over her face and body. Kristina was in physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual shock. She felt utterly incapable of making a move to stop the horror of her life.

In hopes that the violence would magically stop, Kristina started to build a life for herself. She began working and taking voice lessons at the local community college at night. Her technique and her repertoire slowly grew.

On a whim, in the spring of 1990, she auditioned at a local university as a voice major. She was accepted, quit her job, and began classes in the fall. Her husband was jealous and resentful, exacerbating the violence already present in their relationship. He was a talented singer, but had abandoned singing in favor of security.

One day, her husband beat her during an argument in the car. When he pulled over and got out to cool off, Kristina jumped into the driver’s seat and left him standing by the freeway. She fled to the police, where they photographed her bruises and sent her to a battered women’s shelter. Separation and divorce soon followed. She was alone and depressed once again, but at least she had finally found the courage to leave.

Kristina finished her bachelor’s in vocal performance, summa cum laude, and accepted a scholarship to complete her doctorate. At school she felt successful and safe, and she was reluctant to give that up for the insecurity pursuing a solo career would require. She sang several leading roles in school opera productions, in recitals in well-known venues, and in Europe. The local opera house hired her to sing in the chorus. She still did not practice consistently, convinced that her technique was good enough for what she was doing.

Kristina’s personal life was a mess. She often engaged in risky behavior, such as reckless or intoxicated driving, casual drug use, careless sexual encounters, and exorbitant shopping sprees. Finally, she took herself out of the social scene altogether, going straight home from work, depressed, but determined not to make things any worse for herself. She was frightened by what she might do or what might happen to her while she was out of control.

Nine months later she met Matt. Matt was not her “type,” but he was persistent and really liked her. After countless, patient e-mails and phone calls, he got a date. It took many trying months before Kristina trusted him. Ultimately they got engaged, in romantic Europe, and a year later they married.

Kristina received her doctorate the next day, and her life finally seemed to be turning around. She tried one unsuccessful round of solo auditions and gave up. Now a few years past 30, she figured she was too old. It never occurred to her that she lacked the discipline of regular practice and hard work. Her technique was simply not sufficiently polished for a solo career. The days when talent alone was enough were gone.

Matt and Kristina had a beautiful baby and bought a house in the suburbs. Her moods and judgment began to spin out of control. When she publicly raged at a colleague and said other things that made her look extremely unprofessional, she scarcely noticed.

On Sept. 11, 2001 Kristina was in Manhattan. It was the worst day of her life. Returning home the next day, shaking and crying, she watched the black clouds billow from lower Manhattan. She was never quite the same afterward. She never felt that she could talk to Matt about 9/11 or that he understood any of her feelings, and a wedge began to form between them that grew with every passing month.

Kristina began an affair. It seemed like a great idea at the time. This other man seemed to understand her deeply, while Matt seemed totally out of touch. She felt happy again—but that happiness was short lived: Matt found out and confronted her. She denied everything at first and then finally, defiantly, insisted she would not stop. Eventually the affair did end, but Kristina felt more alone than ever, desperate, angry, and resentful. She was unconvinced their marriage could last.

The rest of that year was a roller coaster as Kristina and Matt began therapy, individually and together. At Christmas, she and Matt had a fight. The next day she stood at the front door in her pajamas and threw all the presents at his car as he pulled out of the driveway, slamming the door behind her. Her last glimpse of Matt was his bewildered look as he got out of the car, asking, “What are you doing?”

Meanwhile, Kristina felt her only stability was her chorus job, where she could lose herself in operatic plots and music. She secured a high-profile church job and a prestigious music school hired her to teach voice. She had no close friends. Inside, she was a disaster, and she was terrified that someone would find out and expose her. She ran from home to work and back, remaining intensely private and withdrawn, even though she was animated and vivacious in public. Her image and her reality did not match, which increased her feelings of anxiety and lack of authenticity.

The year 2004 began with an antidepressant, some relief, and a great deal of hope. Then one night in February, Kristina was lying in bed thinking she was asleep when she became aware that her mind was racing wildly. The antidepressant had induced hypomania; she was suffering from Bipolar II Disorder. The diagnosis felt like a life sentence. The disorder is incurable, and patients often have difficulty finding medications that work and continue to work over time. Suicide rates are 10-20 times that of the general population.

Kristina took stock of her life. She had a committed, stable husband who obviously loved her very much and was willing to do anything he could for their marriage and for her. She had a beautiful, highly intelligent child. She was an excellent voice teacher and was gaining a reputation for her exceptional work. She loved singing in the chorus and was becoming a core member of that organization. Her life was good in so many ways. She made a commitment that she would do whatever it took to find a medication that worked and stick to it, no matter what, for the rest of her life. She wanted to choose her life positively and actively; she would not be a victim.

The first medication she tried left Kristina feeling hollow, lethargic, and zombie-like. Within two weeks she was violently sick, with wrenching spasms that left her exhausted and pale. She tried again.

The second drug made her eyes feel tight and the light seem too bright. Everything felt distant and slightly off balance. Kristina sang in the chorus that spring with world-famous singers, terrified she might suddenly join the soprano in singing a role she herself had sung.

That summer the family vacationed with Kristina’s sister and her noisy family. After a week of chaos, Kristina had a panic attack and fell apart. She could not drive for a week, and could barely stop crying enough to get out of bed. She changed medication again. Three weeks after she reached the therapeutic dose, her hair began falling out. Her doctor took her off all medications (allergies, reflux—everything) for several weeks to clear her system. Her hair continued falling out for three months. When it grew back, it was thin, frizzy, and unmanageable. Kristina realized her hair was a minor sacrifice and learned to live without her thick, glossy mane.

Her doctor suggested a medication with the possible side effect of a life-threatening rash. Kristina told him to get creative and find another solution. Today, three years after the initial diagnosis, Kristina takes small doses of three medications and has been stable for two years.

Five months ago Kristina’s father was diagnosed with advanced, severe, aggressive lymphoma. A young and active 64, he and his entire family were stunned by the news. One night, as Kristina raged and sobbed her grief, she inflicted mild damage on one of her vocal cords. Her ENT found a pre-nodule and recommended vocal rest. Kristina was rehearsing two operas; vocal rest was impossible.

With more care and attention than she has ever applied in her entire life, she warms up her speaking voice before teaching, sleeps as much as possible, takes herbal supplements, and marks in rehearsal as much as she can. Slowly, her voice is returning to normal, although she can definitely hear that she is not totally recovered.

Kristina and Matt have finally turned a big corner in their relationship. They feel a tremendous amount of good will toward each other and their marriage, and are excited about their future.

Today, at 43, Kristina sings with the opera chorus, which she continues to love. She finally realized the value of hard work and focused on her technique. She is singing better than ever. She teaches, sings recitals and concerts, and focuses her energy on what matters most to her. She is making music on terms that support her life’s delicate balance.

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.