In February 2011, we met Marquita Lister: a D.C.-born opera star who's graced stages around the world. She's sung the role of Bess, in Porgy and Bess, more than 500 times. She's recorded numerous CDs. But in 2006, not long after she turned 42 years old... the curtain nearly fell on all of it.
As she told us last year: "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, a hard time moving my arms and a hard time breathing."
Lister was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disorder called polymyositis.
"I was in total organ failure," she says of that time. "And I was really on the brink of death."
After numerous treatments and therapies at D.C.'s National Rehabilitation Hospital, Lister eventually began to do what was once thought impossible: she began to sing again.
We met up with Marquita Lister earlier this month, at NRH. After delivering holiday gifts to her doctors and nurses, she treated patients in the cafeteria to a little concert. Her rheumatologist, Dr. Robert Bunning, accompanied her on piano.
Turns out that since last we spoke, Lister's been one busy soprano. She's had some relapses, some weight gain, some discomfort and pain. But she says every time she'd get in to what she calls "a Marquita Moment," where she'd look at herself and say, "Yuck," almost immediately, "something wonderful would happen!
"I would get a phone call saying: 'Oh, hi, Marquita! We're honoring you with the blah-blah-blah-blah award!' (like the Gala Victory Award, which NRH presents for overcoming physical adversity) Or, 'I'm putting together a concert and I'd like for you to come and sing blah-blah-blah-blah-blah.' (like the 2012 Philadelphia concert to benefit the National Association of Negro Musicians) Or 'I was thinking about doing an interview; this is Rebecca Sheir! Would you like to come and blah-blah-blah-blah-blah?'"
And all of these opportunities, she says, are "a confirmation that through all of the fire that we walk through, there is the cooling water at the end."
And her rheumatologist, Dr. Bunning, the piano player, says Lister showed hints of this belief and determination from her first day at the hospital.
"I read about a woman who was seriously ill. And I was concerned about if she would be healthy enough to be in our hospital," he recalls. "And when I went in the room she was studying German, while she could barely lift her head off the bed. And that immediately told me we had a woman who was quite a bit of a fighter."
That, again, is why NRH presented Marquita Lister with the Gala Victory Award last year; she joins the likes of Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, Johnny Cash and Bob Dole.
"It was so magical," Lister says. "Of all the awards I have received this one really is the most special for me, because I had to work so hard."
When she accepted the award, Lister took the microphone and told the thousand or so people assembled that now that she's recovering from polymyositis, "when I step onto the stage, it is not about the character I'm portraying, or the accuracy of the music that I am singing.
"It is about the grateful heart that I have, and the privilege that I have been given to share it. When I sing my heart soars in exultation. Always believe in yourself, and know that dreams do come true."
And speaking of "dreams," Marquita Lister got to live out a big one in August and September of 2011, when she was cast in a new role in Porgy and Bess.At Tanglewood in Lenox, Massachusetts, and then at Symphony Hall in Boston, Lister portrayed Serena: a pious woman whose husband is brutally killed.
"Bess is a great acting role," Lister says of the role she's performed so many times. "She gets a couple of duets, she gets a reprisal of 'Summertime.' But in terms of just standing flat-footed and just letting your chops show, it's really more Serena that allows you to do that."
And Marquita says this more grounded role suits her just fine. Because after all, whereas once upon a time she could run across the stage, dash up some steps and sing a high C before flinging herself into the orchestra pit, "Well, that girl I don't think exists anymore!" Lister says with a laugh. "So, now I can maybe walk across the stage, take my time walking up the steps, sing the high C and throw myself into the pit."
She says her voice has changed, too. It's gotten richer, more mature. In a way, after all these years of illness and pain, she says it's gotten even stronger — just like Marquita Lister herself.
[Music: "My Man's Gone Now" performed by Marquita Lister and the Boston Symphony Orchestra from Porgy and Bess (Tanglewood performance, 08/26/11)]