SOUTH TAMPA — Imagine coming to a foreign country, being surrounded by people who don’t speak your native language and trying to communicate. That’s exactly how 17-year-old opera singer Maria Zoller’s fairy tale begins. After being adopted at age 3 from a Romanian orphanage, Maria spoke very little English, but she was enamored with music, specifically Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On.”
“I was quite traumatized by the whole experience. Everything was so foreign to me, the people the language and lifestyle. Don’t get me wrong, America was wonderful but overwhelming at the same time,” she said of the experience of coming to the United States. “It took me a while to adjust to this new life and it was actually through music that I came out of my shell.”
Young Zoller was determined to learn the lyrics of Dion’s famous song from “Titanic.” Thanks to the love and support of her parents, Susan and Wald, the little girl thrived and the family discovered she had an incredible voice way beyond her age — crystalline and perfectly pitched.
“I was only 4 when I performed my first solo and 5 when I won my first talent competition,” she said. “I have been involved with the performing arts since I was 5 and was a cast member with many different performing groups including the Patel Conservatory, Entertainment Revue, The New York Lyric Opera, The California Opera and Tampa/Matinee Opera and the youngest vocal student with Dr. Cho at USF.”
When she was 6, Zoller performed at Romano’s Macaroni Grill in Carrollwood.
“They heard me sing ‘Happy Birthday’ in Italian and they loved it, so every time I would go there I would sing for them. So now years later, I sang again for the manager and he hired me on the spot. It was so great and I really enjoy working there and singing for everyone. It makes my job so fun and rewarding.”
After being featured on many local news stations, at the tender age of 13, Zoller got the attention of Maestro Mario Laurenti. Zoller performs in four different languages: English, German, French and Italian.
“He took me under his wing at 13 years old,” she said. “I was by far the youngest cast member and I learned so much from him. He actually celebrated his 95th birthday last week with me at Macaroni Grill.”
But like all stories with happy endings, there has to be a twist.
Zoller developed TMJ issues, which is a problem with the joint that connects your jawbone to your skull. A mouth guard that was supposed to rectify the problem caused her jaw to dislocate, leaving her in excruciating pain and requiring 19 visits to the emergency room in just five days.
Multiple attempts to fix the dislocation included having her mouth wired shut; however, after the wires were removed, the jaw immediately dislocated.
Doctors concluded that there was nothing more they could do. But the teen opera singer was determined to prove her doctors wrong. In case one setback wasn’t enough, Zoller made a death-dying escape from a car accident.
“Just when I was feeling like I could start singing again, after my third jaw procedure, I was in a terrible accident with an 18-wheel semi-truck. My car was completely totaled and it was a miracle that I survived,” Zoller said. “It set me back another few months, but I am so lucky to be alive and singing my heart out again. You just can’t take life for granted.”
It took two years and almost 40 doctors for the family to find the right doctor to perform the necessary surgery.
“I just knew in my heart that I would be back on the stage again,” she said. “My amazing maxillofacial surgeon, Dr. Patrick Abbey, not only took care of my jaw problems but encouraged me to start singing again. He believed in me and gave me the confidence that I needed to get back to doing what I love — singing.”
Since first singing “My Heart Will Go On” at age 4, Zoller has seen her idol, Celine Dion, live five times. In 2014, she had the opportunity to meet her inspiration in person, getting invited to a VIP meet and greet with the press. She has a cherished framed photo with Dion.
“I’m actually going back to Vegas next month to see Celine Dion,” she said. “It’s going to be a great reunion.”
Zoller, a student at Sunlake High School and a fourth-year honors drama member, has been featured on the Pasco County school district website as a “young aspiring classical artist.” She has also been offered numerous vocal scholarships, but because of the jaw issues is vacillating on the idea of leaving home for college just yet.
“I may just stay here locally for a few years,” she said. “I plan to go to college and continue to perform.”
Zoller regularly volunteers with local charities and is more often than not the only opera singer on the performance roster.
“I have learned so much throughout the years from so many talented people,” she said. “I’ve learned that my voice is a very special gift and I love to share it with people who appreciate classical music. I love doing charity work and I feel very blessed to be singing again after several jaw surgeries.
“Some doctors thought that I would never sing again, but I never gave up and was determined to overcome my jaw issues and sing again. I am now working with the great group of people at Macaroni Grill in Carrollwood, singing my arias and hostessing. It’s helped me to get back into singing again and it feels great!”
In the future, Zoller hopes to travel the world performing arias and encourages any child with a dream to go for it.
“Don’t let anyone discourage you,” she said. “When I was growing up, many kids would tease me for singing and listening to opera, but that only made me stronger and more passionate about it. I was then and continue to be who I am. Don’t try to be someone that you’re not. Be true to yourself.”
To contact Zoller and to schedule a performance, please email tampaopera [email protected]