Second in a two-part series.
“I’ve been sick a while,” Barbara Quintiliani told her voice coach as soon as she arrived. “I haven’t been singing.”
It was a crisp fall day, and it had taken more than four hours to get from Quintiliani’s home in Lowell to New York City to see Bill Schuman, a famed coach who has worked with everyone from Metropolitan Opera singers to Michael Bolton.
The soprano, a rising opera star at 35, had also come to quash the rumors: that she was so sick she couldn’t perform. Singing here, with Schuman, would go a long way toward helping Quintiliani prove she was ready to return to the stage. In a few months, she was supposed to perform Verdi’s Requiem at Arizona MusicFest — a challenging work, especially for someone who hadn’t even been able to practice singing for weeks.
The Ansonia, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, is a Beaux-Arts building rich with history, once home to Babe Ruth, Arturo Toscanini, and Enrico Caruso. Schuman’s studio is decorated with photos of legendary opera performers and lined with books and records.
Before they started, Quintiliani told him she’d been in the hospital for two weeks recently because of a blood clot.
“Thank God they found it,” Schuman said. “How did they know it was there?”
“I was a pain in the ass and said, ‘Hmm, there’s something wrong in my throat,’ ” she said.
They moved on quickly, as if they were discussing the weather, not a life-threatening scare. Schuman’s fingers rolled over the piano keys. Quintiliani stood, facing her coach, and opened her mouth. Suddenly this woman, who had been hospitalized weeks at a time, dozing as many as 18 hours a day, filled the room with the tremendously rich, resonant sound that had earned her critical praise and top prizes around the world.
Schuman nodded at a break. “Your cords are good,” he said.
On the outside, Quintiliani acted cool. Inside, she was still terrified.
It had been a difficult stretch. In March 2010, doctors diagnosed the Quincy-born singer with Churg-Strauss syndrome, a sometimes fatal autoimmune disease that strikes at all of the major organs. Five years earlier, they’d diagnosed her with multiple sclerosis, the nerve disorder that’s occasionally forced her into a wheelchair. In the last two years, she has been hospitalized roughly 20 times, admitted for about 240 days in total.
But to Schuman, Quintiliani is not a sick woman. She’s a singer — and one of the best.
“We judge voices by size or color, just like diamonds,” Schuman said. “Hers is top, top class.”
Quintiliani finished warming up. They moved on to an aria from Verdi’s “Macbeth.” She sang a few passages before Schuman stopped and suggested reworking a phrase. As she continued, droplets of sweat formed above her lip.
“I love this for you,” Schuman said enthusiastically at a break. “It challenges you, but it’s also perfect for the business side of you. It’s a perfect aria for you.”
They talked about her upcoming performance in Arizona. As Quintiliani wrote out her check for the session, Schuman assessed her condition.
“Her cords are completely healthy,” he said. “When she’s forced out of singing, she gets weakened in her body. The athletic aspect of singing is what she has to get back into. If she had to go straight to performance, she would fatigue.”
He continued: “She’s like a premier athlete. Her skills are still there, and her natural gift. My job is almost like a trainer. Get her back into the training of singing. But her talent’s so big, what would take another person five months, she has in five days.”
Throughout the lesson, Quintiliani had been composed and loose. Outside Schuman’s studio, waiting for the elevator, she broke into tears.
“It was really nice.” She paused, trying to catch her breath. “To hear that from him. That he believes in me that much.”
Downstairs on the sidewalk, she tried to speak. Again, she choked up.
“It’s nice to hear I’m on the right track and doing the right thing,” she finally said. “I just love what I do.”
Tensions from the past
Earlier that morning, Quintiliani and her husband, Stewart Schroeder, had left their apartment in downtown Lowell. It’s a unit in a recently renovated warehouse building with tall ceilings and shiny new countertops. Their main regret is asking Quintiliani’s mother to live with them.
In the abstract, the idea made sense. The former Jean White — she goes by Rachel Sulecki now, taking her third ex-husband’s last name, in her effort to distance herself from an abusive past — no longer drinks. She’s channeled her energy into creating handmade children’s books and dolls, which she sells largely at community fairs. The walls and tables are lined with these creations, decorated with glitter and dried pasta elbows.
But the tension between Quintiliani’s mother and Schroeder is palpable.
There’s also the unresolved resentment that the singer feels toward her mother. It was Sulecki’s second husband, Daniel Simon, who admittedly sexually abused Quintiliani when she was a child. Sulecki then retreated into alcohol, often abandoning her children, she now acknowledges.
