Opera singer Charity Tillemann-Dick received double lung transplants and went from struggling to draw a single breath to singing at the most prestigious venues in the world. In her new memoir, she explains how she overcame devastating challenges to reclaim her life and follow her musical dreams.
Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.
Excerpt: The Encore
ACT I, SCENE 1:
Hansel and Gretel
Eyes heavy and lost deep in the woods, Hansel and Gretel pray for angels to watch over them in sleep. Their eyes close and angels gather round.
Abends, will ich schlafen gehn,
When at night I go to sleep,
Vierzehn Engel um mich stehn;
Fourteen angels watch do keep:
Zwei zu meinen Häupten,
Two my head are guarding,
Zwei zu meinen Füßen,
Two my feet are guiding,
Zwei zu meiner Rechten,
Two are on my right hand,
Zwei zu meiner Linken,
Two are on my left hand,
Zweie, die mich decken,
Two who warmly cover,
Zweie, die mich wecken,
Two who o'er me hover,
Zweie, die mich weisen,
Two to whom 'tis given,
To guide my steps to heaven.
—ENGELBERT HUMPERDINCK, HÄNSEL UND GRETEL
I catch my breath. Floating down the balmy Danube, chandeliers twinkle, women's jewelry glistens, and Budapest's best gypsy band whips mournful melodies into feverish Hungarian dances. Even the sky is dressed in lustrous pinks and golds for the occasion. It's the perfect night for the most spectacular party I've ever attended, but something is off.
It's the summer of 2003 on the grand Europa river yacht. My grandfather is celebrating his seventy-fifth birthday with 250 of his nearest and dearest friends. Didi, the celebrant, stands by the door, his combed-back hair coordinating perfectly with his spotless cream suit and pearly-white grin. My eternally youthful mother, Annette, is on his arm. Within moments, she's deep into conversation with every person they pass; despite their slow progress, Didi can't help but beam. My dad, Timber, tall and intellectual behind wire-rimmed glasses, patiently escorts my petite grandmother, Mimo, around the ballroom. Greeting guests in the lavish setting, they are the picture of familial pride.
My ten siblings have already scattered. They're busy taking full advantage of the boat's rarefied amenities. Both in their teens, Corban and Liberty flirt with the children of other guests on the dance floor. As the sixth and seventh children, they've learned to be at ease in any situation. Mercina and Glorianna, the littlest girls in our family, twirl around each other while sipping virgin daiquiris, and Shiloh lectures Zenith on Hungarian parliamentary procedures as these two youngest brothers sample delicacies scattered on tables around the perimeter of the room. Craning my neck, I search for my four older siblings; they must be exploring the upper deck. Meanwhile, waiters wend through the assembled guests with silver platters of champagne flutes and caviar-topped eggs. I don't like caviar, but I do love food. Hungarian food, in particular. The sour cream. The butter. The paprika. What is there not to love and why am I not more interested in the buffet? Sitting in the midst of this fairytale opulence, my mind is inexplicably elsewhere.
As we drift by the Hungarian parliament's massive dome and towering neo-Gothic windows, a poetic justice plays out. Sixty years earlier, this country had turned its back on my family. Didi was carted away to toil in a labor camp, the rest of his family exterminated by the Nazis in Auschwitz; Mimo, the only daughter of Budapest's finest jeweler, ran when her father was taken out and shot by the Hungarian Arrow Cross along the passing banks, all to make a point: no Jew—no matter how beloved or esteemed—was safe in Hungary. Together, my grandparents fled this country's violent legacy to make a home in the United States. Yet this morning, our family gathered in the parliament's Cupola Hall as the prime minister of Hungary decorated Didi with the Cross with Star, one of the country's highest honors.
How did we ever get here? I think, smiling in disbelief. Despite the trappings of wealth surrounding us tonight, we've never been wealthy. Dad is a brilliant inventor. Issued his first patent as a freshman in college for a high-efficiency bicycle, he produced more ambitious creations with the passage of time. Baby car seats, medical devices, internal combustion engines—Dad has always approached inventing as the art of solving important problems. But his creator's soul isn't exactly brimming with business savvy, so Dad's day job as a college administrator keeps food on our very large table. Mom, a former beauty queen with a cache of advanced degrees, has spent the past twenty-five years doing the only thing that could ever fully use her boundless energy: raising kids. She started homeschooling in 1983, and since then she's welcomed a steady stream of new students into her classroom. Five feet two inches and 100 pounds of pure fire, charm, passion, strength, and will, only Mom, I'm convinced, could ever meet the demands of time, physical energy, and mental dexterity required by her particular brand of extreme childrearing. Like one of Dad's prototypes, our family started out as a bold and untested vision. Today, Mom and Dad claim my siblings and me as their greatest creative endeavor.
Though he attended college on a B'nai B'rith scholarship, Didi—Mom's dad—worked relentlessly in menial jobs so Mimo could come join him in the States. In 1950, after years of war, poverty, and separation, the childhood sweethearts married and started to rebuild their lives together. Mimo raised Mom and her sister, Katrina, while Didi worked to become a professor of economics at San Francisco State University. Didi had even greater aspirations for his American daughters than for himself, so he was not thrilled (to put it lightly) when his precious firstborn eloped with a starry-eyed tinkerer from the heart of the Rocky Mountains. Still, when Didi decided to run for office, he chose Dad to manage his campaign. My parents moved out to California, two babies in tow, and Didi won the long-shot congressional bid in 1980. In the decades since, he's grown into something of a legend: the only Holocaust survivor ever elected to the US Congress and one of the most respected statesmen in Washington, DC. Throughout their travels, Didi and Mimo have collected a great number of wealthy friends. And if anyone knows how to throw a party, they do.
