As the curtain rises on Act 2 of "Il Trovatore," somewhere in the troupe of Gypsies singing the "Anvil Chorus" is an octogenarian who cannot hear the orchestra or most of the other members of the chorus.
But if you didn't know Beryle Kalin, you couldn't tell which Gypsy she is. Everyone is on key and on cue. No single voice stands out. No one walks like an old lady of 84.
"It's incredible," said Arthur Cosenza, general director of the New Orleans Opera Assn. Cosenza, who joined as a soloist in 1954, didn't know Kalin was almost deaf until someone told him. "She's very good musically."
"She has more energy than people who are one-third her age," said Garold Whisler, director of the New Orleans Opera Chorus.
Never Hears Herself Sing
Kalin lost most of her hearing to the measles when she was 4, growing up in the Boston suburb of Saugus, Mass., one of four children of a coal salesman.
"I never hear myself sing," she said. "I only know my mouth is going, and I know I'm projecting. Backstage, I only hear the people on my left and right. On stage, it's only men's voices who come through to me."
Kalin began singing with New Orleans opera choruses in 1926. Her skin is lined and soft with age, but it's hard to believe that she is much over 60. Her eyes sparkle with life, and her voice is as animated as her face.
Kalin lives alone. Her husband, Eddy Stephen Kalin, head of one of New Orleans' top private schools, died of cancer in 1980 and her two adult daughters have their own homes.
She gardens, makes her own clothes, gives tours of the Opera Guild House, keeps the guild scrapbook and sells opera tickets. She works in local Republican Party headquarters whenever they need her.
She makes regular visits to several neighbors who are younger than she but house-bound. She has numerous awards and certificates for volunteer work.
"As my daughter Karen said, 83 is only 38 backward," Kalin said.
She said she began slowing down in the 1970s. That meant dropping work at Children's Hospital, Sara Mayo Hospital, Charity Hospital, Goodwill and other organizations. But, she said, she started doing two and three times as much work at the Guild Hall.
"When she first told me how old she was, I said, 'You're lying!' " recounted Kay Lang, a former chorus member who joined 40 years ago, at the age of 15. "She said, 'Listen, kid--when I met you I was older than your mother, and I don't think things have changed.' "
Kalin will sing by herself only if pressed to do so. But when she was younger, her roles included such solo parts as that of Suzuki, the maid in "Madame Butterfly."
"Oh, honey, I don't have a solo voice," she said. But although age has thinned the notes and cut Kalin's register from three octaves to one, each note is precisely on pitch with appropriate variations in volume and tempo.
Doctors who examined her in the 1940s told her that the measles had robbed her of 95% of her hearing, Kalin said.
Luckily, what she still could hear was in the range of the human voice. She can hear a piano if she's at the keyboard. And she was born with perfect pitch and a talent that surfaced early.
"I was singing duets with my sister from the time I was able to speak," she said. "I was 3 and she was 5. We would sing duets at different church organizations."
Experts agree that her achievements since then are exceptional but not impossible.
"Severely to profoundly deaf people can and do enjoy music," said Charles Berlin, director of the Louisiana State University Medical Center's Kresge Hearing Laboratory. "It's useful to know that about 15% of the deaf population have unusually good talent for music. That's exactly the same percentage as the normal population."
He said Kalin's ability to use the telephone and read lips shows that she has a fair amount of residual hearing. And it suggests that the doctors who examined her might have been talking about a loss of 95 decibels--a measurement of loudness, he said.
"The human voice is 115 to 122 decibels--well above that," he said. "That's not to minimize her accomplishment. But it's not a miracle."
Kalin won't use a hearing aid--her experiences in the 1940s convinced her that they distort what sound she can hear. Nor does she have an amplifier on her telephone, although the person on the other end must speak clearly and a bit louder than usual, and sometimes must repeat words or rephrase sentences.
Face to face, she relies on lip-reading.
"If you turn your head, it's just a sound. I have to see your face to know what you're saying," she said. "At guild meetings, I'll see heads turning and looking at me. They've spoken to me, but I didn't hear my name."
She taught herself to lip-read as a child.
Turned Into Recluse
"I used to glare at peoples' faces, trying to figure out what was going on," she said. "People would laugh at me."
That turned her into a shy, dependent recluse for much of her early life.
"If you were deaf, people thought you were stupid. I was never really included in things. I was never asked what my opinion was. Or if I volunteered an opinion. . . . " She finished her sentence with a wave of her hand.
She attended grade school, which included singing lessons, along with her sister and two brothers. And she took violin lessons after the head of a local conservatory persuaded her father to enroll the four children.
Since the violin is tucked up under the chin near the ear, she could hear some of its tones. "For the upper register, I had to mark the neck. I never could hear those notes," she said.
She also didn't hear the mispronounced words that prompted insensitive adults to ask her to repeat what she had said so they could laugh at her.
Graduated From College
Despite her handicap, she graduated from Middlebury College in Vermont, where she met Kalin.
After she moved to New Orleans in 1926, the bride of a man who taught her to do for herself rather than relying on others, she decided to study elocution to improve her speech.
In addition, she said, painstaking work on Italian with Ernesto Gargano, director of the first chorus with which she sang, vastly improved her speech in English.
When she was 46, she decided to become more than just another voice in the crowd.
The opera company was preparing "Andrea Chenier," and Kalin had hoped to be in the small group chosen for the loveliest scene.
Instead, she said, "I was going to be riffraff. A hag."
Just Stood and Sang
She was put at the front of a mob that attacks the baritone, Gerard, as he opens a ballroom door. Back then, she said, the chorus just stood and sang rather than trying to act.
Although she had decided to stand out from the mob, she walked through the dress rehearsal as woodenly as the rest of the chorus. But for opening night she blacked her front four teeth and roughed up her hair.
"When Gerard opened up that door, I lunged at him with my pitchfork--'Aaaaaarrrrr!' " she said, acting it out again with a shout.
The baritone, she said, threw up his hands and gasped in shock.
"He almost missed his cue," she said. "From then on, I decided I was always going to know exactly who I was and what I was doing. In those days I stuck out like a sore thumb."
Gradually, she said, the rest of the chorus took her cue and joined the action.
However, Whisler said she still stands out. "She's a very good actress," he said. "So she's always fun to have on stage."
Kalin plans on staying active for a few years yet: "My mind is set for 2003. I want to see the turn of the century."