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Hitting the high notes

MaryAnn Evangelista suddenly withdrew her nimble fingers from the keys of her upright piano, and the student singing along with her also stopped short. For an instant, the studio in her Elkridge home became very still.

"Something has closed up," she informed Mary Ratcliffe, who had been deep in the throes of performing Mozart's "Das Veilchen," an opera whose German title translates to "The Violet." The vocal teacher then demonstrated what she was listening for: a full and open sound that ascends up the throat and out the top of the head.

"Don't take the stairs," she gently chided her student and close friend. "You've gotta take the elevator, remember?"

Pulling from her vocalist's bag of tricks, she asked Ratcliffe, a retired schoolteacher from Columbia, to imitate chewing with her mouth open to loosen up her facial muscles and to gently rub under her jaw to further relax the tightness there.

Before they started up again, Evangelista gaily advised, "Don't be afraid to just let 'er fly!" Soon, the reshaped musical passage unfolded as gloriously as predicted, and the pair moved contentedly on.

Evangelista not only teaches from the heart, but also from experience. A longtime soprano who has been giving voice and piano lessons in Maryland for 20 years, she was recently named the 2012 Maryland Senior Idol.

"I was pleased that I won, and it was an honor to win," said the 63-year-old professional performer.

She sang "You Raise Me Up" at the sixth annual vocal competition for Maryland residents aged 60 and older, held April 4 at the Bowie Center for the Performing Arts before a sold-out crowd of 750. Fifteen representatives from eight counties participated.

"MaryAnn was chosen for her seamless vocal movement through several octaves and the strength of her tone," said Cathy Johnson, an Idol judge and director of the Ellicott City-based ShowTime Singers, an all-volunteer, mixed-voice chorus. "She created a beautiful story with the warmth and quality of her voice."

The other Howard delegate to the sixth annual competition was Ratcliffe, who said she creates opportunities to sing before an audience since, "at my mature age I'm not anticipating starting a career."

Her voice has "just blossomed" since starting lessons with Evangelista, said the choir member at Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia. "Hard work and a wonderful teacher" have really made a difference, she added.

'My world was destroyed'

Between the ages of 9 and 12, when she was still MaryAnn Bailey and growing up in a small town near Seattle, Evangelista would hear the train chugging alongside the Nooksack River and dash up to a nearby bridge. There, she would sing her lungs and heart out, figuring no one could hear.

"I later found out that all the people who lived along the river would wait for me to show up and then throw open their windows to listen," she recalled, still pleased at the memory.

The gifted musician, who by age 13 was the organist for three churches and wanted to become a concert pianist, has been enchanting audiences ever since. Well, almost. There was that five-year period in the 1970s, not long after graduating in 1971 from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio, when she lost her voice.

"I was told it had been overworked and the vocal folds (inside the larynx, or voice box) were not operating properly," she said.

Evangelista, who says she didn't speak of this dark period in her life for 30 years, was nearly inconsolable during that time.

"I was a singer, period," she said. "Suddenly, I could no longer even listen to the radio or play the piano because I was happiest when I was singing along. My world was destroyed, and I just cried."

Aside from working diligently with New York vocal coach Vivian Mordo, she says what finally got her back on track was a book titled, "Creative Visualization" by Shakti Gawain.

"I knew that I would sing again and that I couldn't give up, so I visualized the folds being whole and complete, and working perfectly," she said. "I never deviated. I stuck to the program like gum to … whatever!"

She eventually went on to perform in Hawaii for two years with actor and singer Jim Nabors, popularly known for his role as TV's Gomer Pyle; and to sing with symphonies and opera companies in Honolulu, San Francisco, Atlanta and Baltimore, among other places.

Still, it took 10 years to fully rebuild her voice so she could meet the demands of singing opera again, she said.

'Anything can be accomplished'

With shelves crammed with such book titles as "Great Singers on Great Singing"; "The NPR Listener's Encyclopedia of Classical Music"; and "Bubbles," by Beverly Sills, along with a smattering of family memorabilia, it's obvious where Evangelista's interests lie.

The singer has recorded a few CDs, including 2005's "Winter Moon," on which her husband of 28 years, retiredU.S. ArmySgt. Maj. Paul W. Evangelista, plays the Hawaiian conch shell and ipu, a percussion instrument made from gourds. A mother's flag from the Navy hangs in her studio window, a gift from their son, Sean, who is a Navy SEAL.

Her studio also includes an accordion, folk harp and flute; and she gleefully demonstrated for a visitor the bell-like sound made by a Tibetan singing bowl. The paraphernalia is an external manifestation of her success at finding her passion in life, she says.

"When I sang at Senior Idol, I never thought about winning; I was just focused on what I love to do," she said.

"Regarding the loss of my voice, if (sharing my story) will help folks to know that anything can be accomplished as long as you are committed to your goal, then I am all right with that," she said.

Barbara Scher, creator of Maryland Senior Idol and manager of the senior center division of the Howard County Office on Aging, said with a laugh that, "This year was the first time the winner was actually from the county I was working in at the time."

Scher came up with the original concept for the contest shortly after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2004. Working with Baltimore County seniors then, she envisioned it as a positive response to the natural disaster because "older people were disproportionately impacted by that event."

Singers are rated by three judges on a scale of 1 to 5 in such categories as song choice, execution and connection to the audience.

"This contest showcases the vitality of older people and demonstrates that aging is something to embrace and to relish," Scher said. "No one can believe how good the show is: It really brought the house down."

Evangelista says anything is possible at any age.

"Age has nothing to do with what you can accomplish," she said. "Besides, I always say I'm going to live to be 150, so it's irrelevant."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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