I smile to myself, wondering what nineteen-year-old Didi—an orphan leaving Hungary with seven dollars and a salami in his pocket—would have to say about this welcome-home bash. But my mind is quickly beckoned back to more immediate hypotheticals. Today, nineteen years old, I am sitting on the cusp of much more than a dance floor.
After my grandfather's award ceremony that morning, I'd snuck off with my mother and our best Hungarian friend, Judit. Judit had arranged a voice lesson for me at the Budapest Opera House. Even while I was there, the scene felt unreal. I play it over again in my mind: the cold resonance of stone floors; melodies merging in the cavernous hallway. In my head I knew this was just a first-rate field trip—before leaving for Europe, I'd accepted a music scholarship in the United States—but I couldn't help but feel I was breathing in the air of destiny in those grand old halls. After our lesson my voice teacher left the room, then reentered with a line of distinguished-looking people trailing behind her. Confused but accommodating, I sang for these newcomers. Then I left the room, the totally incredulous recipient of a spot at Budapest's storied Liszt Academy of Music.
This is how opera legends begin! I think to myself back in the ballroom. I can see it now: "Young Soprano Plucked from Obscurity Goes onto Musical Greatness." But while the story sounds like a dream come true, its reality poses some challenging logistical questions. Am I really willing to leave everything I know behind—without a plan, preparation, or even the right language—to chase a dream so far from my home?
A hand on my arm interrupts my musings. "Charity Sunshine! Where have you been?" demands my oldest brother, Tomicah. "We've been looking all over for you—you're late for the run-through!"
I hurry down to the lower level of the yacht. Every other year, my siblings and I put on a show for our family reunion. The process is equal parts ridiculous, entertaining, and punishing. At twenty-one and seventeen, Levi and Corban always lobby for inappropriate humor that Kimber, twenty-three, inevitably cuts. Toeing the boundary between "little kid" and "big kid," fifteen-year-old Liberty is eager to participate at the highest levels, yet thirteen-year-old Shiloh doesn't even want to dance. True to my middle-child type, I always want more solos, while Mercina and Glorianna, eleven and nine, are tired of their perfect harmonies being put center stage; six-year-old Zen will inevitably regret his willingness to tromp around stage wearing nothing but a Speedo; and Tomicah, with slightly more foresight at twenty-four, preemptively argues that the esteemed crowd will think he's too old to play the family dog. Our oldest sister, Dulcia, has opted out of the circus altogether. Disagreements over the performance range on everything from costumes to choreography, but we charge ahead—the show must go on!
Walking down the hall, I hear Kimber call out, "Again! But this time, more jazz hands!" This year, we've decided to rewrite Fiddler on the Roof; seated behind an electric keyboard, my sister-in-law, Sarah (wed to Tomicah earlier this year), plunks out the introduction to "Tradition" as Levi begins his monologue. He explains our loving-if-complicated family dynamic in my grandfather's hallmark Hungarian accent, confidently lecturing with equal parts insight, irreverence, and affection. It's a perfect "Levi" performance. In fact, Fiddler captures the quintessence of our entire family: discovering traditions, breaking traditions, adopting traditions, and creating our own. This tradition—singing and performing together—is one of my very favorites. Slowly, we make our way through the condensed show, bickering our way toward excellence. After an hour, we're dismissed until curtain.
In the ballroom, Tomicah, Kimber, Levi, Corban, Liberty, and I jostle to an opening at the front of the stage. The band seems to play more furiously as we dance, spinning and clapping in time to the fiddle and mandolin. Suddenly, the music becomes muffled and darkness seeps into my peripheral vision. It's happening again. I stagger toward a chair as the room fades to black.
I didn't know it at the time, but 1988 was a big year for me. It all started a few months after my fifth birthday. Dulcia and her best friend, a singer-slash-beauty queen, invited me to a local production of Humperdinck's opera, Hansel and Gretel. I had always aspired to be something of an artist, and Mom, eight months pregnant at the time, was eager to separate me from my current medium of choice: permanent marker on the dining room wall. Dressed in my best pink crepe, we headed toward the theater as the setting sun splashed gaudy saturations across the snow-capped Rockies behind us. After I'd settled into my seat, Dulcia passed me a small piece of chocolate. It melted slightly onto my fingers as I popped it into my mouth.
I loved to sing—children's songs, the hymns I learn at church, the occasional Broadway standard—but opera was an entirely different affair. Mom liked to tune into the weekend broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera, and I found them at once very loud and very boring. Now, sitting in the dark theater, I watched as stagehands silently readied the set. Shadowy trees and candy houses twinkled dimly from the dark stage. Then the lights rose and performers plunged in from stage left, bringing the giant coloring book set to life. The orchestra and opera flooded my ears, but this time I was edified instead of annoyed.
I sat, snug and sticky in the deep red velvet chair, as rich voices washed over me. I was transfixed by a narrative that only melody could tell. I heard the difference between a dance and a lullaby, dreamy music, sad music, exciting music, and scary music. These tunes easily communicated stories lost to me amid the opera's German lyrics. I felt the weight of responsibility that Hansel and Gretel felt for each other through the musical lines that bound them together; their joy and their terror. Slowly, it dawned on me that this music was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard. I was only five, but I was a woman transformed. As I listened to Gretel's lilting high notes, I longed to be in her place, singing center stage. An unlikely dream, but, somewhere far beneath my sticky cheeks, I knew I was meant to be a great opera singer.
Within a few weeks of this epiphany, my family welcomed a new baby boy into our home. Nineteen inches long, eight pounds even, ten fingers and ten toes, Lincoln Justice was perfect. He was the first baby to whom I could be a proper big sister. Corban and Liberty were nearly as big as I was, but I could hold Lincoln all by myself. I'd watch over him kicking in his basket while Mom made dinner and the big kids did schoolwork.
