On April 1st and 3rd, New Orleans Opera will present Verdi’s “il Trovatore“. As the company winds down the last two weeks of rehearsals, they are also honoring some wonderful Opera Choristers during this production. It is a pleasure to be a part of this endeavor!
Our Golden Choristers, Mary Bertucci, Karen Kalin, Shirley Bertram, Lydia Burks, and Charlie Matkin have played a significant role in the presentation of wonderful music and culture in our city. This season each will mark 50 to 56 years of service to New Orleans Opera, as professionally paid Opera Choristers.
During the 2005-2006 season, Mary Bertucci, and Karen Kalin, marked 50 years, while Shirley Bertram marked 51years with the company. But Hurricane Katrina would not allow the company or fellow choristers an opportunity to mark the special moment in history. Now, the company and their fellow choristers are getting the chance.
Let us begin with this statement from New Orleans Opera in their honor: It is a great pleasure to honor our 50-year+ Opera Chorus members, some of whom are still actively performing with the company. They have added many years of experience and real commitment to our endeavors, as well as vocal maturity. I love when our operas have a “slice of life” look onstage, with choristers ranging from children to university students to young professionals to middle-aged singers to senior citizens. Those who are no longer performing are often in the audience for our productions, continuing their support of the art form. Thanks to ALL of you for your contributions to the New Orleans Opera Association. We cherish you and your help in maintaining the operatic legacy of our great city!
Carol Rausch, New Orleans Opera Chorus Master
It was a great honor to interview these New Orleans Opera legends. I hope you enjoy getting to know them better as much as I have!
Examiner: Were you all born in New Orleans?
Karen: Yes, in 1933, at Baptist Hospital.
Mary: Yes, in 1928! I went to Sacred Heart of Jesus School.
Lydia: Oh Yeah! In 1930! I went to Sophie Wright, Soulé Business College, and Loyola.
Shirley: Yes, in 1930! I lived in the French Quarter. I went to St. Louis Cathedral School, and before that, I was the only white child in a preschool run by two African American sisters. Ms. Della’s school was right next to my house. She introduced us to lots of music.
Charlie: No, I was born in Mobile, Alabama in 1936. Went to school there, and at the University of Alabama, but I came to New Orleans in 1961. I later took some classes at Loyola.
Examiner: Tell us how you all came to be opera singers!
Karen: When I was in Kindergarten, my mother Beryle Kalin was singing the role of Suzuki in Madama Butterfly, and my older sister was in the role of “Trouble”. It was then that they discovered that I had a musical gift when I began to accurately repeat rhythms on the xylophone.
Mary: Dr. Knud Andersson heard me sing and invited me to join the Opera Chorus! I also sang with the Norman Bell Choristers, the Gustin Wright- Cesar Franck Society, and in the choirs at St. Patrick’s, St. Louis Cathedral, Grace Episcopal, and for the last 25 years at Carrollton Presbyterian.
I did lots of singing! I gave concerts in Costa Rica and New Jersey, sang for my sister’s wedding in D.C. while she was in the Waves, and national conventions in various cities. And even though I was too young to join the USO during WWII, I enjoyed going to the military hospitals to entertain the Service Men and Women.
Lydia: I joined the Chorus in 1957, thanks to my voice teacher, Charles Paddock at Loyola. And was alto soloist at Carrollton Methodist, where the opera used to rehearse.
Shirley: At St. Louis Cathedral School, we had music 3 to 4 times a week. And there was a Priest there that introduced us to opera. I began singing with the Symphony Chorus. I heard that Dr. Andersson was auditioning singers, so I went. When he heard me, he threw his hands up in the air and said “ Another untrained mezzo!” and immediately sent me to study with Charles Paddock. I joined the opera chorus a year before Mary.
Charlie: We had a great music program at Murphy High School in Mobile. I was also in opera workshop where we did scenes from Die Fledermaus for television. We did great production like Amelia Goes to the Ball, and Sunday Excursion. Literally made my first dollar when my high school quartet sang for the Junior Chamber of Commerce….they actually paid each of us a dollar! I also sang in Dauphin Way Methodist Church Choir, where I took my first private voice lessons.
Examiner: What was your first opera with the company?
Mary: Madame Butterfly.
Karen: Can’t remember for sure.
Lydia: La Traviata…52 years ago.
Shirley: “Amelia Goes To The Ball”. This was a production done as part of Maestro Cellini’s “Experimental Opera Theatre” where he trained young singers and gave them and opportunity to sing lead roles.
