by Azell Murphy Cavaan
Ana Maria Ugarte
From the Editor: The following story appeared in the November 20, 2000, edition of the Boston Herald. Ana Ugarte is a 1996 NFB Scholarship winner and a Past President of the National Association of Blind Students. Here it is:
A hush fell over the performance hall, and Ana Maria Ugarte, an up-and-coming mezzo-soprano, took her place beside the baby grand piano, smiled at her audience, and felt their energy. But she couldn't see their faces.
Still, like every other day in Ugarte's life, her blindness was the last thing on her mind. This was her night. And it was her time to sing. Costumed in a black crushed-velvet evening gown, the twenty-nine-year-old took a deep breath and let loose a wall of sound so rich and full that it rolled through the air and hung there like a cloud.
"I believe my voice is a gift, and when I sing, it comes from deep within my soul," Ugarte said following her benefit recital for the National Federation of the Blind at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge last week.
"For me music is close enough to being the air that I breathe." Indeed, singing has been the force behind Ugarte's indomitable spirit since she was five and heard her first opera in her hometown of Portland, Oregon.
"She fell asleep during the performance," recalled Angela Ugarte, Ana Maria's mother. "But she kept waking up to catch a glimpse and she'd tap my leg and whisper to me that's what she wanted to do when she grew up."
Her sights set on becoming a star opera singer, the young Ugarte joined every church and children's choir she could find. As it turned out, she was a natural whose talent often propelled her to leading roles and coveted solo performances. She thrived on the spotlight.
But by the age of eleven Ugarte started experiencing strange bouts of blurred vision. Over the years it grew progressively worse. "My parents knew I wasn't making it up," said Ugarte, who earned a graduate diploma in vocal performance from the New England Conservatory of Music in 1998.
"They knew I was far too vain to feign anything that would make me stand out as different. The last thing I wanted to be was weird."
By the time Ugarte was fifteen, a rare disorder called Stargardt's Disease had snatched most of her vision away. A disease that causes blindness in about 25,000 young Americans (it usually develops between the ages of seven and twelve), Stargardt's is an inherited form of macular degeneration, which damages the part of the eye that is responsible for sharp, frontal vision.
Ugarte describes the images that her beautiful hazel-colored eyes lay before her as "a big blurry mess." But that's not how she sees the world.
"Some people consider blindness a tragedy, and I admit that I used to think that way," she said. "But I've learned to reduce being blind to a mere nuisance." It's a credo Ugarte says she learned from the National Federation of the Blind, the largest help group for the blind that is run by blind people.
But it took Ugarte ten years to find that inner peace. "(Before connecting with the National Federation of the Blind), I had mastered the art of deception," Ugarte said of her years at Portland State University, where she majored in music. "I memorized the campus. I knew how to get around. Only my close friends and my professors knew I was blind."
It wasn't until Ugarte graduated college that she finally took her mother's advice and contacted the Federation for the first time. "As they say, it was the first day of the rest of my life," Ugarte said.
About a week after her initial contact with the organization, Ugarte packed her bags and left her hometown to start a nine-month program in Denver. The goal: learning how to live as a blind person. "It was the first time in all my life that music wasn't my focus and the first time I accepted the fact that I was blind," she said.
But acceptance never meant submission for Ugarte, who today is a full-time musician. The fact that she cannot see is nothing more than a sidebar--something that even those who know her well sometimes forget about. "Her blindness is like the fact that her hair is brown," said Amy Dethman, a close friend for more than twenty years.
A positive attitude, an appreciation for small victories, and an unwavering commitment to polishing "her product" are the tools Ugarte says will one day steer her to stardom. "I know I can do it," she said. "I don't want to become famous because I'm a blind opera singer; I want to become famous because I'm a good opera singer."
So she will be, her mentors predict. "We've never--not even once--talked about her being blind," said Edward Zambara, the music teacher Ugarte has worked with for nearly two years. "She's so very talented and has everything it takes to have a career in opera, and that's all I see when I work with Ana."
Accompanied by her coach and pianist Scott Nicholas during her recital last week, Ugarte performed songs by Schubert, Copland, Weill, de Falla, and Guastavion.
"Keep your eye on her," Nicholas said. "She's going to be a star."