If you could change one decision in the past, what would it be? 2013 Life Lessons Essay Contest winner Adrienne Starr reflects on an impulsive, life-changing choice—and her struggle to reclaim the identity she lost.

Microphone in a dark theater
Credit: Martin Adolfsson

There is no greater role for a mezzo-soprano than Carmen. In the opera repertoire, which contains multitudes of adolescent-male characters in drag, she is the exception—the sexy and dangerous femme fatale. My favorite of her arias is “Seguidilla,” a lilting song of seduction that sounds effortless when sung well, though in truth it is challenging for nearly everyone who tackles it. It was while performing this aria that I decided to stop singing.

I did not make this decision as I waited in the cramped hallway outside the studio, sandwiched between other hopefuls stealing furtive glances at one another. And not afterward, muddling through the familiar disappointment of yet another failed audition, getting only a curt “Thank you” as I left the room, deflated. Instead, I quit just as I finished singing the line “Mon coeur est libre comme l’air” (“My heart is free like the air”). This is not the end of the aria, but it is where I stopped.

I apologized to the accompanist, then turned to the audition panel. There were three of them sitting behind a table, a tall stack of résumés and head shots spread out before them. Their brows were knitted in confusion, or perhaps annoyance.

“I am so sorry,” I said. “I’ve been ill.” (Not true.) I gestured vaguely at my stomach. “I should have canceled. Sorry for wasting your time.” I quickly collected my music and scurried from the room. I emerged to the hustle of midtown Manhattan, getting lost in the passing crowd, stepping in rhythm with the anonymous many.

I’m done, I thought. I’m done with singing.

Until that moment, there had never been a time in my life when I didn’t define myself first and foremost as a singer. Not long after I began to speak, I stunned people with a giant, operatic voice, which blasted from my tiny body like a foghorn.

It is a unique pleasure to do something so well that it sets you apart from the rest of the world. The surge of pure happiness I felt when I opened my mouth and saw the eyes of my audience widening with surprise—even a jaw or two dropping—was, in the simple emotion of a child, my greatest pleasure.

From the age of five, I never experienced a setback as I went from audition to performance to competition, always taking center stage and basking in applause and admiration. When it was time for college, I auditioned for the best conservatories. After I sang for one of the most prestigious schools, the dean emerged to shake my hand. “I’ve been doing this for 20 years,” he said. “You are going to be a star.”

I did not become a star.

I struggled in college. My voice teacher made it clear that she had no faith in me. Once, she came to see a performance I was in and later made the wry comment that it was the first time that she had believed I could actually sing. It felt like a slap in the face. Still, I stayed with her for three years. Young and unsure, I kept hoping to change her mind about my potential and have a happy ending. But that happy ending never came. Instead, by the time I graduated, I felt disconnected from my voice. It was unwieldy, sometimes careening out of control, as though it had revolted against me.

Nonetheless, I moved to New York, changed voice type from soprano to mezzo-soprano, and went on auditions. I had some success: My singing took me to Spain, Japan, the vineyards of Napa Valley. It also took me to countless small towns across America, where I had the unexpected treat of immersing myself in new, quiet worlds for a few weeks at a time. One of those places was the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. There I met a handsome tenor who would eventually become my husband.

But the heady joy I’d gotten from singing back in my youth was gone. When I performed, the room didn’t go still. Heads did not raise. I didn’t feel that I was doing justice to this transcendent music. And the Sisyphean nature of the opera business, with the constant pursuit of the next job, was slowly leeching the enjoyment from my modest triumphs.

And so, at the age of 32, in that windowless audition room, I quit.

It was easy at first. I felt relieved. My decision was met with confusion from my family and friends. “How could you stop?” they said. “You can’t let all your work and talent go to nothing.” Still, I didn’t budge. I didn’t even sing in the shower. In fact, my infant niece, Daphne, was the only person I would sing to. I got a job in a museum and put performing out of my mind.

