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Despite Handicap, 84-Year-Old Performs With Perfect Pitch in Opera Company : Hearing-Impaired Woman a Standout, but as Singer She Blends Right In

November 16, 1986|JANET McCONNAUGHEY | Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS — 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."

Precisely Pitched

"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.

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