May 2008

Opera Singing Mom Competes in Classical Music’s “American Idol”

By Lori Higa

To Heidi Moss, opera singing and science are a lot alike. “Both require a strong foundation of nitty-gritty work, but once you get into the lab, or start the music, that’s when magic happens through creative leaps.”  The petite, blond Potrero Hill resident created some magic when she became one of three finalists for the top spot in classical radio station KDFC’s 2008 Classical Star Search, a kind of American Idol meets YouTube contest where the winner gets $2,500.  What makes Moss’ story even more remarkable is that she’s been waging a year-long battle with Bell’s Palsy, a cranial nerve disease that causes facial paralysis and disfigurement.

A former research biochemist, Moss is also a professional opera singer and stay-at-home mother of two girls, Ava, three years-old, and Hana, who’s one.  She and her biophysicist husband Andrej Sali (pronounced “Shah-lee”) moved to Potrero Hill from Manhattan five years ago.  Sali was recruited by the University of California, San Francisco-Mission Bay from Rockefeller University, where the two met in neighboring labs.  According to Moss, “Potrero Hill was the perfect location for us, right next to Mission Bay, with diverse neighborhood appeal, great weather and family friendliness.”

After moving to San Francisco Moss “wanted to pursue singing rather than go back to the lab, since I had won some competitions in New York,” including at the prestigious New York Metropolitan Opera. “We were thinking of starting a family, and I wanted the freedom to stay at home if we were blessed with children.”  Moss quickly found paying jobs as an opera singer with Pocket Opera, San Francisco Lyric Opera, West Bay Opera and the San Francisco Opera Center.  “I was very lucky,” she admits. To keep her science feet wet, Moss also gave molecular biology lectures at Foothill College and confessed that she “lives vicariously through Andrej’s science.”

In April 2005, Moss and Sali welcomed their first daughter, Ava.  Moss marveled at the Hill’s family-friendly community, finding folks who’ve become her dearest friends.  “Everything a mother and child could wish for was at my doorstep,” she said, including the Hill’s own urban kid oasis, Recess, where Moss met this reporter.

Following a very busy opera year in 2006, Moss learned she was pregnant with her second child.  In February 2007, in her third trimester, she awoke one morning to find the right side of her face completely paralyzed.  “I couldn’t blink, talk well, eat neatly or smile… it was just a horrific, droopy, unexpressive mess.”  Thinking she’d had a stroke, Moss went to an emergency room where doctors diagnosed her with Bell’s Palsy, a condition which causes the seventh cranial facial muscle nerve to die.

Most Bell’s Palsy cases resolve themselves in two to three months, said Moss.  After six months, however, Moss saw little progress.  After consulting a neurologist and getting a series of scans, Moss learned her injury was very severe, with peripheral nerve damage. Doctors told her there was also a high probability that she’d developed synkinesis, a condition in which nerves grow into the wrong muscle, which manifests in crossed facial signals such as squinting when smiling.

Roughly one-sixth of all Bell’s Palsy cases fall into this severe category.  “I had a period of mourning,” said Moss, “but then I would look at my daughter Hana and I would see that I gave my smile to her, she is a very smiley baby!”  It took awhile, but Moss “finally got used to the stares, of meeting people for the first time and seeing the look in their eyes of ‘I wonder what is wrong with her?’”  

After a year Moss decided “to get back on the horse and try singing again professionally,” despite her altered face. “My voice was actually better than ever,” she relates.  “Ironically, so much of opera singing is about losing tension, and fate had me doing this naturally.”  But Moss wondered whether people would look past the superficial constrictions on her face. “Would people be willing to hire me even though I couldn’t express in the same way I used to?

Moss was rejected by companies who’d previously hired her, at least in part, she feels, because of her palsy.  “It was both a liberating and frightening experience,” she remembers.  “I was told: ‘You sound great, but call us when your face is better.’  I didn’t have the heart to tell them it wasn’t going to get better.”

Donald Pippin’s Pocket Opera, however, did take a chance on Moss and chose her to perform the role of Norina in the comic Donizetti masterpiece Don Pasquale, which opens this month.  “It’s one of the most animated characters in the repertoire and a great challenge for me, but I am loving singing again and grateful for the opportunity.”

When Moss heard about the KDFC Classical Star Search competition, “I had to just do it.” After five failed attempts to make a video at home because she couldn’t keep her young daughters quiet, she succeeded in taping herself singing a “scream-free Puccini aria.” She submitted the tape to KDFC and won a place in the finals, beating out hundreds of applicants.  

Despite her accomplished and passionate performance video Moss admits she’s surprised to have made it this far.  Moss mentions her Bell’s Palsy in the very beginning of the tape.  For this mom-singer-scientist, “It’s become my mission to raise awareness for this debilitating condition of losing one’s face.”

While the View went to press on April 28 Moss performed with world-renowned pianist Lang-Lang at the Palace of Fine Arts in Star Search’s final competition.  To see and hear Moss’ rendition of an aria from La Boheme, and to vote for one of the Hill’s very own, go to www.kdfc.com and click on Star Search.

 

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