By Jeff Odom
Maria Zoller isn’t your average teenager.
At 15 years old, the Sunlake High freshman is quickly becoming one of the youngest sensations in the musical genre of opera, and she’s earning national recognition for it too.
Maria was recently one of 20 singers worldwide to earn a scholarship to the California Opera, and has been named one of two southern district finalists for the New York Lyric Opera’s 2013 National Vocal Competition.
She is also the youngest student studying in the precollegiate music program under the University of South Florida (USF)’s renowned vocal director Kyoung Cho.
“This has been so incredible,” Maria said. “It’s such an amazing experience just being a part of the shows and performing. I love it, because singing on stage just makes me feel like I am on top of the world.”
Reaching her dreams once seemed impossible.
Maria was only 3 when she was living in an orphanage in Romania after being given up by her mother at just three months of age.
Her adoptive parents, Susan and Wald Zoller, brought her back to the United States and helped change her life completely.
At first, life in her new home was difficult for Maria, who barely talked. Susan said she would walk around the house with a baby doll whining because of the suffering she endured in the orphanage’s poor conditions.
Then one day, Susan played Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” and from there, Maria began humming the tune and eventually knew every word.
Maria never stopped singing, and today can perform in four different languages: English, German, French and Italian.
“I’m very fortunate to be where I am today,” Maria said. “To be able to perform with USF and Dr. Cho, she’s been a big inspiration to me. She helped me find my voice, and she is so supportive and has helped me with so much, and I just love her. She’s a great teacher.”
Maria said students at Sunlake have been very encouraging and some are even curious as to what opera is all about.
“They’re like, ‘I can’t believe you’re singing opera,’ and they love it and want to go to some of my shows,” Maria said. “When I was younger, I would sing opera as well, and my friends, they kind of thought it was a little weird because they’re so used to pop and rap, but I had a passion for opera ever since I was little, and it’s nice to teach them what the music is like because it’s so beautiful, and they have a great understanding for it … and they find it interesting and want to know more about it, and that’s what I’m here to do.”
Aside from performing with students from USF, Maria has also sung at multiple charity events, including a breast cancer awareness concert that featured heavy metal bands.
She said it doesn’t matter where she gets on stage as long as she is able to help others and be an inspiration for those who need it.
“I want to teach people and inspire them through my music,” Maria said. “My ultimate goal is to become a professional opera singer and sing all over stages like the Metropolitan Opera House (in New York), but I really want to inspire many with the beautiful music because I feel like opera is a calming music. It relieves stress, and it’s beautiful. It’s my passion.”
Maria will be performing at the Carrollwood Cultural Center, 4537 Lowell Road, in the show A Night At the Popera with Klassika, on April 27 at 8 p.m. and April 28 at 2 p.m. For ticket information and more, visit carrollwoodcenter.org/events.