Sunday, June 8, 2003

CCM director hits a new high note

Organization, creativity make Bernhard a perfect fit for the job

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Sandra Bernhard, CCM's new opera director
Sandra Bernhard twice turned down the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music before she accepted the position of director of opera, announced Tuesday.

A visiting professor since 1997, Bernhard was first approached to fill the professorial post Jonathan Eaton vacated when he left to go to Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University. She said no.

"I was very busy. I called myself 'the sabbatical girl.' I'd come in when anybody was going out on the road," Bernhard, 44, says with a grin.

Last year, while teaching and staging operas for Malcolm Fraser, who stepped down after 16 years as head of the opera department, she was asked if she would be interested in the top job. She said no.

"I found that daunting," she says.

So while CCM began a year-long search for a director, Bernhard was performing the job. She knew she liked teaching; she had decades of experience at universities and opera companies. She discovered she liked the planning aspects, and suddenly the idea of running her own program sounded attractive.

"I came back, and decided to throw my hat in the ring," she says.

Bernhard is the first woman to hold the post.

"Sandra's appointment is wonderful news for CCM, our city and the opera industry," says Nicholas Muni, Cincinnati Opera artistic director, who hired her to stage La Boheme in 1999. "Sandra combines an excellent mind for organization with a high level of creativity."

A full fall

Although she officially begins in September, her fall calendar is packed with major opera productions elsewhere.

She'll make her directing debut with Chicago's Lyric Opera in Samson et Delilah and stage The Marriage of Figaro for Portland Opera. In San Francisco, where she has worked with the opera company since 1990, she'll be assistant director for Don Carlo and, in January, remount La Boheme.

She isn't yet sure how she'll juggle all that high-profile work with a high-powered job. But she believes that bringing firsthand experiences back to her students will give them the slice of reality they need.

"Last quarter, I did (soprano) Ruth Ann Swenson's first Boheme, with (soprano) Christine Goerke's first Musetta, in Pittsburgh," she says. "I was able to tell (the students) stories about working with these people, and working in the business. It makes them listen in a different way."

Bernhard got to opera via acting and musical theater.

"I grew up with music around all the time," she says. Her grandfather was a violinist who briefly played with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and her mother a pianist.

The turning point

She studied voice, but opera was "an offshoot" of her interest in acting and musical theater. In high school she spent every spare minute building sets, performing or choreographing musicals. After graduation, she attended UCLA to study acting.

The turning point came in the early '80s, when she met opera director Francesca Zambello, who was launching Opera Colorado. Zambello invited her to an opera rehearsal, and, Bernhard says, "I never left."

She went to the University of Illinois to study voice - and naturally fell into directing student productions. One day, she got a call from Miami Opera (now Florida Grand Opera). It needed an assistant director for the summer. She hesitated, but her friend Zambello was directing the first production, so she summoned the courage.

Zambello taught her "to appreciate the world of spectacle, of opera as bigger than life."

Such influence was evident in Bernhard's arresting direction of Joel Hoffman's The Memory Game, which premiered last weekend at CCM. She succeeded stunningly in projecting the characters as real people with real stories.

Her goal at CCM is to continue doing new works. She's also interested in Baroque opera.

"It's important for audiences to hear that music, and for singers to sing it," she says.

"She's really a lightning rod," says Douglas Lowry, CCM dean. "People are paying attention to her. It's one of those wonderful moments where you're seeing somebody that you know is making a rapid ascent. It's my hope that we'll be able to harness that energy."


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