Maria Zoller’s opera dreams
By Kyle LoJacono
When Maria Zoller sings opera today she does so with strength, passion and confidence beyond her 13 years of age.
The Lutz resident and eighth-grader at Imagine School at Land O’ Lakes said performing is like no other feeling in the world. Her dream is to captivate the world with her voice.
Singing with such self-assurance is something that seemed impossible to her parents a few short years ago.
Susan and Wald Zoller adopted Maria when she was 3 from an orphanage in Transylvania, Romania. Maria was given up by her very young mother at just three months of age.
“The orphanage that she came from was actually featured on a documentary,” Susan said. “It’s one of the poorest and neglected facilities in the world.”
When Maria first came to America she could barely walk or talk because of the traumatic experiences she suffered while in the orphanage.
“Everything in America was so strange and frightening to her,” Susan said. “She never knew what a book, or animals or love was until she came to her new home in America. Maria would lie on the floor and stare into space for long periods of time just trying to process her new world. … Would our little girl ever be happy and learn how to smile?”
Susan said it troubled her and Wald as they were still getting over the loss of their son Ryan, who died at age 17 in a car accident caused by a drunk teenage driver just a few years before they adopted Maria.
Things began to change for Maria as her parents started to introduce her to music. She became more outgoing and engaged with other people.
When Maria was 5 she heard Celine Dion sing “My Heart Will Go On,” which became the first song she learned.
“She asked me to repeat it, but she did not understand that I could not nor did she know this was my personal song about my son Ryan,” Susan said. “This was the first song that she ever learned to sing, and she won many solo vocal competitions performing this song. It was amazing to me, and I felt that it was a sign from my beloved son Ryan because nobody knew this was my special song after he passed.”
Maria never really learned how to sing any American children’s songs. She went from singing mostly classical music to opera at the age of 7.
The first opera she saw was “Phantom of the Opera,” which sparked her passion for the art form. Maria began taking lessons at Mary Jo’s Performing Arts Academy in Northdale and sang in school and church choirs.
“It’s truly hard to describe the many heartwarming emotions that we experience when we see and hear Maria sing in a professional stage performance,” Susan said. “It’s that of pure joy, pride and love, but I have to admit I still get a little stage fright praying that she will hit all of those high notes. But she always does, and it’s a beautiful sound and a wonderful feeling.”
Maria started working with the Matinee Opera Players, formerly Tampa Opera, where she practices and performs side-by-side with singers usually more than three times her age.
Maria and the group rehearse for about three hours every Saturday at various churches in the area. At one of the practices a few months ago the prodigy was discovered by 91-year-old opera maestro Mario Laurenti.
The thought of being watched by the renowned maestro did not intimidate Maria.
“I was so excited about this opportunity, and I truly believed that it was my destiny to audition for the world-renowned maestro,” Maria said. “After the audition, I was so delighted to hear that he liked what he heard and that he believed that I had great potential.”
Laurenti offered to give Maria private lessons, making her the youngest student he has ever accepted. He told his new student being an opera singer “takes a lot of practice, patience, passion and commitment,” but added she has the ability to succeed.
Maria now spends most of her free time getting lessons from Laurenti and practicing with the Matinee Opera Players.
“I really have to work hard with tremendous dedication and determination to make my dreams of becoming an opera star come true,” Maria said. “I know that my maestro believes in me and with my parents’ continued support that it’s really up to me to make it happen.”
Hear Maria sing
Anyone interested in hearing Maria sing with the players can reserve a seat for a free concert on Sunday, Jan. 29 at 2 p.m. at the Pinellas Park Performing Arts Center, 4951 78th Ave. N. in Pinellas Park. E-mail to register.