Weeks after Lincoln's birth, I went to visit my grandparents in Washington, DC, for the first time. From the moment I arrived, I was smothered in love and undivided attention. Trips to the museum, introductions to staff members, and long-distance calls home made me feel particularly important. Each night at bedtime, my grandmother would kneel and pray with me.
One night, after drifting off to sleep, visions of a heavenly place filled my head. Shell-colored light draped the space in a luminous glow, softening corners and horizons into a single gracious expanse. I sat in an enormous circle with all the world's children, including my brothers and sisters. We were singing and playing a game. A familiar man appeared. Tall in white robes, he had a beard and a kind face. My eyes followed him as he walked toward my baby brother and touched his head. Lincoln had won the game! What an accomplishment—and Lincoln, just a baby! I glanced eagerly toward my siblings and they looked as happy as I felt. We were all grateful to be related to such a special little boy. As the man led Lincoln away to receive his prize, I beamed after him. I had no doubts that Lincoln was going exactly where he belonged.
When morning came, I shared the dream with Mimo (dream interpretation is a special passion of hers). Yellow pad of paper in hand, my grandmother scrawled feverishly, but offered me no elucidation. The next day, we left for Denver. But I was supposed to stay for a whole week longer! Had I done something wrong? I protested, but Mimo was adamant: we were leaving.
When we finally settled onto the plane, Mimo took my pudgy little hands in hers.
"Charity, we are going back to Denver because of your baby brother," she said, her dulcet Hungarian accent interrupted by nervous breaths. "He's gone back to heaven."
I cocked my head. "Like in my dream?" I asked, feeling simultaneously wise and confused.
Tears began to stream down her face. "Yes, Charity. Lincoln is in heaven."
Lincoln's enviable position did not match Mimo's sadness. Heaven was better than the best thing in the world! "Why are you crying? Heaven is a wonderful place!" I insisted, trying to comfort her.
"It is a wonderful place," she continued, mascara streaking her cheeks. "But Lincoln is there because he died."
A shock coursed down my spine. Lincoln died? How could he have died? That was something done by plants and ants and pet fish. Not baby brothers. But, looking into Mimo's grief-shot eyes, I knew she was telling the truth. I let out a piercing scream and crumpled into a pile, snot and tears raining everywhere. Maybe if I was loud enough, God would hear me. He could fix this terrible mistake. He would bring Lincoln back and we could all be together in our beautiful big circle again! But somehow, I knew He wouldn't do that.
Two nights before, Dad had put the baby to sleep in his crib. When he went in to check on him an hour later, Lincoln was already gone. Sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDS, was known for many years as crib death. Even today, its exact causes remain unclear. What was clear after Lincoln's passing was that our lives had changed. He had made death personal. My siblings and I had witnessed our healthy, happy baby brother—a little boy with our same gifts, our same potential, even our same cleft chin—snuffed out in a moment. I felt real responsibility for the first time, driven to somehow compensate for the loss of such faultless humanity.
This turmoil established the bedrock upon which I would build my personal faith. Even when five years old, in the midst of one of the most painful experiences of my life, I felt certain of one thing: I was still Lincoln's big sister. As devastating as his unexpected absence was, I knew it was only temporary. Eventually, I would again need to watch over him kicking his fat little legs in his basket. Perhaps never in this life, but rather in one to come. This central concept of eternal families braided with my own belief that, if I worked to realize the breadth of my potential, I would be worthy to rejoin not only the infinite expanse of humanity, but also my grandparents, my parents, my siblings, and, most of all, my perfect baby brother.
Ten years later, I look in the bathroom mirror, smile, and pinch my cheeks a few times for color. It's January 1998, and today is my first day of college. I had to beg my parents to let me enroll, even though it's become a bit of a family tradition by now. Back in 1993, Mom was beginning to get nervous that the whole homeschooling thing had been a big mistake. But after Tomicah, Kimber, and Levi were all accepted to college and earning perfect grades in their early teens, she stopped worrying. She and Dad say I shouldn't rush so much—they encourage me to enjoy my freedom while I have it—but I'm adamant. I want to start, and I want to start now. Alone, I walk the thirteen blocks from our house to the Registrar's Office at Regis University to sign up for classes. The semester begins a few months after my fourteenth birthday.
I may be the youngest to start school in my family, but I'm also the most eager. Money is tight, so every day I wake up at 5:00 a.m. to prep bread dough before my early-morning scripture study class. When I get home, I put it in to bake for family breakfast while I get ready for school. Every day, rain, shine, or snow, I arrive to class in formal business attire—blazers, khakis, sensible pumps. I carry my books in one of Dad's old briefcases.
Regis is the most difficult thing I've ever done, but I excel. I work hard, getting perfect grades and building strong relationships with fellow students, my professors, and advisers, racking up a record of awards and scholarships along the way. After my sophomore year, I decide I want to transfer to Yale University—just like Tomicah, Kimber, and Levi before me. One would think that the cost of attending a school like Yale would be prohibitive for a family like mine. But need-blind admissions and financial aid offices are a wonderful thing when matched with academic achievement and a family of eleven kids living on a college administrator's salary. I go out to meet the postman every day that summer, eagerly looking for a deep blue Y on every piece of mail he delivers. But when a letter finally does arrive for me, it's a scrawny 4 x 9? envelope—not the 9 x 11? welcome packet I had expected. I bury the rejection in the kitchen trash.
