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Classical 101

Soprano Charity Tillemann-Dick, Who Had Two Double-Lung Transplants, Has Died


I had seen news reports over the years of a young opera soprano who had undergone a double-lung transplant, shook off her troubles and continued her career. 

She sang songs and arias, and gave of herself – first with breath that was no longer viable, and then with a new set of lungs that kept her going, for a while.

Charity "Sunshine" Tillemann-Dick died yesterday at the age of 36. She endured not one, but two double-lung transplants in response to an aggressive illness she had fought for 15 years.

All the while, she sang.

Even when she thought she couldn’t sing, when the very breath was failing her, she sang anyway.


Tillemann-Dick wrote a book called The Encore: A Memoir in Three Acts. It’s a great read.

What a story! She is one of, well, a lot of children – all with unique first and second names. Her forbears include a political dynasty and a marriage of Jews and Mormons.

She grew up in Colorado and trained with the scary dramatic soprano Eva Marton in Budapest. Marton doesn’t fool around and, I suspect, neither did Tillemann-Dick.

She became a heroine, not because of her voice, but because of her refusal to give up her voice and her soul to illness (idiopathic pulmonary arterial hypertension). The Encore tells the story of her family, her training in music, her career, her courtship and her marriage.

In a few especially poignant pages, Tillemann-Dick tells us that once she got serious with her boyfriend, she had to tell him that her illness and treatments precluded her having children. God love him, Yonatan Doron pursued her to the altar anyway.

Tillemann-Dick came to Columbus last year to perform a concert and a speech in support of organ donation. I reached out to her publisher, having read and loved her book.

The lady came on All Sides Weekend on a Friday morning.

She was stunning. She looked in the peak of health. She was positive, smart and funny. I fell for her, as people did.

I added myself to her thousands of Facebook friends, and we traded the occasional note. My daughter, Kerry, read Encore, and she too wanted to follow Tillemann-Dick. Kerry made her a prayer rope. Tillemann-Dick’s response was rapid and gracious, sick as she was.

Then we heard Tillemann-Dick was back in the Cleveland Clinic. Things weren’t going well on the health front. The second pair of transplanted lungs were failing, and this time she didn’t leave the hospital.

The news of her passing yesterday wasn't a surprise. It was nevertheless a shock. When you read in Encore about the illness and pain she fought or tried to ignore to go on going on, you wondered if anything would ever stop this woman.

The lady I interviewed on air in Columbus was the picture of grace. As of yesterday morning, Heaven got lucky.

Listen to some beautiful music, and be thankful for good health. Keep a good thought for Yonatan Doron. And keep singing.

Christopher Purdy is Classical 101's early morning host, 7-10 a.m. weekdays. He is host and producer of Front Row Center – Classical 101’s weekly celebration of Opera and more – as well as Music in Mid-Ohio, Concerts at Ohio State, and the Columbus Symphony broadcast series. He is the regular pre-concert speaker for Columbus Symphony performances in the Ohio Theater.
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