MS. REBECCA SHEIR
Welcome back to "Metro Connection," I’m Rebecca Sheir. And this week, we're checking out some favorite stories and interviews from the show. This next piece generated a lot of buzz around Washington when it played back in February. It's about a D.C. born opera star who, at a relatively young age found herself fighting for her life. Now, if you get your hands on DECA's 2006 recording of George Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess," you go to disc two, track 10, you hit play on the stereo or computer or iPod or whatever it is you're using to listen. You'll hear this.
MS. REBECCA SHEIR
It's a soaring soprano voice that aficionados in the opera worlds have called big, lush and luscious, one that pops and fizzes as it carries across the footlights. And that voice belongs to Marquita Lister, who in addition to being a beautiful statuesque world-class opera star, also just happens to be...
MS. MARQUITA LISTER
A native of Washington D.C.
What part of D.C.?
Upper northwest Washington by (sounds like) Acorda Baron.
In the 1970s, when Lister was attending what was then Alice Deal Junior High School, one of her music teachers...
Mrs. Lauderdale, who I still remember.
...told Lister's mother that her daughter, her only child, had a talent.
And you need to cultivate it and that's what led to me getting a voice teacher.
Which eventually led to Lister performing in some of the world's greatest opera houses with some of the world's greatest opera stars, like Sherrill Milnes, Simon Estes.
Maestro Domingo, Frederica Von Stade.
The list kind of goes on and on.
And it seemed Lister's career would, too. She was earning raves for a number of legendary roles, including Aida, Tosca, Salome and of course, Bess. How many times have you sung Bess, out of curiosity?
My God, over 500 times.
But in the summer of 2006, it all started to come crashing down.
I was up for Salome at La Scala and I noticed that my hands started hurting and shortly after that, I noticed I was having a hard time walking. I was having a hard time moving my arms and a hard time breathing.
Lister flew back to D.C. and spent a month at Providence Hospital while doctors struggled to figure out what was going on.
And one day when I woke up, I was very feverish and I started vomiting and I couldn't move my legs at all.
With that, Lister was transferred to Washington's National Rehabilitation Hospital where specialists were finally, finally able to diagnosis her.
I had this very odd autoimmune disorder called Polymyositis.
Doctors managed her condition for a while, but Lister says she soon suffered a relapse.
I was in total organ failure and I was really on the brink of death.
When her condition stabilized, Lister started working to regain her stamina, her strength, but it wasn't easy.
I had to totally relearn how to walk, how to hold a fork, how to write. Some of my memory had been erased and I was slowly starting to get that back.
But the million-dollar question, of course, was, would she ever get her voice back?
Marvin, who is my accompanist, helped me through the process of having to rebuild my voice note by note so that I could phonate and focus the tone so it wasn't defused.
MR. MARTIN MILLS
We worked diligently and that first year particularly.
This, of course, is Marvin, Marvin Mills. How long have you two been working together?
Eight years maybe.
Yeah, at least.
And like Mills says, that first year of Lister's rehabilitation was tough.
I was constantly amazed at her fortitude and drive to get herself back in working shape. It is something I will always remember as an inspiration whenever I might feel like woe is me.
Marvin was seeing me when I was still in my wheelchair and if we could just do two notes that day, then we felt like it was a victory. So he was like, well, see, it's coming. That's great. And I thought, he's either totally crazy or he truly does love me.
Well, it turns out Marquita Lister was half right. Martin Mills does love her, heck, just about everyone who's ever known her or seen her perform seems to fall in love, but he wasn't crazy. By June 2007, Lister was in Berlin set to play Aida.
And my German doctor there came to the performances because he was so afraid I was going to pass out on the stage from all of the physicality and he was like, my God, you're so crazy. You're going to make me lose all my hair.
But she finished up the run and by 2009, she was performing Rusalka in Boston and singing Bess at the Hollywood Bowl. This month, Lister is poised to make her D.C. comeback at a recital for her favorite non-profit organization, The Negro Spiritual Scholarship Foundation.
And the mission of the foundation was to preserve and promote the Negro spiritual songs and to give scholarship help to college-bound students of Afro-ethnic descent.
Lister will sing in Riha (sp?) some songs by German composer Ludwig Spohr and six spirituals including, "A City Called Heaven," which she and Mills recently ran through for me at Mills Church in Kensington, Md.
Listening to Marquita Lister's voice, it's hard to believe that not so long ago she was struggling just to get up and get dressed in the morning. But through it all, Lister says, she never really lost hope.
I just refused to believe that my career was over. I really do believe that if you dare to believe, if you simply dare to believe, then you open yourself up to the realm of possibility and here I am.
Brava, Marquita says, it felt wonderful to get up and perform again in her hometown. And in fact, thanks to this story, Marquita had a reunion of sorts with her teacher, Ms. Lauderdale. And last I heard, they were going out to have some lunch and do some catching up.
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