Over the last decade, the neighborhood has been changing. Dad bought the house I was born in—a little A-frame Victorian at 4320 Zenobia Street—while Mom was out of town. They moved here in the early eighties, when most of their peers had abandoned cities altogether. Northwest was one of Denver's rougher corners, but the houses had character and, more than anything, Dad appreciated strong character. He knew the neighborhood was a place he and his young family could learn; where we could grow with the community and give back to it. And that's exactly what we did. Dad always told us that the respect a person deserves is often inversely related to their worldly acclaim—the homeless woman living in our playroom had seen a lot more of life than most of the lawyers and lobbyists who visited our grandparents' office in Washington, DC. Through example, Dad taught us to open our hearts indiscriminately to the people around us. Mom and he soon became cornerstones of our little neighborhood.
Now eighteen, I've graduated from Regis with high honors and a degree in politics and economics. I know every major political mover and shaker in Colorado and I've already managed multiple successful legislative and political campaigns. My dad, as deeply committed to this neighborhood as anybody I know, has just won the first of two elections for Denver's City Council. There's a runoff between the top two vote getters next month and there's no way to know whether we'll win or lose. For now we're victorious and we've come out to say thank you to the community with some early-morning visibility.
Don't go near Federal Boulevard on Cinco de Mayo. Someone always dies. The old Denver adage is proven true year after year—drunk drivers, stray bullets, and large crowds are a reliably deadly combination. But on this uncharacteristically gray May 5, we're throwing conventional wisdom to the wind. Piling out of Gobo, our blue-and-silver stretch van, my siblings and I empty into the Walgreens parking lot on the corner of Speer and Federal.
This hasn't been an easy race. In fact, it's as dirty as I've ever seen. Fortunately (in some respects, if not others), all of that grime has been built up by our opponents. Steady even as his family, friends, and staff roil over the latest lie being spread by the opposition, Dad calmly explains to us that he can't claim to have integrity in his campaign literature if he gets votes by spreading rumors and exploiting fears. Sometimes I wish he wouldn't insist on teaching us valuable lessons about character during an election, but I also know his commitment to his principles is exactly why Dad needs to be in office. I'm just nervous it might keep him from ever getting there in the first place.
A pansy-filled median splits the busy thoroughfare in two. On the northeastern corner is a Steak N' Eggs attached to a pawnshop with a VFW lodge next door. Across from that is a gas station next to a payday loan center followed by a tortilla factory, then a quinceañera boutique and a liquor store. Grit meets glitter meets the fluffiest, flakiest tortillas in the history of tortillas. That's old-school Northwest Denver.
As I distribute campaign signs to supporters and siblings, I think about the runoff. It's a race between history, demographics, and power structures. Dad is the only candidate not backed by one of the two battling local political machines. I know he's optimistic—he always is—but the race is going to be an uphill battle. Still, win or lose, this will be my last campaign. At least, for now.
It will be a lot to leave behind. People always tell me how awful politics is, but I love it. I have to respect a trade that's honest about itself. From finance to music to consumer products and manufacturing—everything is governed by politics. It's just that other industries aren't as willing to admit it. At least that's what I've always told myself. But these campaigns—they're like drugs. Tremendous highs, brutal comedowns.
I've always known I'm going to do something big. But I only recently realized I wasn't going to do it in politics. Last fall, a senior center wouldn't let our candidate in to campaign. I made them an offer: if they listened to our stump speech, I'd throw in an aria for free. They changed their minds. After I'd finished my song, a cherubic old lady took my face in her hands—
"When you sing like an angel, why are you doing the devil's work?"
Her words struck a chord. No, I don't think politics is the devil's work, but over the past months I've realized it's not my work either. The longer I'm in this world, the more I worry politics are having a bigger influence on me than I'm having on them. I don't know if I'll ever become an opera singer, but I know I'll never forgive myself if I don't try.
I finish passing out signs and take one myself. Shaking signs like pompoms, our visibility team looks more like a cheer squad than your typical grimace-and-wave politicos. People honk and hurrah as they pass us. "Show Northwest Denver how much we love them!" I shout, jumping up and down to rev the crew up. I do love Northwest Denver. This town raised me. I take two signs, pumping them up and down over my head as I jog across the thoroughfare to hand one to a latecomer across the street.
The stopped cars are honking, waving, and cheering. They love Denver. They love Dad. We're going to win! But all of a sudden, I'm feeling short of breath . . .
I awake to the distant blare of ambulance sirens. Did someone die? It is Cinco de Mayo, after all. But it turns out they're headed for me. I've fainted in the middle of Federal Boulevard. Quickly back on my feet, I try to reassure the crowd that has gathered around me. I'm sure it's just dehydration. Stopping at Walgreens for a bottle of water, I shake off any lingering unease. The campaign is my priority right now—I have to focus. Two months from now, I'll be vacationing in Hungary and celebrating Didi's seventy-fifth birthday party. Then, I'll have time to relax.
Inhale. Exhale. Where am I? Lying on something cold. Hard. Muffled voices rise to hysterics as my eyes blink open. Flat on my back in the middle of the ballroom, I see a young doctor with a heavy Hungarian accent who stands above me, grabbing at my blouse. "Ve must take off her shirt!" he yells. "She eez too varm!"
As my consciousness coalesces I frantically clutch my cardigan closed. My father yanks the young man off me as more people push toward me, hoping to help or get a better glimpse of the spectacle. "Give her some space, people! Sheesh!" Dad shouts, spreading out his long arms as makeshift crowd control.
I insist I'm all right, but the party has already been ruined for my grandfather. He summarily puts the kibosh on any further carousing, no matter how carefully choreographed. I argue it's unfair—no, blasphemous—that one little fainting spell should spoil all of the work we've done over the past weeks. The show must go on! Even if this is just a family production, we can't dare violate that most cardinal rule of the theater. But my protests fall on deaf ears. There will be no performance tonight.
