by Len Lear
When local chanteuse Michelle Schulman sings an aria from Rossini’s “Mose” or Puccini’s opera, “Edgar,” or Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” her transcendent, ethereal voice pays great homage to the lyrics and the melody. It transports the audience to a rhapsodic place, like the mellifluous tones of a songbird or a dulcet wind whispering through majestic trees.
Schulman, who is as humble as her talent is other-worldly, and pianist Alex Ramirez will perform a concert of songs and piano solos, featuring music from Hollywood films, Saturday, April 20, 7:30 p.m., at the Philadelphia First Church of the Brethren, 8707 W. Cheltenham Ave. in Wyndmoor. The selections will come from “Showboat,” “The Music Man,” “Hello Dolly,” “The Wizard of Oz,” etc.
As glorious as Michelle’s singing is, however, the Northeast Philadelphia native and Manayunk resident has also battled an eating disorder all of her adult life, ballooning up to 425 pounds late in 2004, despite having tried dozens of diets, therapies and expensive “fat farms.” (When Michelle was featured in a Local Life article on April 8, 2004, about her operatic career, she weighed 375.)
“I was binge eating,” she said. “I had an uncontrollable addiction to food. One night I went to five fast food restaurants in a row, and each time I ate what for most people would be one complete dinner … I could not sing any more because breathing had become such a problem. I could barely walk up a flight of stairs or walk to the corner. I had horrible back pain all the time, and I could hardly stand upright.”
As a last resort, Michelle went to the Optimum Health Institute near San Diego, a 35-year-old facility whose guiding principle is that a strict raw-foods diet will produce significant health benefits not only for obese people but also for people with virtually any medical ailment.
The theory behind the raw-foods diet is that cooking destroys the enzymes in food that are required to maintain good health. The diet is even more restrictive than a vegetarian or macrobiotic diet. Those who follow it generally eschew cooked, refined or processed foods, so supermarkets are pretty much off-limits. Raw foods practitioners eat lots of organic vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds in countless combinations and lots of soups and juices made from these foods, as well as herbs and spices for seasoning.
For the last five years Michelle has been working at Arnold’s Way Raw Vegetarian Cafe’ and Education Center, 319 W. Main St. in Lansdale (215-361-0116, www.arnoldsway.com) as a raw vegan chef. At one point she had lost 175 pounds! (Arnold’s Way is the only raw foods restaurant in the Delaware Valley.)
“I was a raw vegan for three-and-a-half years,” she explained, “but I fell off about two years ago when I was doing a lot of catering. It was a very stressful time. We catered two parties for 200 people, mostly raw vegan food! The first party we did was for Bernard Michael Beckwith of ‘The Secret,’ who was featured on Oprah and Larry King Live. He and his wife, Rickey, were speaking in Philadelphia. They are raw vegans, and they wanted their VIP event catered raw vegan.”
After falling off of her raw foods diet, Michelle did gain back about 100 of the 175 pounds she had lost as a raw vegan, “but I’m grateful I did not gain back all of what I had lost, thank God. The raw vegan diet is the first diet I’ve ever been on that I didn’t gain back more than I lost! I do drink green smoothies for breakfast almost every day now, and I do still eat a percentage of my food uncooked. I still eat a mostly vegan diet.”
For exercise, Michelle enjoys walking. She wears a pedometer most days and tries to walk between 3,000 and 7,000 steps a day. “The more I walk, the better I feel, and the better I do with my weight. My problem has always been binge and emotional eating, so I have a hard time sticking to plans if I get emotional, wanting to soothe myself with food.”
Michelle’s long-time vocal coach, Badiene Magaziner, is a highly in- demand vocal instructor in New York City who has worked with several Broadway child stars. She had an operatic career in Germany for many years and was hand-selected by (composer) Gian Carlo Menotti to star in “The Consul” at the Kennedy Center.
“I also really enjoy singing in my living room to YouTube videos!” said Michelle, who requested that her age be withheld. “My neighbor, Rose, in her late 80s and very hard of hearing, tells me she enjoys hearing me through the wall. I can hear her when she is in her kitchen and I am in the living room and singing, so I give her a little serenade nightly though the wall. Really, YouTube.com is an incredible resource for musicians and singers that I could not live without.”
Schulman and Alex Ramirez perform two concerts, “From Opera To Broadway” and “Great Voices of the Hollywood Films,” frequently for local charities, non-profit organizations, churches, synagogues, nursing homes and retirement homes.
Schulman also sings regularly with the Amici Opera Company, led by Ralph Tudisco, which has been featured often in Local Life. (Tudisco also teaches opera courses at Temple University’s campus in Ambler.) In recent months Michelle has sung the role of Lucrezia in Verdi’s “I due Foscari,” Anaide in Rossini’s “Mose,” Queen Isabella in Franchetti’s “Cristoforo Colombo” and Lady Macbeth in Verdi’s “Macbeth.”
“Lady Macbeth and Mozart’s Donna Anna (‘Don Giovanni’) are my two favorite roles,” said Michelle, “for different reasons. Lady Macbeth is so dramatic and evil, plotting with Macbeth, with lots of variety to what she sings. And Donna Anna, which I’ve also sung three times with Amici Opera, is in mourning throughout the entire opera because her father has been murdered, but through my sadness, I get to sing the most blissful music, so I never tire of that role.”
Michelle and her fiance’, Cliff Bolt, an accordionist and pianist, are working on a program of songs and arias that they will perform at the High Note Cafe in South Philly (date not determined yet). “I think it will be very special,” said Michelle. “You should hear Cliff play Wagner’s ‘Tannhauser’ on the accordion. It just brings tears to my eyes and sends shivers up my spine.”
Alex Ramirez, Michelle’s regular accompanist, began his piano studies at age three in Texas, where his family was living at the time. At age five, Alex became the youngest person ever to study piano at the University of Texas. During middle and high school he won every major youth piano competition in the state of Texas.
Tickets to the April 20 concert are $18 in advance, $20 at the door. More information at 215-572-6649 or firstname.lastname@example.org