Aspen Opera Whisperer – One review


Ed Berkeley works with students in July during a master class at the Wheeler Opera House. (Carlin Ma / Aspen Music Festival)

Ed Berkeley has directed the opera theater center of the Aspen Music Festival and has staged fully staged operas here each season for four decades. In 2019, when the festival announced that Renée Fleming (an artist he had taught as a student here) and conductor Patrick Summers would conduct a revised program, Berkeley remained in charge.

He died suddenly on July 17 from heart disease. Less than three hours later, Summers gave the highlight in the Benedict musical tent for “The Magic Flute”, which he had conducted.

Saturday night, the 15 singers on this year’s program got together to greet Berkeley with a free concert at 7 p.m. in the musical tent. (It will also be streamed live on the festival’s webpage and Facebook page.)

During his nearly four decades of training young artists here on the ins and outs of lyrical performance, he made his greatest impression on audiences with his master classes of opera stages.

These Saturday morning events at Wheeler Opera House featured young opera singers performing scenes from both well-known and rare operas, using a bench and a few chairs and desks for sets, and minimal props. After each scene, Berkeley, in her iconic shorts and hiking boots, appeared from behind the scenes and suggested improvements, ever so gently, often with wit.

Berkeley, 76, approached the theatrical aspects of a scene by getting performers to respond more specifically to each other, or by urging a singer to find a way to make a subtext stand out. Sometimes it was a practical point, like how to position yourself to see the conductor while still making a scene look natural. He also quickly pointed out how an accent or gesture in orchestral music could tell singers what they could do in a dramatic (or comedic) way to bring the scene to life.

Then they remade the whole scene. The staging has always improved, but here’s the secret. The music was always better the second time around.

A great lesson I learned from watching Berkeley in these lessons was to notice when something takes a dramatic turn during an aria or a scene. It was one of his usual themes, to make a singer understand when something changes and to make it understood in his song. On one occasion, a soprano sang “Porgi amor” from Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro”. The countess deplores her feeling of abandonment by the count. She sang the aria and parts of it a few more times, and it sounded good, but it didn’t have the emotional effect it should.

Berkeley found a way.

He pointed out that the Countess repeats the phrase “Oh, give me back my beloved / Or for mercy let me die” three times. “When does she really mean it?” He asked the soprano. It was the key. She feels sorry for herself the first two times, but the third time around, she can realize that maybe she really wants to die. It did. The next time she sang the aria she brought out that moment. My wife and I both cried.

Sometimes it was the physical position of a singer. A baritone was singing “Billy in the Darbies,” from “Billy Budd” by Britten, the cool guy, a nice guy who took on the ship’s wicked fencing master and is now in danger of being executed. As with Mozart’s soprano, the baritone sounded good when he sang Britten’s setting to Melville’s ballad, but he does not internalize the situation.

Berkeley placed the singer under a card table and made him hold his legs like in irons. The result was an electrifying vocal moment, more moving than any performance I have seen on stage elsewhere.

Berkeley also liked to milk a joke. This season’s “Magic Flute” opening scene is one that often appeared in Saturday classes, as the Three Ladies magically killed a beast that threatened Tamino. Berkeley always encouraged them to swoon over the unconscious hero, the third most reluctant lady to leave before the hero wakes up. This added a component of jealousy to their quarrels and differentiated them from each other. He animated the musical interaction every time.

This knowledge comes from years of conducting operas at the Houston Grand Opera, the Boston Lyric, the Marseille Opera and the New York Philharmonic, the Broadway Theater and the New York Shakespeare Festival. Among them were premieres of plays by Tennessee Williams and Terrence McNally and operas by Thomas Adès and Ned Rorem. His production here of Rorem’s “Our Town” in 2006 was particularly memorable.

Tributes from former students confirm that he was an accomplished professor at the Juilliard, the Circle on the Square Theater and the Metropolitan Opera Young Artists Program.

Friends introduced me to the opera stage lessons on my very first summer visit to Aspen. I got hooked. Saturday morning at Wheeler has become a ritual. In the pit opera teachers led student pianists. The coaches introduced scenes by summing up the plot points. Berkeley’s occasional introductions have often criticized the absurdity of certain opera plots. He was always right about the details, and when he wasn’t sure about a point, he often made a joke about it. It left everyone free.

In the 1990s, this show was kind of an insider’s thing. Seats were cheap and the house sparse. Word spread, prices rose, and over the past decade Saturdays were often full.

For many it was the opportunity to hear the opera singers of tomorrow early, but for me it was more than that. Performance after performance in opera houses around the world, I recognized how well experienced professionals were doing when they made their versions of things Berkeley preached.

Berkeley’s stage coaching has helped many young singers grow into the stars they are today. It has also enriched the way I see my favorite art form.

Harvey Steiman has been writing on the Aspen Music Festival for 28 years. His reviews appear Tuesdays and Saturdays in The Aspen Times.


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