Disappointed, I go downstairs to put myself together. As I return, Tamás Érdi, a blind Hungarian concert pianist, takes the stage. Sitting near my grandfather and my parents, the somber lilts of Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" capture the odd pallor my fainting spell has cast over the evening. Through octaves and broken chords, I hear Didi speaking in hushed tones to Mom and Dad.
"Nori is worried about the fainting," he whispers, referencing his childhood friend, now an esteemed physician. "There is a serious heart condition that primarily affects women around Charity's age."
This was my second fainting spell this summer. My heartbeat thuds in my ears as the pianist's ominous reaches make their way down the keyboard. I stop myself from eavesdropping on my parents' conversation any longer. Everything is fine, I assure myself. Maybe I could stand to lose ten pounds—twenty even. When I do that, I'll be OK. I'm sure of it. I just need to watch what I eat and exercise more. Mom fainted when she was young. So did Dad! This isn't anything but nerves . . . . My internal dialogue continues until it's crowded out by applause filling the ballroom. But underneath the din of clapping, I can't escape a foreboding sense of loss—of what, though?
I need some air. I get up and walk toward the stairs leading to the upper deck. Dad and Didi rush toward me, each grabbing an already steady arm. In a moment, I've gone from robust to delicate. Dad escorts me up the narrow stairway. On deck, there's a slight breeze. Clouds have muted August's typical humidity, leaving behind a whisper of autumn. Again, I try to convince Dad that we should continue with the show. "Not a chance, Cherry Bear," he answers, loving, but firm. He puts an arm around me as the boat docks. The son of one of my grandparents' friends asks if I'd like to go out dancing with him. It doesn't seem like a very prudent choice. At the moment, neither does staying in Hungary for conservatory.
The week's festivities proceed, and my parents, my grandparents, and I all wait for any further indication of trouble with my health. It never arrives. When our rescheduled show proceeds two days later, I'm up on stage belting tunes and high-kicking with the rest of my siblings. The performance is a smash. As our vacation winds down, my fainting spell begins to recede like a strange dream.
And anyway, there are more pressing issues to be addressed. Will I return to America or stay in Europe? I call Cathy, my voice teacher of the past three years in Denver. I can always count on her for solid technique and wise counsel.
"Charity," she mutters with a kind of excited gravity, "this is a once in a lifetime opportunity. You have to stay."
I've spent my life trying to keep up with my older siblings, but it's been getting harder recently. I've done my best to mime their life goals—the stellar academics, the campaign jobs, the government internships—but, if I'm being honest, following that template of accomplishment has always been harder for me than it was for them. I'd like to think I'm a one-in-a-million kind of person—a talent to be discovered and ushered into greatness. But I'm the only one who seems to realize it. That is, until last week. Last week, a panel of the best singers and voice teachers in the world validated my innermost ambitions. They told me that I belong with them. That my voice belongs with them. Deep down, I know they're right.
I kneel down to pray. When I was a child, our family car broke down. A lot. Whenever it would splutter to a stop on a highway shoulder or a gas station parking lot, I'd recommend we pray. Unfailingly, the car started up again after "Amen." That was the beginning of a long and productive relationship with the power of meditation and prayer. As I grew older, my prayers grew less practical and more introspective. I began to use prayer as a tool with which to garner insights from God or the Universe or the wisdom that we all have the potential to collect, deep within our own souls. I trust it completely.
This time, I ask God whether I should stay in Europe, and I'm overcome with a profound sense of warmth, peace, and reassurance.
I have to stay. I want to stay. I'm going to stay.
My family leaves a few days later, but I remain in Hungary. A friend living in the States lets me stay in her Budapest apartment. My Hungarian is limited to a few folk songs, but the notoriously challenging language is in my ear and my blood. Of course I'm apprehensive about navigating a new city on my own, separated from my family, my home, and my belongings by one of the larger oceans on this planet, but mostly I'm excited. Five-year-old Charity was right. I'm going to be an opera singer.
There are many paths to success in opera, but very few are well-traveled. Danielle de Niese, an Australian-American lyric soprano, blew up after winning a TV talent show when she was nine years old; Keith Miller went from star fullback for the University of Colorado Rams to leading man at the Met; Beverly Sills took eighteen years off singing to raise her children before going on to lead the New York City Opera, the Metropolitan Opera, and Lincoln Center. These stories are the exceptions. Typically, a singer must train at one of a dozen or so prestigious conservatories or voice studios to even have a chance in the business. From there, summer programs and singing competitions offer an entrée to directors and conductors. By graduation, singers are lucky if they've nabbed an apprenticeship or young artist position that offers a small salary (generally under $30,000 a year), along with more coaching and opportunities for small roles in large productions. More likely, they move on to graduate school where they take on more debt and hope to extend their opportunities for roles and auditions within an academic setting. Each aspirant believes that if they only receive this degree or that exposure, they'll finally have the career of their dreams. In truth, the positions available to performers are extremely limited. Consequently, the stages are filled with a disproportionate number of heiresses and paupers.
A less common route for singers is to audition for a spot at a handful of European conservatories. These academic programs are significantly smaller in size and, due to state subsidies, largely affordable or free. While they typically lack the dramatic productions common in American schools, singers receive more personal attention and mentorship from faculty; the smaller European pool of conservatory graduates gives qualified singers more opportunities to audition for national and regional opera houses. The Liszt Academy is one of the premier conservatories in Europe, and Budapest, an invigorating stage. War, fascism, communism, capitalism, and corruption have taken their toll, but somehow, the city's pockmarks make its beauty pop.
At the academy, I'm slated to study with Éva, one of the most heralded singers of the twentieth century and, perhaps, the greatest Hungarian singer of all time. I've just arrived for our first lesson. Standing in the doorway of a beautiful hall with a small stage and floor-to-ceiling windows, I'm unsure of how to proceed. Before me sits Éva, shoulders squared with plum-colored scarf thrown resolutely around her neck. She's well into her sixties, but could easily be twenty-five years younger. She possesses a beauty that stems from the confidence of being truly great and deeply loved. I, on the other hand, am the youngest, least-experienced student in the entire program. While I have raw talent, I lack the musical education of my classmates—many of whom have been studying music almost exclusively for over a decade.
