Aspen’s Opera Whisperer — An Appreciation

Celebration on Saturday to honor the late Ed Berkeley, who ran Aspen Music Festival’s Opera Theater Center

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

What: Rememberance Concert for Edward Berkeley

Where: Benedict Music Tent

When: 7 p.m. Saturday

How much: free; no ticket required

More info: A livestream will be on the AMFS’s Virtual Stage or on the AMFS Facebook page.

Ed Berkeley ran the Aspen Music Festival’s Opera Theater Center and directed fully staged operas here every season for four decades. In 2019, when the festival announced that Renée Fleming (an artist he had taught when she was a student here) and the conductor Patrick Summers would head up a revised program, Berkeley stayed on to direct.

He died unexpectedly July 17 of heart disease. Less than three hours later, Summers gave the downbeat in the Benedict Music Tent for “The Magic Flute,” which he had directed.

Saturday night, the 15 singers in this year’s program have organized themselves to salute Berkeley with a free concert at 7 p.m. in the music tent. (It will also be streamed live on the festival’s web page and Facebook page.)

In his nearly four decades of coaching young artists here on the ins and outs of opera performance, he made his biggest impression on audiences with his opera scenes master classes.

These Saturday morning events at Wheeler Opera House featured young opera singers presenting scenes from operas both well known and rare, using a bench and a few chairs and music stands for scenery, and minimal props. After each scene Berkeley, in his signature shorts and hiking shoes, would appear from the wings and ever-so-gently, often wittily, suggest improvements.

Berkeley, 76, addressed the theatrical aspects of a scene by getting the performers to respond more specifically to each other, or urging a singer to find a way to bring out subtext. Sometimes it was a practical point, such as how to position themselves to see the conductor and still make a scene look natural. He also was quick to point out how an accent or a gesture in the orchestra’s music could tell singers what they could do dramatically (or comedically) to bring the scene to life.

Then they would do the whole scene again. The staging always improved, but here’s the secret. The music was always better the second time through.

A great lesson I learned from watching Berkeley in these classes was to notice when something takes a dramatic shift during an aria or a scene. It was a regular theme of his, to get a singer to understand when something changes, and make it clear in their singing. On one occasion a soprano sang “Porgi amor,” from Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro.” The Countess’ laments her feeling abandoned by the Count. She sang the aria, and parts of it a few more times, and it sounded lovely, but it wasn’t having the emotional effect it should.

Berkeley found a way.

He pointed out that the Countess repeats the line “Oh, give me back my loved one/Or in mercy let me die” three times. “When does she really mean it?” he asked the soprano. That was the key. She’s feeling sorry for herself the first two times, but the third time, she can realize that maybe she really wants to die. That did it. The next time she sang the aria through, she brought out that moment. My wife and I both wept.

Sometimes it was the physical position for a singer. A baritone was singing “Billy in the Darbies,” from Britten’s “Billy Budd,” the title character, a likeable chap who has lashed out at the ship’s evil master-at-arms and now faces execution. As with the soprano in Mozart, the baritone sounded fine as he sang Britten’s setting of Melville’s ballad, but he wasn’t internalizing the situation.

Berkeley placed the singer under a card table, and had him hold onto its legs as if in irons. The result was an electrifying vocal moment, more moving than any performance I’ve seen on stage elsewhere.

Berkeley also loved to milk a joke. The opening scene in this season’s “Magic Flute” is one that showed up often in the Saturday classes, as the Three Ladies magically slay a beast that was threatening Tamino. Berkeley always encouraged them to swoon over the unconscious hero, the Third Lady most reluctant to leave before the hero awakes. This added a jealousy component to their bickering, and differentiated them from each other. It enlivened the musical interplay every time.

These insights come from years directing operas at Houston Grand Opera, Boston Lyric, Opéra de Marseilles and the New York Philharmonic, theater on Broadway 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 especially memorable.

Tributes by ex-students confirm he was a consummate teacher at Juilliard, Circle on the Square Theater, and the Metropolitan Opera’s young artist program.

Friends introduced me to the opera scenes classes on my very first summer visit to Aspen. I got hooked. Saturday morning in Wheeler became a ritual. In the pit faculty opera coaches conducted student pianists. The coaches would introduce scenes by summarizing plot points. Berkeley’s occasional introductions often took jabs at the absurdity of some opera plots. He was always correct in the details, and when he wasn’t sure about a point he often turned it into a joke. It kept everyone loose.

In the 1990s this series was kind of an insider’s thing. Seats were cheap and the house sparse. Word spread, prices went up, and in the past decade Saturdays often sold out.

For many it was a chance to hear tomorrow’s opera singers early, but for me it was more than that. In performance after performance at opera houses around the world, I recognized how experienced professionals succeeded when they did their versions of the things Berkeley preached.

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

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


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