by Jodi S. Cohen
Published March 9, 2012 in the Chicago-Tribune
Romantic music filled the classroom at Roosevelt University as the young opera singers rehearsed "Cinderella," their voices rising for the fairy tale princess's dramatic entrance to the ballroom..
It was Sandra Marante's moment. She was Cinderella, and the class turned to her.
But when she opened her mouth to sing, the words didn't come out. Her face froze in what looked like a smile, her skin turned blue and she lost consciousness. She was having a seizure.
In the part of her brain that controls language, a mass of tangled blood vessels had started to bleed, triggering the seizure. The abnormality likely had been there since birth, but only then, with Marante at the start of a promising opera career, did the mass make its presence known.
That night, doctors at Northwestern Memorial Hospital told her that left untreated, it could be fatal. Surgery, however, risked damaging her ability to memorize lyrics or ever sing again.
Throughout the fall, as she underwent blood tests and brain scans, Marante relied on music to sustain her.
She knew it would work. Music had already healed her once before.
Marante, 25, can't remember a time when she wasn't performing. As a little girl, sitting in her car seat, she made up words to an Amy Grant song on the car radio.
In preschool, her classmates nicknamed her "Sandy Bandy Be-Bop," and at 10 years old, she sang the national anthem before a Miami Dolphins pro football game.
Beginning at 14, she was the lead singer at weddings, bar mitzvahs and other high-end events in the Miami area. She recorded pop albums in New York City and Sweden while working with an independent label.
"Her life is singing," said her mother, Maria. "Music has always kept her going."
That became even more true after one summer night in 2006.
She was 19 and on summer break from college when she went to an upscale restaurant and lounge to hear a friend perform. She took a seat on an ottoman, not realizing that someone had moved a tabletop candle onto the floor. Her long black linen dress draped over the candle and caught fire.
By the time her friends stomped out the flames, she had second- and third-degree burns on 35 percent of her body, including her right leg, back and ribs. She burned her right arm down to the nerves trying to get the dress off.
She spent a month and a half in intensive care and several more months at a rehabilitation institute. While in the hospital, taking pain medication every hour and bandaged so tightly that she couldn't walk on her own, Marante passed the time watching TV.
One day while flipping through the channels, she stumbled on a PBS-TV documentary about the opera diva Maria Callas.
"She was beautiful. She was feisty. And she was emotional. She wore Chanel every day," Marante said. "I was enamored by her and wanted to be just like her."
Although her mother was a classical violinist, Marante knew little about classical music and had never been to an opera. But she had started to grow tired of the commercialization of pop music, and when she watched Callas on TV, "something clicked," she said.
"I wanted to be a part of it," she decided. And with Callas as her inspiration, she was determined to not let the burns derail her dreams.
She missed just one semester of college. She learned to sing opera music even though it required so much physical exertion that she would bleed through the bandages wrapped around her skin.
She had found her calling as a lyric soprano.
At 5-foot-2, Marante has the voice of a young girl when she speaks. But when she sings, she has a warm, deep, full sound. Her parents are Hungarian and Cuban, and her voice instructor said she brings a unique ethnic soulfulness to the music.
By the time she was at Roosevelt rehearsing "Cinderella" this past fall, Marante had already shown promise as an opera performer.
She graduated from the New World School of the Arts at the University of Florida and had starring roles in summer programs, including in Italy's Tuscany, where she was Adina in "The Elixir of Love."
That's where she met Judith Haddon, a voice instructor with Roosevelt University's Chicago College of Performing Arts. Marante decided to move to Chicago and enroll at Roosevelt's music conservatory so she could work one-on-one with Haddon, who has performed with the Metropolitan Opera and on stages around the world.
For the school's production this past fall, Marante was chosen for the lead role in "Cinderella" and embraced it so completely that she was "that character from beginning to end," said her voice coach, Dana Brown.
But during the first group rehearsal, Marante collapsed. The scans showed a golf ball-size arteriovenous malformation, or AVM, in her right temporal lobe, the area of the brain responsible for functions related to memory, speech and music.
A Northwestern neurosurgeon, Dr. Bernard Bendok, suggested that Marante undergo MRI scans while listening to and thinking about opera music to identify which regions of the brain she used to process music. The "functional MRI" technique is typically used to assess a patient's brain activity when speaking and moving, but not for something as specific as opera.
While in the MRI machine, Marante listened to several operas and visualized singing them.
The images showed that opera singing engaged many parts of her brain — like a symphony orchestra, Bendok said. It also showed that the mass was in a spot far enough from these areas that he could comfortably recommend surgery and plan for it in a way that would minimize risk to her speech.
"With Sandra, singing opera is such a complex function that there aren't a lot of studies of what happens to opera singing with treatment of a brain lesion of any kind," Bendok said. "We had concerns that were unique to her. It stretched our ability to examine the functions of the brain."
"Losing a part of your brain, your soul, memory, talent absolutely is a delicate situation," Bendok said.
On Dec. 23, Marante underwent a six-hour surgery to remove the mass.
As she was on a gurney being wheeled to her recovery room, her head stapled from the bottom of her right ear to the back, Marante reached out to her mother.
"I'm OK," she whispered. "Listen, Mommy, I can sing."
And in a barely audible voice, she launched into the Czech aria "Song to the Moon" from the "Rusalka" opera about the tragedy of losing your voice.
Marante has been determined not to let the brain trauma derail her last semester of graduate school.
Bendok cleared her to sing about six weeks ago — after she sang for him in his clinic — and she has kept up with her classes and rehearsals despite anti-seizure medication that dries out her throat.
Singing is strenuous exercise for her bruised brain, and she has battled headaches and exhaustion. When she first returned to singing at the end of January, she would fall asleep as soon as she got home from school.
But Marante said she gained her strength from song.
"Singing makes me strive to achieve any hard struggle," Marante wrote after she was diagnosed with the brain malformation in September. "Music has always been my way of helping me stay positive throughout the toughest battles my body has dealt with."
On Friday, she will stand alone on stage in Roosevelt's majestic Ganz Hall to perform her graduate recital, a 50-minute solo performance that is the culmination of her graduate school work. She will sing in five languages, her memory and voice intact despite the surgery.
Her parents will fly in from Florida to see the performance, and Bendok plans to be in the audience.
"She is the most determined young woman I have ever met in my entire life," said Haddon, her voice instructor. "She has tremendous courage."
One night earlier this week, that determination took her to Senn High School in Edgewater for her school's production of Mozart's "The Magic Flute."
Marante had a small part, playing one of three "spirits," or angels, who advise the star-crossed prince and princess and keep them from killing themselves.
The auditorium was dark and the spotlight was on Marante, dressed as a boy wearing white wings.
About 100 people were in the crowd, and they couldn't see her scarred arm, covered by the sleeve of her gray suit. They couldn't see her scarred head, covered by her long black hair. And they couldn't see the tattoo on her inner right wrist — musical notes and 8-11-2006, the date she was burned.
The audience focused on her voice.
"Be steadfast, patient," she implored the prince, singing in German. "Fight like a man and you will achieve your goals."
The audience cheered. And at the end of the performance, Marante stepped to the front of the stage, angel wings on her back, and took a bow.
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