Charlie: Not quite sure, either Carmen or Faust!
Examiner: Karen, tell us more about your Mom!
Karen: My mother was born in 1903. She sang with New Orleans Opera from the 1930s to around 1990.She was 95% deaf from the age of 6, but had perfect pitch and the ability to read music, although she never heard her own voice. She counted the measures, and could read lips and body language. She sang as a child and in college. Mom passed away in 1998.
Examiner: Tell us about your experiences with the great basso and New Orleans native, Norman Treigle?
Mary: One of the thrills in my singing career was the time I won the Summer Pops audition, and got to sing with Norman Treigle. I had several duets with Norman, and when I opened my mouth to sing, I had no voice! Norman talked me through our duet, but what a disappointment! However, I went to the doctor, and was able to sing that Saturday night. What a great Bass! And to look at Norman you wondered where the voice came from, he was so thin. He was a great person, and a great actor.
My first season with the opera included Butterfly, Faust, Carmen, and La Boheme. They featured many of our own stars, like Treigle, Arthur Cosenza (as a singer), Harry Theard, Charles Anthony, Don Bernard, Harold Crane, Audrey Schuh, Betty Monette, Marie Lilo, along with principles like Giuseppe Compora, Valdengo, Lane, Reardon, Bardelli, Tozzi, Salemka, and others.
Lydia: The funniest memory I have was in Faust where he kept hitting the wine barrel with his sword, but the wine would not come out. Then when he stepped away, the wine started pouring.
Shirley: Yeah, that was pretty funny!
Charlie: First time I heard him sing was in Mobile. The Opera Guild presented him at a dinner. He sang the Toreador Song. After singing the early service at Salem, we used to go to the Walgreen’s at Napoleon and St. Charles for breakfast. Norman was always there as he was singing at First Baptist then. I wanted to study with him, but he was moving too fast. But he did give me the name of a great tenor named Richard Cassilly, who also let me stay at his apartment whenever I was auditioning or singing in New York, and he was out of town. I have always been grateful to Norman for that connection.
Examiner: Tell us about working with former Chorus Master, Knud Andersson, and any other former Chorus Masters!
Karen: I never took formal voice l
essons; I learned everything from Dr. Andersson. He was the best! He would work with me, and we really had to know our music and our languages! There was no nonsense with him.
Mary: My favorite memory was when Dr. Andersson told me the Opera Chorus was going to sing at my wedding! Can you imagine having such an outstanding group of people with beautiful voices sing for your wedding? He was a great individual. His two sons Paul and Hans also took part in some of the operas. What you learned from him you never forgot. I began going to rehearsals at 420 St. Charles Ave., over a parking garage, where during Carnival Season, at our break, we would watch the parades through the windows, then go back to rehearsal.
Lydia: Dr. Andersson used to say…”You better know that line when I call you at 3:00 in the morning” Once you learned it, you never forgot it. He was strict!
Shirley: Yeah, he was strict! He would appear on stage in costume, to our surprise, just to check to see if we were coming in on cue. He kicked me out of two productions after my childbirth made me miss rehearsals. When he died, I had a dream that he came to me to say he was sorry.
Charlie: Dr.Andersson gave me my first comprimario role just before I was headed to New York, so I had to turn it down. David Morelock actually sang the role, but since my name was still in the program, the newspaper gave me a great review! I am glad David did a good job!
Gordon Brown followed Andersson as chorus master. We became good friends and I studied with him. Gordon coached me on an album I did with The Ronnie Cole Trio. He even wrote the program notes!
Examiner: You all knew Placido Domingo from when he first came to sing in Il Trovatore in 1968, could you share any memories of him?
Karen: I remember him as such a fun guy, because we all went out after the performances back in those early years!
Mary: He is one of my favorites. My last performance with the Opera Chorus was in 2010 in the concert given to celebrate the re-opening of The Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts, damaged in Hurricane Katrina. The stage was named for Placido. We enjoyed him every minute, because he is not only a great tenor, but also a beautiful person. I am afraid at age 82, to have to get on and off stage in a rush, and perhaps fall. But whenever they do a performance in concert style, I’d love to join them. I heard the Opera Co. is doing a concert version of Turandot next season. I am looking forward to singing in that.
Lydia: He could not speak English when he first came, so I spoke to him in Spanish. He really appreciated that. He was single when he first came, and later when he came back he brought his wife and young son to introduce to us He was a very sweet man.