Quintiliani and Schroeder took Sulecki in because they feared for her safety in the apartment she was renting. They also thought Sulecki could help out. That’s not happening, they say. “She doesn’t have a mothering bone in her body,” says Quintiliani. “So it’s difficult and stressful, and I don’t know how long we can deal with it.”
As they barrelled down the Massachusetts Turnpike, Quintiliani talked of her childhood.
Some days, her mother would be relatively stable. Her “Martha” personality kept the house immaculate and the beds made, Quintiliani says. Other times, she drank. Quintiliani called this person “Linda.” Once, Quintiliani remembers, her mother adopted the persona of Jingles, a clown, complete with costume and makeup.
“I remember I got sick in high school and my mom was coming to get me, and I just thought, ‘Oh, I’m just going to wait in the principal’s office, and no one will see her dressed as a clown,” Quintiliani remembers. “I just remember hearing, ‘Jingle, jingle, jingle, jingle,’ and she’s like, ‘Your mother told me to come and pick you up.’ And the teacher said, ‘Well, aren’t you her mother?’ and she said, ‘No, silly. Clowns can’t have children.’ ”
Quintiliani’s mother declines to talk about these stories — she says her therapist told her not to — though she acknowledges having had a mental illness that is now being treated. It has been 20 years since she drank.
“The tension’s mainly caused from Stewart,” she says. “He doesn’t want anyone else to help. He wants to do it all himself.”
Preserving a treasure
It is the collapse of Quintiliani’s family that drove her to others for help. And it is her voice that often led the way.
Ellen Golde, a Brookline opera lover, met Quintiliani when a New England Conservatory official called asking if she could help a young student. Golde helped pay for books and took Quintiliani in during the holidays. When Quintiliani and Schroeder got married 13 years ago, Golde hosted the after-ceremony party.
“She has a wherewithal that very few people I’ve met in life have ever had,” says Golde. “It’s a passion that only comes when you’ve had to overcome so much adversity.”
It was Golde who introduced Quintiliani to Dr. Jonathan Kay. And for Kay, the director of clinical research in the rheumatology department at UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester, Quintiliani is no ordinary patient.
“A religious calling” is how he describes his work with her. “One is trying to preserve a national treasure.”
He still remembers his first exposure to opera. Kay was in medical school in San Francisco in 1979 when he heard tenor Luciano Pavarotti and mezzo-soprano Stefania Toczyska perform a free concert at Golden Gate Park. Stunned, he ended up in the library, searching out recordings.
In 1999, at the Metropolitan Opera’s New England auditions, he heard Quintiliani for the first time. She won the regional competition, then went on to win a grand prize in the Met’s National Council Auditions.
“She was about 21 and clearly had a voice to be reckoned with,” he remembers.
Eleven years later, Kay met Quintiliani as a patient. She had been struggling with the symptoms of Churg-Strauss syndrome without a diagnosis. Kay provided it.
Doctors typically treat multiple sclerosis and Churg-Strauss, which cause swelling and muscle spasms, with steroids. But prednisone, for example, dries out the voice.
So Kay prescribed cyclophosphamide. That’s a drug with some deadly potential side effects: The lowering of white blood cells and an increased risk of developing secondary cancers.
Those are risks, Kay said, she is willing to take.
“For Barbara, the functional outcome of her treatment has been ‘Norma,’ ‘Luisa Miller,’ ‘Maria Padilla,’ and ‘Ariadne,’” he says, naming recent opera roles.
“She has sung four leading roles in a very demanding soprano part in some of the great works of the canon of Western vocal music. Her ability to bounce from being in the hospital to providing an absolutely riveting performance of a very difficult work is something that’s very much in character with who she is.”
‘Balm to my soul’
Verdi’s Requiem, first performed in 1874, is a dramatic, emotional piece focused on death and deliverance. With its powerful soprano part, it has become a signature work in Quintiliani’s repertoire. She has performed it close to 20 times, though never with as much riding on it as there would be in Arizona.
In early February, though, a crisis put all her plans in jeopardy.
Quintiliani passed out in the apartment and ended up in the hospital. When she woke up, she thought of her legs first. They’d given her trouble in recent years, and if they weren’t right, the concert would be a struggle. To her relief, she found she could move around enough to do the Requiem.
“It is balm to my soul,” she said from her bed at UMass Memorial Medical Center. “And I’m not going to let this thing win. Every time I pick up a piece of music and walk out there and sing, I win that day.”
