For much of her life, Maria Jooste's eye wasn't on a stage career. As a young girl, the South African native sang in church, but as she got older, she was more likely to be found singing for the horses she groomed than for people.
Her wakeup call came while she lived in England, during a serious bout of bronchitis. Jooste lost her voice for a month, and when she returned to work as a groom in a stable, she was no longer singing.
"The weirdest thing happened," Jooste recalls. "This woman came walking up one day to the gate and said, 'Are you the groom here? I used to always hear you singing in the mornings, why aren't you singing anymore?'
"It woke me up," Jooste says. "I thought to myself, people noticed, obviously there must have been something that they were listening to, and that's why I decided to give it a try."
In 2003, Jooste was chosen for a selective young artists program at the Washington National Opera. NPR's Robert Siegel, host of All Things Considered, and NPR producer Julia Buckley spent a year with Jooste, watching, listening and talking with her as she tries to launch her career. It's a year of acting classes, singing lessons, understudy appearances and one unexpected stage debut.
Siegel traces Jooste's successes — and setbacks as she learns that a stellar voice may not guarantee stardom or even a part. The opera world is changing, and Jooste's weight, more than 300 pounds, is proving to be an obstacle to her dream.
Next month, the 29-year-old Jooste begins her second year with the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program at the Washington National Opera.