Shirley: He was about 26 years old when he first came. We used to go to this Italian Restaurant on St. Charles called “Domino’s” where we could sing, and Mr. Domino would give us a free meal. Placido used to run down the street and jump over the garbage cans. Little did we know who he was going to become.
Mary: Yeah Mr. Domino’s daughter used to sing too. We all went down there after rehearsal, Arthur Cosenza, and the principles, and we’d sing and eat soup and pizza all evening! What fun we had!
Charlie: I was 25 and Placido 20 in 1961.The first thing Domingo asked me when he came to do the 2006 gala, was if the restaurant where we used to go for spaghetti was still there. He was disappointed that Domino’s was gone. The place where we used to rehearse is now the Intercontinental Hotel.
Examiner: Can you think of any other singers or others you remember fondly?
Mary: Another fond favorite was the time Giuseppe Compora, a tenor, came to my home and had dinner with my family. That was a big thrill to have an opera star to my house!
In the early years and into 80s we had so many wonderful people:
General Director: Arthur Cosenza.
Musical Director- Chorus Director, Knud Andersson.
Conductor: Anton Coppola.
Stage Director: David Morelock.
Assistant Stage Managers: Clay Pendergrass, Garold Whistler.
Scenic Designer and Technical Director: David Gano.
Director of Makeup and Wigs- Joe Marino:
Director of Supers: Doug Douglas.
Wardrobe Mistress-Miriam Hattier.
Wardrobe Supervisor- Jennie Vignes.
Lydia: In the Opera Chorus, we had a great bass named Milton Kowan. We considered him the leader of the basses. Billy Von Hoven, tenor and his father Earl were in the chorus when I came. And one time, when a Super fainted on the stage, Billy just picked him up and carried him off as if it was part of the scene! That was funny!
Shirley: There was another tenor in our chorus who died young. His name was Benny Ray. He had a great voice. He would always sing to me when we would go out to that restaurant on St. Charles to eat after rehearsals. He always told me not to eat while he was singing. I also remember Audrey Shuh in the production of Amelia Goes to the Ball. She was a great local singer! She was supposed to hit one of the male leads on the head with a bottle, but someone used the wrong type of glue on the break lines of the bottle, so it did not shatter! She hit him on the head until he was bleeding!
Charlie: I remember Gianna D’Angelo. She was wonderful in Rigoletto! So was Cornell McNeil!
Examiner: Although New Orleans has a rich history of people of color in classical music and opera during the 19th century, Lavergne Monette was the first person of color to sing with our New Orleans Opera Association. She sang the role of Mercedes in the 1968 production Carmen. Can you share any memories of that time?
Mary: I remember she played her role well, and her voice fit the role. I remember that every one in the chorus accepted her, as one of us!
Shirley: I remember people were sending messages back stage asking if she was black. I said why does it matter? She is a good singer! But some audience members got up and walked out.
Charlie: No, but I remember how those times were. We were doing a production of Amahl and the Night Visitors on WYES, and a white singer was in makeup as the black King. The station got all kinds of hate phone calls because they thought a black person was singing the role.
(Note: Annabelle Bernard was the first African American to sing a title role with the company. In 1976, New Orleans Opera brought in Bernard to sing the role of Maddelena in Andrea Chenier,)
Examiner: You all performed in 50 operas or more over the years, some more times than once. What are your all time favorite operas to sing?
Karen: Aida, La Boheme, Tosca, Turandot, Carmen, and Traviata.
Mary: Butterfly, Tosca, and La Boheme.
Lydia: La Traviata, and Carmen. I have done every Carmen that has been staged since I joined.
Shirley: Carmen, and Traviata for me too! But I was always expecting when we did Carmen under Dr. Andersson. I was often hiding behind a bush or something! I was pregnant for 6 Carmen productions. When Dr. Andersson announced they were doing Carmen again another season…he would turn and look at me.
Charlie: Faust is my favorite! Also Carmen!
Examiner: What was your least favorite opera to sing, and why?
Karen: La Sonnambula– too hard to memorize!
Mary: There isn’t any Opera that I don’t like! But had trouble with French, which I found hard to pronounce.
a: Lohengrin…the German! And we had to stand so long on those risers. People were dropping like flies!
Shirley: The German operas…too hard to pronounce!
Charlie: Dutchman, because of the German, and that I was doing the show with a bad knee.
Examiner: What do you think young people coming into opera should know?
