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Loud and clear

Carol Ausband’s improbable path to Gypsy’s lead role

Carol Ausband takes a moment to compose herself, eyes filling at the onset of an interview. She looks away, then takes a deep breath.

“You’re looking at a really grateful person,” she finally says. “Truly grateful.”

How grateful? In just one year, Ausband, 45, has gone from being almost completely deaf in one ear to landing the lead role of Rose in the University of Montana’s main stage production of Gypsy, one of the most iconic parts in musical theater. It’s such an improbable ascent that Ausband—a Missoula resident who auditioned specifically for the matriarchal role—still gets caught up with emotion when telling her story.

“It’s all the classic stuff,” she says. “People thought I was stupid. People accused me of selectively hearing. I mean, it’s an invisible impairment. It takes so much of your concentration to listen to what’s being said, to fill in the words that you’re missing. I was so tired.

“So to be able to have this,” she says, pointing to her two hearing aids and surgically repaired right ear, “I can’t even tell you…”

Ausband first experienced problems with her hearing in her 20s, mostly with distinguishing high-frequency sounds. But about three years ago those nagging issues became more pronounced and deciphering everyday conversations was a strain. Even more troubling, her hearing affected her singing.

“Music has always been a part of my life—singing in church or at weddings, jamming with friends,” she says. “But these last three years I just quit. I just quit because I couldn’t keep my pitch. And when you’re a singer, that’s pretty much a death knell. It sounds like a nasty cliché to say that it was like a death, but it was a big loss for me.

“If you’re playing the guitar and you’re playing loud, you can just look at your fingers to see if you’re on the right fret,” she continues. “But your voice is like a violin, it’s a fretless instrument, and you constantly have to self-correct and adjust and fine tune. I couldn’t tell how much of it was my hearing and how much was me just losing my skill. To get to that point—it was really a low feeling.”

Eventually Ausband was persuaded to make an appointment with Montana’s Vocational Rehabilitation Services to check her hearing, but even then she was hesitant.

“They suggested I go to vocational rehab because they can help people with disabilities,” says Ausband. “And I was like, ‘I don’t have a disability, I just can’t hear ya.’”

Tests, however, revealed Ausband had significant hearing loss in her right ear—her stapes, a bone behind the eardrum that transmits vibrations to the inner ear, had “frozen up”—and both ears suffered from a degenerative nerve impairment. She required a titanium implant in her right ear and two hearing aids to assist with peripheral sounds. In addition, during her surgery last April doctors also discovered a stage two melanoma on her right ear, which was removed.

“That probably saved my life,” she says, adding, “As if any more could’ve happened, right?”

It took a while for the implant to settle in and the swelling to go down, but almost immediately Ausband heard the difference. She still experiences some distortion—like feedback on a microphone— but only rarely.

Getting back to singing took more time. Last fall, she sat in on a casual jam session among friends—Ausband is a novice hammered dulcimer player who sometimes plays with Tom and the Tomatoes—and, for the first time in years, she tested her vocals.

“They were all singing and I just started to sing harmony—and it was right,” she says. “It was on pitch and it was right. I mean, I’m rusty, but to be able to have that come back…It was such a small moment, but it was such a cool thing because I realized I didn’t lose everything. I thought, I can do this again.”

Ausband landed a small role in UM’s The Good Person of Sezuan in October and then was asked to audition for Gypsy. She realized it was for the role of Rose—a diva part immortalized by Ethel Merman and, in recent revivals, by the likes of Patti LuPone and Bernadette Peters—since UM occasionally uses community members to fill its cast.

“I still remember when she walked in,” recalls director Teresa Waldorf. “She walked in wearing a leopard skin coat with a leopard skin bag and with this red hair and she just had this air about her. I immediately turned to [assistant director] Seth [Bowling] and said, ‘My God, if she was carrying a small dog I wouldn’t even ask her to sing.’”

But then she did sing, and Ausband had more than enough to carry the part. A self-trained vocalist who performed in regional and community theater productions in Pennsylvania before moving to Missoula eight years ago, Ausband admits this role “kicks her butt every night.” But regardless of the expectations and such a heavy load, she’s approaching the opportunity with equal parts moxie and modesty. She goes out of her way to thank those who helped her get to this point—from doctors to those who assisted with her medical bills—and to direct attention to her fellow cast, while also relishing the chance to show off her voice.

“I realize I’m blessed,” she says. “That’s sort of a cheesy way to put it, but I am. I’m really fortunate. It’s a big deal for me to be able to show all of these people how appreciative I am. And I’ll get to do that when I sing.”

The University of Montana’s Gypsy opens Tuesday, April 8, and runs through Saturday, April 13, continuing April 15–19, at the Montana Theatre. 7:30 PM, with 2 PM matinees on April 12 and 19. $15/$12 students and seniors.

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