Barbara Quintiliani came to music through her high school choir, in Virginia Beach. “I learned a solo from a tape at a teacher’s urging. I thought it was hilarious—I’d never heard that kind of operatic vibrato,” she recalled. “I sang the piece with that vibrato, and my teacher said, ‘Barbara! I had no idea you could really sing!’ Then a friend’s mother took me to my first opera, Carmen. The lights, theater, everything happening all at once. I said, ‘That’s it, that’s what I’m meant to do with my life.’”
It was indeed, if the many prestigious singing prizes she has won are any gauge, including being the first American woman in 25 years to receive first prize in the Francisco Viñas Singing Competition in Barcelona, Spain, in 2006.
Barbara also has multiple sclerosis. She was 29 when she was diagnosed in January 2007, following years of symptoms. Her situation was complicated by a 2010 diagnosis of Churg-Strauss syndrome, another autoimmune condition with neurological symptoms.
“The worst is the fatigue,” Barbara said. “It’stotal and complete exhaustion and it’s almost painful to move or be awake. Luckily, my doctors have given me ‘fake’ energy when I need to be on my feet, and I sleep when I’m not onstage. I’m not the party animal I once was!” She makes sure to keep all her doctor and physical therapy appointments. “Managing MS is like having a second career,” she added.
Barbara credits her manager and husband of 13 years, Stewart Schroeder, who “never stopped believing I could do this. When I was first diagnosed, I was in a rehabilitation hospital for a couple of weeks. I couldn’t walk very well and had to use a wheelchair. Some people weren’t very optimistic, but my husband told me, ‘You weren’t given this talent to spend your life sitting in a chair.’”
Barbara has recently come out publicly about her MS. “I had to,” she said. “Certain expectations are placed on singers, such as showing up at fundraising dinners. But to protect myself and the performance, I have to leave early to rest. I told people that I’ve had MS for a while and have done just fine. I have not canceled a performance ever.”
However, reaction was mixed. “Some people were extremely supportive. And there are people who will never hire me again,” Barbara said. “Singing is very physical. We have six hours of day of rehearsal, on our feet and singing. For the performances themselves, I project my voice live, without a microphone, over a 70-piece orchestra, with thousands in the audience.”
Then there are the costumes. “I did a show this year where one costume weighed 68 pounds. It’s like being an Olympic athlete just to get off your knees in a costume that heavy,” she remembered.
Watch Barbara sing the final scene in the title role of Donizetti’s Maria Padilla at the 2009 Wexford Opera Festival.
Visit Barbara's website.