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Born without ears, opera singer now soars

Hannah Katz, 23, warms up at her voice lesson in Newton.

Laura Gomez for the Boston Globe

Hannah Katz, 23, warms up at her voice lesson in Newton.

Hannah Katz was born without ears. Yet at the age of 23, she is an accomplished opera singer who has traveled to Italy and France for summer opera programs, and can sing in four languages.

“Singing is something that I really love,” said Katz, who uses an implant and hearing aid to compensate for the ear canal she lacked at birth. “I have such a connection with singing that when a challenge came around, I felt encouraged to think about the positives overpowering the negatives.”

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Katz, who grew up in Newton and now majors in vocal performance at Boston University, was recently awarded a $2,000 scholarship from Cochlear Americas, the company that makes the hearing technology she uses.

“What is incredible about Hannah being able to sing opera is that not only can she sing in tune, but she can stay in tempo, in rhythm, without falling behind the beat,” said her voice instructor, Dana Schnitzer.

Schnitzer finds these skills extraordinary in someone who was born with a hearing impairment. “Hannah is a great student, she is very responsive and self-motivated.”

Shortly after her birth, Katz was taken to Boston Children’s Hospital, where specialists determined that she had branchial arch syndrome, a condition resulting from abnormalities in embryologic development.

The right side of her face was paralyzed, in addition to a range of other medical problems, and she has undergone 36 surgeries over the course of her life.

Katz was fitted with her first hearing aid at 3 months old, and began using prosthetic ears in second grade. She has been using a Baha implant and hearing aid since eighth grade, and recently upgraded to the latest technology.

“She had a natural affinity to wanting to sing and we followed her lead on that,” said her mother, Victoria Katz. “And we encouraged her to keep singing, and it became more and more a passion for her.”

Katz, who has a younger sister, Sophie, developed a passion for music at an early age. She participated in musical theater productions, and started singing classical pieces when she was 15. She graduated from Newton South High School.  

“I had really good friends and a lot of good teachers who were really accommodating,” said Katz. “I think I’ve been really lucky, just because Newton is very accepting community, and I never once felt out of place.”

She attends voice rehearsals with Schnitzer once a week. These lessons most commonly incorporate songs in German, French, and Italian, because most opera repertoire is composed and performed in these languages.

Katz has been learning French since she was 11, continues to work on German, and has spent three summers in Italy, where she earned the Bel Canto Award in recognition of her progress, commitment, and “overall awesomeness,” she quipped.

Two surgeries when she was 4 and 5 years old partially alleviated her facial paralysis. Doctors took a nerve and muscle tissue from her calf and thigh, and used them to restore movement, especially in her right cheek.  

“I can move the right side of my nose because of this surgery, and it would’ve been much harder to sing if I hadn’t had this surgery,” she said.

It is also the reason she has a smile, said her father, Steve Katz.

“As parents, the thing that has always impressed us is that Hannah will overcome pessimism” that can strike other children who do not face the same kinds of challenges, he said.

Katz said she has to make a conscious effort to move her mouth and lips when singing, something that she said feels exaggerated to her, but probably looks normal to others.

The medical institutions in Boston have been crucial in tending Katz’s needs over the years, according to her family.

“If we weren’t in Boston we probably would’ve moved somewhere closer to Boston. Everything was right here for us,” said her father.

Upon graduation from BU, Hannah hopes to continue pursuing a classical music and voice performance career.

She went to San Diego last weekend to accept the Coch­lear Americas scholarship recognizing her efforts to overcome her hearing impediment.

Laura Gomez can be reached at laura.gomez@globe.com.
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