"Sit," beckons Éva. And so begins my musical education.
My schedule at the academy is packed tight. Éva works with me and each of her six other students two to three times a week. My other coaches and I spend time together every day. They help me with my languages—French, German, Italian, Hungarian—as well as more general repertoire. Classes in piano, music theory, German, music history, and occasional workshops in acting and movement easily fill the rest of my weekdays. My classmates are as varied as they are talented. The Liszt Academy is one of the few places in the country where ethnic Roma, Asian migrants, and Hungarian nationals study together as equals. While a connection might get someone an audition, the faculty has a reputation for brutally egalitarian honesty; the education is excellent and practically free, creating a musical meritocracy for a select group of the world's most promising talents.
Éva greets me warmly, then directs me to a music stand holding an open score. The pianist begins to play Susanna's famous aria from Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro. But for the first time since I learned to read a musical staff, the page in front of me becomes nothing but a mess of black lines and dots. I miss my entrance once. Twice. Three times. My face tenses. The pianist begins to play once more. I close my eyes, relax my neck, my throat and body. Finally, I'm singing. For a moment, I feel at home as the world slows and the sun's amber rays dance with sound. Then the dancing stops.
"Megáll!" Éva shouts. She charges at me, pushing my lower belly and grabbing my jaw. "How you plan to sing like this?!" She pauses, wading through the thick Hungarian language to find the right English words. "Singing is sport. Nehéz fizikai munka," she says in the Hungarian-English hybrid that is to become the language of my musical education. "What sings?" she asks. "Hogy énekelsz?" she repeats in an exasperated tone.
I pause. ". . . My voice?"
"No! This sing. You sing here," she says, jabbing my lower belly. "Not here!" Éva grabs hold of my neck. "Ismét vagy újra—Again!" Bewildered, I repeat the phrase, hoping for an improved result.
It becomes routine: I sing my heart out and Éva forcefully explains why my heart isn't good enough. She mercilessly dissects every measure of every aria and handles my body with medical precision, tugging and pushing at my chin, cheeks, shoulders, stomach, and butt while barking out Hungarian instructions that I instinctively understand.
My insecurities motivate me. When I'm not in class, I'm Éva's shadow. I listen as she teaches other students, hoping to glean stray wisdom while I wait to start my lesson. Once she goes home for the day, I lock myself in one of the school's many practice rooms. When I'm happy with an aria, I'll open a window and begin again. As I sing, I watch people on the square below try to find the source of the music wafting down from above. The longer they search, the more confident I become. But at night, as I lie in bed listening to my heart's valves snap open and closed, I wonder what on earth I'm doing here.
Over time, I begin to recognize Éva's prods as deft technical manipulations instead of unwelcome violations of my personal space. In classical singing, natural talent can be as much of a hindrance as a help. Gifted singers become dependent on old, oftentimes bad habits in lieu of building solid vocal techniques guaranteed to produce the same sound over the course of an entire career. Ultimately, the physical act of singing primarily requires coordination. Artistry can always come later.
By now, I already have my share of habits to get over, but I'm beginning to understand a basic set of principles for good singing—the most cardinal of which must be applied before a sound ever exits my mouth.
Rule number one? Breathe.
Make no mistake, learning to breathe—really breathe—is no simple feat. First, there's proper posture: bones and their surrounding muscles from the thighs up to the forehead have to be engaged—but not tense; loose—but not sluggish; active—but not forced. As I prepare to warm up with a complicated set of arpeggios, Éva calls out a precise cue for me to expand my lungs—
"Emlékszik, böveteni . . . most!"
A chord sounds on the piano and Éva pats my lower abdomen. As I relax the muscles at the base of my torso, my diaphragm lowers and my lungs fill with air. The inhalation expands my belly, which in turn naturally moderates the exhalation. Everything starts with breath.
The next set of exercises are octave leaps on the vowel sound ah. When I hear Éva shout "Nyitva!" I obediently open my entire singing apparatus, pushing the apples of my cheeks toward my ears and my forehead toward my scalp. By lifting my cheekbones, I open my nasal cavity and ready the amphitheater of my own skull. During the next series of exercises, sung on the ee vowel, Éva takes the back of my neck and chin in her hands, massaging one and rotating the other back and forth. "Lazit," she croons, and I relax, allowing air to travel through my larynx and sound waves to resonate off of my sinuses, unhindered by muscle tension. As we move from warm-ups to "Caro nome" from Rigoletto, Éva continues to adjust me. She rolls my hips forward, elongates the back of my neck, and rotates my shoulders back and down like a high-end yoga instructor.
Increasingly, I thrive off this intensive apprenticeship. I grow to appreciate my mistakes. My voice is like the city: beautiful and flawed. But my teachers and conductors don't care for preconstructed ideals of vocal perfection. They're interested in what makes a voice different. And my voice, it turns out, is very different. As my first semester comes to an end, I have requests for concerts and performances, invitations from other great European conservatories and visiting orchestras.
But in the midst of this rapid professional progress, I'm having trouble keeping up with basic activities. In February, I faint while running to catch the streetcar a block and a half from my flat. Two weeks later, I swoon into the arms of a handsome Hungarian student during a Valentine's Day dance. In the abstract, it sounds almost romantic. In reality, it's terrifying.
That night, I kneel by my bed and offer a fervent prayer:
Dear Heavenly Father, I am so grateful. To be alive. For my family. For the amazing opportunities I've been given. But I'm afraid something's wrong with me. This is probably foolish, but if I'm all right, please, please, Dear Lord, comfort me.