Two years later, a few dozen blocks from where I sang my final audition, I found myself standing outside a hospital. This time I didn’t join in the anonymous hustle; I just stood apart, dazed and shocked, wondering at those passing by me who were going about their normal day.

I had breast cancer.

When the doctor told me the news, she somberly explained what I was facing. I would lose my long, mermaid hair. I would lose a quarter of a breast. I might lose my fertility. I would lose six months or more to the strange world of cancer. Would I lose my life? We would see.

What I didn’t think to ask was whether I would lose my voice.

Not long after my second round of chemo, I spent the afternoon with Daphne. I had shaved my head and bought a wig, but my niece didn’t care that I had a head like a newborn chicken, so I sat with her, bald and cross-legged, on the floor. Daphne had always been the perfect audience. She would look me directly in the eye as I sang song after song. If I stopped, she would wave at me with her tiny hand, urging me to go on.

I tried to sing “Over the Rainbow,” her favorite, but barely anything came out. It felt like grit and mud had caked my vocal cords. I stuttered through the song, trying to make a sound that didn’t catch and sputter. It was no use. My voice was gone.

Over the next few months of treatment my hoarseness worsened, until even my regular speech became breathy and tremulous. I had been warned that losing my hair would be the hardest part, but this was far worse. It felt as if the universe were wagging a finger at me, spouting I-told-you-so’s about not knowing what you had until it was gone. When fellow cancer patients said things like “I appreciate things more now,” I bristled. Well, I would appreciate getting my voice back, I’d think.

Treatment ended. A dark shadow appeared like a rash across my scalp, giving way to a growth just long enough to let me pack away the wig. My skin morphed from ashy gray to healthy pink. My nails grew and shed their black lines. And little by little the hoarseness subsided.

But my real voice, my singing voice, was not the same. The chemo and the hormone treatments had robbed me of my once effortless high notes, leaving me with a stunted range. I practiced in secret, when the apartment was empty and even the neighbors were away, but the sessions usually ended in tears of frustration.

Only this time I didn’t quit. Slowly my voice strengthened. I crept back into the singing world on spindly legs. Two years after my treatment, an old friend asked me to sing at her wedding. Although I was terrified, I agreed. That day I stood in the choir loft and sang “Ave Maria,” shocked to hear my voice fill the space, steady and strong. After the ceremony, some of the guests hurried over to shake my hand. “You should sing professionally,” they said. Yes, I thought. I should.

I am thankful that I am still here. And thankful that cancer has permanently shifted the prism through which I view the world: Nuisances are less upsetting; daily joys are more intense. But I wish I could go back to the woman who was singing in that cramped, windowless room and tell her this: Allow for the possibility of failure. Give yourself room for disappointment. It will never compare with the sense of loss you feel when you no longer have a choice. I would tell her it is a disservice to Bizet—the man who gave Carmen her voice—when you don’t complete the aria. I would tell her not to stop. Don’t stop, because you never know if this is the last time. I would tell her: Sing.

Meet the 2013 Life Lessons Essay Contest Winner: Adrienne Starr

For Real Simple’s Fifth Annual Life Lessons Essay Contest, readers were asked: If you could change one decision in the past, what would it be? Thousands of you responded, with essays that ranged from the heartbreaking to the hilarious. Adrienne Starr, 37, of Falls Church, Virginia, was named the winner, claiming a prize of $3,000 and two round-trip tickets to New York City, plus a two-night hotel stay, Broadway tickets, and lunch with Real Simple editors.

A classical singer and an aspiring writer, Starr was “thrilled and honored” to learn that she had won the contest; this will be her first published essay. Anne Gudger, 54, of Portland, Oregon, took second prize, and Katherine Dykstra, 36, of Brooklyn, won third prize. To read their entries, go to realsimple.com/lifelessonscontest.

Stay tuned for the next Life Lessons Essay Contest topic, which will be announced in the June 2013 issue.