Mary: We were always like a family, Karen, Shirley, and Lydia, Thelma Shillen and others, we started out with are the best of friends. This is a part of my life that I will never forget, and I will always cherish the opportunity I was given to be a part of the New Orleans Opera Chorus. And I am thankful that I had the chance to represent The American Guild of Musical Artists, our union, on the National Board, and as a local representative. AGMA recently presented me with a plaque for my years of service.
Anyone interested in music should use the opportunity of attending the Student Preview Performances to see and hear some of the best singers. Also, if you are a singer, and want to sing Opera, call Carol Rausch, the Chorus Master, at 529-2278 and tell her so. The training is great!
Shirley: It does not seem like they have the same feeling for it that we had. We used to sing just for free tickets. I sang for 6 years for free tickets until Kay Long asked Dr. Andersson to put me in the union (AGMA) and give me a contract. I don’t think young people would do that today. I just hope they love it like we did.
Charlie: They should be good at memorizing languages, that’s the hard part. They should also go to New York whether they want to be a big star or not…just to have the experience. My first audition in New York was for Guys and Dolls in Summer Stock, which I won, and also got to do Oklahoma later! Because of that opportunity I also got a chance to spend 12 weeks touring the U.S. and Canada with the Don Cossacks Russian Chorus. Young people should go to every audition, and not limit themselves.
Examiner: You all have seen several other local singers rise to stardom like Anthony Laciura; can you share any stories about them?
Mary: What a wonderful thought when you think back at how many of our own New Orleans people made it to the top, like Barbara Bernard, Don Bernard, David Bernard, David Morelock, Lydia Newman, and Ruth Falcon. Anthony Laciura began singing at an early age with the Opera Chorus. Now he has not only risen to fame with a long career at the Met, but he is a star in the new HBO series “Boardwalk Empire”!
Lydia: Ruth Falcon was a soprano soloist at Carrollton Methodist, as well as a singer with the company. She has gone on to the Met and to do many great things!
Years ago we were staging Traviata, and the star soprano hired to sing Violetta canceled at the last minute, leaving the company scrambling to find someone local to step in. Audrey Shuh was selected, and she did a great job.
Shirley: Charles Anthony came to sing at my high school once, so I remember him. But he had gone to the Met by the time I got to the opera. Anthony Laciura is so funny. I call him Hambone! He was great as the MC at out first Gala after Katrina.
Charlie: I sang at Trinity with Ruth Falcon. That was my first New Orleans church job. Barbara Barnard directed Man of La Mancha that I starred in at Gallery Circle Theater.
Examiner: What is the future of opera? What do your recommend we do to keep the art form alive?
Karen: So many people lost their historical documents in Hurricane Katrina. I say it is important to keep them in a place where they can be preserved.
Mary: Opera has been around for a long time, and I believe it will live forever no matter what type of music is produced. When you have Opera, you have Culture, and we belong to a City of Culture! Let’s keep it!
Lydia: More publicity. I always have people that still don’t seem to know we have an opera company or where it is! More publicity is needed. I am glad we are back at Mahalia!
Shirley: Get children interested when they are small. They used to do small operas at Jerusalem Temple on St. Charles where we would go as children. That is how we got exposure.
Charlie: In many European countries, the operas are translated into the country’s native language when presented. I wish we could do more in English here, so the public would not have to be so concerned about relying on the super titles for translation. And with the success of Westside Story, the opera should consider putting on more Broadway type things like Camelot, and Man of La Mancha…good audience draws. It could have just been me, but the lighting in recent years has seemed to be too dark for the audience to really see what is happening in the best way. We should encourage the schools to do more Gilbert and Sullivan, and Victor Hebert to get the feel of opera. We should do more for schools, and we should offer more student pricing for regular performances.
Examiner: Charlie, you have used your voice in other special ways as well! Tell me more about that!
Charlie: For 20 years I was in broadcasting at WWOM (I covered the James Meredith integration in Oxford, MS. WWL and I broke the story on CBS of Garrison’s JFK probe), WDSU (I replaced John Gary on the Mid-day Show when he went to New York) and WBYU-FM, to name a few. I have also done recreations of old radio shows from Baby Snooks, and The Bickersons to Dracula and The Monkey’s Paw! I also have given PowerPoint lectures at the WWII Museum and for senior’s groups.
Be sure not to miss New Orleans Opera’s IL Trovatore! Mary Elizabeth Williams and Mark Rucker, the fantastic duo from last season’s Tosca, return to sing Leonora and the Count! Our local Valerie Francis sings Inez…To see more, and purchase tickets go to www.neworleansopera.org.