I open the scriptures at random to the Book of Judges. The tale of Japheth's daughter—a sacrificial virgin—looms up at me. Not exactly the encouragement I'm looking for right now. I call my mother, exasperated, scared, and crying.
Mom wasn't raised religious, but she has always been a seeker. When she left home, after being admitted to the first class of women at Yale University, she dabbled in Far Eastern religions, evangelical Christianity, and Judaism. She finally found the truth she'd been seeking in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, converting to Mormonism during her freshman year of college. As my grandmother tells it, she and Didi never told Mom that she wasn't Jewish. Then again, they didn't tell her that she was, either. When Mom discovered her Hebrew roots, she moved to Israel. Then, after studying journalism at Stanford, she returned to New Haven for divinity school. That's where she met my dad—a dashing, tipsy undergrad who stumbled over her one day in Woolsey Hall. He hadn't grown up religious either, but Dad found faith when he found Mom.
It was my parents who taught me to pray and search the scriptures when I needed guidance. Still sniffling, I describe my predicament and the Bible passage I'd read to Mom over the phone—knowing she'll understand why I'm so upset by it. There's a moment of silence before she responds, likely filled by a brief, silent prayer on her end—
"Charity," Mom asks calmly, "do you want to come home now?"
"No," I reply after a pause.
"Then be careful. Go see a doctor. Don't push yourself. We'll figure things out when you get back."
A few days later, a recommendation from Judit in hand, I don full winter gear and slowly scale a small hill to catch a streetcar that runs along the city's ancient border. Rushing past Buda's snowy hills, giant pieces of ice crash down the Danube. I finally arrive at the doctor's office. In the examination room, the doctor takes my weight, temperature, vital signs. As the puffy blue pressure cuff loosens its grip on my arm, she speaks—
"You have low blood pressure," she says, her accent more continental than Hungarian.
"Is that a problem?" I ask.
"Not really," she replies, shaking her head. "Patients get a bit more caffeine or eat more salt and it goes up again." She turns to organize her papers before catching herself. "Now, there is a very small chance it could be something more serious—"
"No," I interrupt her. "Low blood pressure runs in my family. That must be it." I'm not lying—Tillemann-Dicks rarely break 100 over 60—and I don't want to hear anything about "something more serious."
My prescription is simple and delicious: dark chocolate and salty food. They become mainstays in my diet while taxis take up an increasing portion of my budget. As my energy continues to wane, I spend more and more of what remains trying to convince myself everything will be just fine. Ambient exhaustion cuts leisure activities out of my life, refocusing me onto musicianship and musicianship alone.
It's May 2004. I'm running late.
Andrassy Street is impossibly elegant. Lined with trees and boutiques, restaurants and theaters, it's a more weathered take on Paris's Champs Élysées. I sit singing scales as my grimy taxi passes the Opera House and the Hungarian National Ballet on the way to the Thália Theatre, the venue for tonight's performance. As the driver pulls up to the curb, I spot a petite bundle of blond hair and downy blue scarves.
"Mommy!" I rush out of the car to meet her where she stands outside the theater. Mom has flown in from Denver—she insists it's a special visit to witness this seminal moment in my career. Through happy tears, I catch a glimpse of her thousand-watt grin. We walk hand in hand to the opulent theater. Judit is waiting in my dressing room with the confection of a gown I'd been fitted for earlier that day and the most exquisite bouquet of flowers I've ever seen.
Orchestra members start to arrive, suited in black and white, and whispers of a standing-room-only crowd spread through the halls. Mom and Judit leave to take their seats in the audience. I stay hidden behind the curtain, looking at the crowd settle into their seats. Then, as if by magic, silence descends.
Polite applause welcomes me onto the stage as I take my place in front of the orchestra. Anticipatory energy fills the dark theater. The orchestra strikes its first chord, then the bassoon takes over in a cantorial introduction. Inhale. Exhale. I breathe in the vowels for my first phrase, "Glitter and be gay . . . ." The strings begin and the conductor cues my entrance. I sing from a place deep within myself. My diaphragm pushes air from my lungs and I become Cunégonde from Bernstein's Candide; a girl who has fallen from grace—a cold, sparkly, wanton example of resilience. As the aria gets under way, each lyric exploit shines like a jewel in my vocal boudoir. The song fits my voice like a pageant queen's dress—which isn't to say it's not a bit tight in some places.
Many singers never quite settle into their higher tessitura—the upper reaches of their vocal range. A high note sung poorly can ruin a voice or end a career. At some point, every soprano needs faith: in her voice, in her training, in the composer. I brace myself for the final phrase of the aria, breathing deep and wide. My voice pierces the high E and the room erupts in an ovation.
For nearly five minutes, the crowd joins in synchronized applause. As it slows, I leave the stage, only to be called back as it speeds up again with renewed gusto, each reprise producing a new bouquet of flowers. When the bows finally end, I see Mom and Judit waiting backstage with Éva. I greet them, giddy with pride, relief, and gratitude. Together, we field enthusiastic theatergoers, flowers, and well wishes.
Only now do I realize the evening's biggest challenge still lies ahead: as the antique theater lacks an elevator, I must scale the front lobby's grand staircase to reach the post-performance reception. Even small flights of stairs totally exhaust me at this point, but I have no choice. Mom and the others walk ahead as I place my high-heeled foot on the first step to begin my ascent. At first, I'm fine; I follow Mom's example and talk to passersby, using each introduction as an excuse to stop and catch my breath. But as I continue, I feel my heart pumping harder. Blood drains from my face and my vision begins to tunnel. I stop, steadying myself on the ornate banister. I don't want anyone to know I'm unwell. I don't want tonight to end with another fainting spell. Trying to pass off sluggishness for elegance, I slowly move my foot onto the next step. Then the next. Then the next. Gradually, I lurch my way up the curved vestibule toward the upper lobby. Finally, I ascend to the reception. Mom smiles proudly as her gaze lingers on me, then her attention turns back to the milieu as she's beckoned by another guest.