Dr. Kay visited during her week in the hospital. First, the doctors had to make sure Quintiliani wasn’t having seizures. They did. In the end, they determined she had passed out from a freak drop in blood pressure, nothing more. She was going to be OK.
“So we talked about the Verdi Requiem and focused on that,” says Kay.
Quintiliani told him one of her favorite stage stories. In the mid-’90s, she was asked to replace a singer in the Requiem at the Washington National Opera. She had heard the work on record, but never live. When the drums boomed in during the second section, “Dies irae,” she was so startled, she fell out of her chair.
When Quintiliani showed up for her next rehearsal, she found a seat belt had been strapped around her chair.
Those little moments, those memories, have become precious as she’s grown older. Where once she imagined playing bigger and more prestigious houses, her illness has changed her perspective. Performing at the Met may come, but so what if it doesn’t?
“I love to sing,” Quintiliani said recently. “I don’t care if it’s for 1,000 people in a church in Arizona or on Cape Cod. Everybody deserves to hear beautiful music and deserves to hear me do my best.”
Take last year’s performance of “Luisa Miller” at the Chautauqua Opera in Western New York. It was an outdoor amphitheater, and all the seats were full. The audience started to get into the production, cheering for Quintiliani. At one point, when she went to drink a cup of poison, somebody yelled out, “Don’t drink that!”
“It was really one of the greatest experiences of my life, and it happened in upstate New York and I’m not ashamed of that,” Quintiliani says. “Five thousand people heard me sing that and gave me a standing ovation. What about that is not worthy?”
Taking the stage
“Do you want your coffee now?” Schroeder asks Quintiliani.
She’s sitting in her bathrobe trying to get her legs going. Her ailments make her sluggish in the morning. It can take time to get out of bed.
“Intravenously, please,” she says.
They’re in Arizona, her performance of Verdi’s Requiem just hours away. A patron of the Arizona MusicFest has helped set them up at The Boulders. It’s a luxury resort, with a spa and 18-hole golf course.
Quintiliani focuses on her performance. “You’re only as good as the last note that came out of your mouth,” Quintiliani says. “People remember.”
She gets up and begins to move around. It is time for what she and Schroeder call “The Diva Show.”
He unwraps her jewelry and helps her into her red gown. She heads to the mirrors to apply the makeup that gives her soft features more of a translucent glow. A red wig covers her hair, which is curly and thinning.
If Quintiliani can’t pull off this performance, the doubts will be confirmed. She snaps at Schroeder for getting in her way as she tries to apply her makeup. She talks with him about one of their guilty pleasures, “Star Trek,” and then allows herself to dish a bit about the struggles, in rehearsal, of one of the other singers.
“I thought for sure that because I’ve been ill that I’d be the weakest link,” Quintiliani says. “I don’t want to be a bitch, but I think even sick and with one vocal cord tied behind my back I could sing this piece better than half my competitors.”
That bravado is replaced by a quiet reserve when she arrives at Pinnacle Presbyterian Church in Scottsdale.
Her mind is on the Requiem, a piece during which a soprano can’t hide. Her voice must carry over the 200-some singers and orchestra as it builds to “Libera me,” the final, climactic section.
Her shawl can’t hide all of her scars, particularly a long one running down her left arm. As she heads down a stairway to the backstage area, Quintiliani holds the railing with one hand, her red heels with the other.
The crowd filters in. The performance is sold out, even on a sky-blue Sunday. Gaston Rivero, one of the four soloists, tenderly takes Quintiliani’s left elbow to help her negotiate the three small stairs. She takes a seat as conductor Robert Moody signals the piece’s start, the chorus kicks in, and the other singers perform their parts.
The early going is solid, though the soloists slip a bit behind the mix of a full orchestra and massive chorus.
When it is her turn, Quintiliani stands and shakes the hall to life. A few men, nodding off in the back rows, raise their heads. Schroeder, sitting in a balcony, leans forward in his seat.
She’s singing barefoot, her heels kicked to the side. It is as primal as opera gets, a tour de force leading to the last high C, a plea to God for mercy.
“That day of wrath, that day of calamity and misery, a great day and most bitter,” Quintiliani sings in Latin, “when thou shalt come to judge the world by fire. Grant them eternal rest, O Lord, and let light perpetual shine upon them.”
When it is over, there are four curtain calls. A stagehand smiles. She says she’s never seen that before.