Rolling into the spotlight: My sister’s journey with opera
Every time my older sister Lauren would shower, she’d send vibrations into my quiet room, drowning the space with a loud but angelic voice. There’s a home video of her at three years old, singing absolute nonsense to herself on the beach. She has always had some type of leading role in every school musical, and she could always flawlessly take any note up an octave. Since I can remember, my sister has always been singing.
By the time Lauren was 14 years old, she was studying classical music and taking opera lessons. Four years later, she played Carlotta in our high school’s version of “Phantom of the Opera,” and she even had a senior solo at an awards ceremony, where she sang “Caro Nome” from the Italian opera “Rigoletto,” by Verdi. Shortly after, she went off to Penn State to study speech pathology, and there, she found herself joining singing groups like a contemporary co-ed choir and an all-female gospel choir.
Her talent and passion for music haunted her, however, and it was toward the end of her freshman year when she decided she would leave Penn State to pursue studying opera. Lauren’s future was changing, and it was well-structured, promising and bright.
In the summer of 2013, Lauren’s glistening future was called into question when a fluke dive into a black-bottom pool caused her to be paralyzed from the nose down. Her singing was, momentarily, pushed to the side. Just trying to scratch her nose became her first challenge among many.
Through the past five years, Lauren has overcome a sea of adversity in her journey to recovery. From not being able to feed herself to now being able to lock her own knees (the most important feature of regaining walking ability), Lauren is, literally, steps away from walking and gaining different forms of independence. Even with her dedication to physical recovery, her passion for singing has made a way into her paralysis. Nonetheless, singing as a quadriplegic is a completely new experience from her pre-accident voice.
A physical hurdle that comes with singing as a quadriplegic is lung capacity and abdominal control — operatic singing demands a great deal from those areas. She mentioned the difficulty of breathing deeper while sitting and trying to tighten the abs to extend a note. Due to the height of Lauren’s injury (her C-6 vertebrae, just at the base of her neck), these areas of her body were weakened and, therefore, needed to be re-trained.
“There’s less fluidity. I have to really think about my body much more, which makes singing almost like a workout,” Lauren told me. “When you’re paralyzed at the level I’m at, my core and legs are affected by the type of paralysis that I have. I have been lucky enough to regain function and sensation in that part of my abdomen, but you never realize how physical singing is until you don’t have a fully-working body to sing in.”
Despite physical hurdles, there are mental and emotional challenges Lauren has faced when trying to present her talent. She highlights that one of the main struggles was trying to be less critical of her current voice, which has become less powerful and full due to the lack of abdominal control. She has had to overcome the stress of being in a unique spotlight: an opera singer in a wheelchair.
“Mentally, I’m trying to get over that personal criticism. I don’t feel like I’m as good … There’s a fear around performing or not wanting to be seen in a vulnerable way or perceived as untalented,” she said. “Even with singing, and going on stage performing, there are limitations to parts you can play or pieces you can sing … it’s stressful.”
However, Lauren is an innovator and an explorer. She enjoys seeing what her body can do as it’s paralyzed. She mentioned how singing for her is still freeing — singing from her chair, in the car or during rehabilitation workouts:
“I’m more inspired to sing just for fun, even if I’m judging myself,” she said. “There are so many emotions that can be processed when you have any event happen to you like a spinal cord injury. Art is an amazing way to process those emotions.”
She is familiar with this idea due to her inspiration from other artists in the disability community. She reminisced with me about the time she met Ali Stroker, a quadriplegic performer who was the runner-up on “The Glee Project” in 2012 and made history as the first-ever Broadway actress in a wheelchair. Lauren also mentioned her love for Andrea Bocelli, the wildly talented and famous Italian singer who is blind. She believes that it’s these kinds of artists who are “giving visibility to the disability, and that there are things that need to be said and need to be heard” within the art world.
Other than Lauren’s almost-achieved goal of walking again, singing is something she still sees in her future. She reflected on the idea that opera has always been a part of her and a part of our family, and she wants her talent to stay close to home as a hobby.
“I love singing, and if anything, I think it would be cool to make your own beats or sing over your own track –– some form of creative expression,” she said. “But ultimately, I think opera is such a niche genre, so I definitely would have to find a way to blend it with something more contemporary.”
My sister and I are highly invested in art. Whether we paint together or we watch a movie, she and I are always engaging in different mediums of creativity and new avenues of exploring art. She believes that if one has the “need to create art,” then there is a place for anyone in the art community.
“We’ve all overcome a lot, and while I’ve overcome something different than most people, at the end of the day, that shouldn’t be a criterion on how you’re judging my art,” she said. “I don’t need a grading curve for my art. I don’t think I’m the only person in the disability community that feels that way because we want to be seen as artists, not artists with disabilities. You should want to judge their art for how it makes you feel.”
I could hear the tightness in the back of her throat over the phone, that constriction one feels as they begin to form tears. “I never want to be judged in a way that’s like ‘Oh my god, she’s so good and she’s in a wheelchair.’ I never want to be good because I’m disabled. I want to be great, period.”
And she is. She’s great because she’s a singer, a painter, a fearless artist and my pain-in-the-butt sister. She’s great because she cries, she laughs and she sings nonsense on the beach, even at 24 years old. She’s not just great because she’s a quadriplegic operatic singer, and she’s not just great because she’s triumphantly overcome tribulation. She’s great because she’s Lauren, period.
“Art is meant to be shared, although it’s a personal thing. It thrives more so on an outside opinion because that’s where it can grow and can be cultivated. Art blends all the facets of one’s life. Our emotions do not stop. Ever. And by expressing that emotion, you can work through anything.”