After the party, I pack my dress into a garment bag and Mom and I head back to the apartment. In the car, we talk about home. About Dad and the other kids. I don't mention the staircase—how difficult it is to walk up a hill or how much I struggle to breathe. If I mention that to Mom, she might make a fuss. She might not let me ignore it any longer.
The next day, we go to my voice lesson. Éva seems as thrilled by last night's performance as I am.
"There is no doubt," she declares, looking grimly at the floor and then at me. "You are a big talent." I blush. "But you should be a Great."
Éva continues, "To be a Great, you need three things"—Mom whips out an old envelope from her bag and starts taking notes—"you must get very sick, you must fall in love, and you must work, work, work. Then, in ten years, you will really be something. People will want to give you many roles, but don't be fooled: They will ruin your voice before it is ready. All they care about is money, money, money. You are more than roles. You are going to be a Great Artist. Remember this."
Mom is still scribbling furiously, but it's hard for me to take Éva seriously. It's ridiculous to expect that, out of all the people wanting to make it big in opera, I could be the one to do it. Yet at the same time, I desperately hope she's right. Despite all of the misgivings I've had over these past months, I want to be Great more than almost anything else. Anyway, ten years is a very long time from now. I file Éva's advice away in the back of my mind, hoping to need it later.
The next week, I'm on a plane back home to Denver with Mom. Encouraged by both Mom and Éva, I've decided to take some time off from performing in Europe to go home and prepare to serve a full-time mission for my church.
It was missionaries who first inspired my love of singing. Before Hansel and Gretel, these young women were my exemplars—musical and otherwise. Their kindness, their service, their dedication, and their songs struck enduring awe into my devout little heart. I've always been certain that going on a mission is the best way to establish God as my priority; in my mind, whatever successes I do or don't have cannot happen because I've neglected my duty to Him.
Before sending in my final application for missionary service, I have to undergo a mandatory full physical. My doctor is fresh out of residency and pretty in a no-nonsense way. We chat for a few minutes and I tell her about myself: my passion for opera, my plans to serve a mission, my fainting spells, and my fatigue. She looks in my ears, throat, and eyes. She tests my reflexes and listens to my heart for a few moments longer than usual. Then she orders an EKG. The nurse places cold, studded stickers on my side, chest, ankles, and abdomen and I watch as a needle traces a jagged line onto the sheet feeding out underneath it. When the test is done, the nurse takes the sheet and leaves the door cracked behind her. I hear the doctor discussing me over the phone down the hall. Finally, she returns with my results. Sitting down, she first suggests that I not research anything she's about to discuss with me on my own. After this disclaimer, she tells me that she believes I have idiopathic pulmonary hypertension, or PH. The doctor doesn't want to give me too many details until she can confirm her diagnosis with Dr. Chris Lang, one of the region's top cardiologists. For the time being, she just tells me that she won't be able to sign my health release forms.
As soon as I get home, I sit down at our family desktop and Google "pulmonary hypertension." I click on the first result. Pulmonary hypertension is caused by a thickening of blood vessels in the lungs, which impedes oxygen absorption and increases blood pressure within the heart, making physical activity difficult. In its most advanced stages, fainting can occur with exertion. While PH is relatively common as a secondary condition of everything from pregnancy to AIDS, I've been tentatively diagnosed with the idiopathic variety of the disease, for which there's no known cause or cure. Pregnancy with PH is fatal and, without a lung transplant, nearly 70 percent of all PH patients die of heart failure within five years of diagnosis. There are fewer than seven thousand cases of the disease worldwide. So I guess I really am one in a million, I think wryly to myself.
I stare at the screen, feeling sick in more ways than one. This can't be right. I click on another search result, this one belonging to a major university hospital. It confirms all the statistics. I do the math. I'm twenty years old. Somewhere between twenty-two and twenty-five, I'll probably die. I haven't been in love yet—I've never even kissed a boy. A mission is probably off the table. Children, out of the question. I don't have ten years to become a great artist. I hurt so much that I start to laugh. Soon, tears well up and I'm left with only silent, lonely sobs.
Inhale. Exhale. Grabbing the home phone, I retreat to the basement bathroom. What do I do? The shortness of breath, the fainting, the heart palpitations; this diagnosis answers so many questions I've had for years. In a strange way, it's a relief. It's not all in my imagination. I'm not crazy. Something is really, really wrong. My reflexive expectation of calamity, inherited from my Jewish grandparents, has been borne out to great effect.
I decide to call Dad. He always knows how to deal with a situation. He won't panic, but he'll take this seriously. Fifteen minutes after I hang up the phone, he's left work and arrived in our driveway.
After sending the three littlest siblings downstairs to watch TV, Dad calls a family meeting. Ignoring my entreaties to hold off until we have a firmer diagnosis, he announces my condition to the family—resolute that we're going to face this trial together. But I know this is my cross to bear. Not my brothers' or sisters'. I don't cry in front of them. I won't. I've already given everyone enough to worry about. "It could be worse!" I quip. "I still have my looks!" But the stunned, numb silence persists. I try one more time—"At least PH isn't contagious?" Nobody laughs.
Hours later, in the dead of night, Mom crawls into my bed. She holds me in the darkness and we weep together. Even without an official diagnosis, we both know that this is the beginning of a goodbye that could last a few months or a few years. Regardless of the pace of change, this disease will shape our family's future and, ultimately, end my life.