Music to Our Ears: Kathleen Berger
From small town America to Madrid's grand opera houses
As I sit listening to Madrid-based, American soprano Kathleen Berger, who has kindly agreed to let me sit in on her singing lesson, and ponder how so much voice can come out of just one person.
Born in a small town just outside Phoenix, Arizona, Kathleen comes from a musical family, which includes one brother who’s a musical theatre actor and another who’s a rock guitarist. After class, we sat down with her to ask a few questions.
How long have you been working as a professional opera singer?
I sang my first role when I was 19. Before that I was doing musical theatre. My first role was Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro. I played a boy! And that was amazing fun. That is my favourite opera in the whole world. I was so serious about it! I got two recordings and I got the score and I started translating my score and learning every single line in the opera! I just did the Countess in the Marriage of Figaro which means that I have now gone through three of the major soprano roles-Cherubino, Susanna and the Countess.
What made you change from musical theatre to opera?
Actually I had always wanted to be an opera singer, from the time I was three. I went to see The Tales of Hoffman with my parents and that was it! My first ever writing assignment in first grade, they asked what I wanted to be and I wrote “OPRA SINGER”. So my parents got me piano lessons and dance lessons, because they could see I was serious about this.
So your parents were quite encouraging?
My parents were amazing. They are both huge opera and musical theatre fans so they thought it was a wonderful idea. I started saying it at three. When I was still saying it at five my mother said “Ok, well you have to take piano and ballet then.” She wanted to see if I was serious. But what happened was I started practising the piano and doing ballet instead of doing my homework and then she had to say “OK, you have to do your homework or you can’t do piano and ballet any more.”
Then when I was 13 she started me with voice lessons.
How long have you been living in Spain?
Six years, seven in February. Just as I was about to quit singing after 10 years in New York beating my head against a wall and not really getting anywhere, I was hired to sing a tour here in Spain of La Traviata. I was recommended for it by a friend. It was supposed to be for seven weeks, but I fell CRAZY in love with the country.
I mean I love everything about being here; I love the food, I love the people, I love the whole travelling thing. I love the fact that all the singers I was working with, none of them was particularly famous or well-known, but they were all making a living singing. And I thought “I wonder what would happen if I stayed here?” So I deliberately missed my flight back to New York!
What would you say the best and worst moments of your career have been?
I’d say it’s a three-way tie. First, that first Marriage of Figaro when I was 19 years old. That was so incredible!
Then number two would have to be the first time I ever sang Lucia di Lammermoor. In it, Lucia has a 20 minute solo called the “Mad scene” and for the first time ever I got a standing ovation right in the middle of the opera. That was really cool. That’s when you feel the energy transfer between you and the audience.
And then the third one was the Marriage of Figaro in Colombia, because it was my first outing with my new repertoire. I had a big voice change last year. For years people had been telling me that they thought I had more voice in me that wasn’t coming out. I’m tall, I’m not a small person- it’s not normal for someone like me to have a small voice! And for some reason, with my new teacher something just released and my voice came out. I went from singing the very high, very light repertoire to singing what’s called lyric soprano. Not only is it easier, in that I never have to worry that I’ll open my mouth and the note won’t come out, but it just suits me better. I don’t look like a little fairy queen, I look like a grown-up!
What about the future? What are your plans?
Well, now that I have a little bit of experience with the new repertoire, I’d like to move up a level in terms of the houses I work in. I dont particularly care about having what they call a “big house career”, but I wouldn’t mind moving up a level. I actually find when I don’t plan it too much, that’s when things go my way. When I just focus on the process of getting this working to the best of my ability, continuing to get better, continuing to get better, that’s when it works out.
How does your husband Manuel feel about your career?
He loves it! I mean we are talking about someone who had never been to a classical music or opera concert, had never listened to classical music ever in his life. The first opera he saw was with me. It was La Traviata. Afterwards, he said to me “I cried”.
This job is hard on a spouse. I spend a lot of money on voice lessons and I have certain things I can’t do the night before a concert, like I can’t drink and I can’t go out and talk a lot the night before a concert. I have a to travel a lot too. He’s like a dream! He just finds the whole thing delightful, which I am very appreciative of.
Finally, do you have any advice for any budding opera singers?
More than I can put in a soundbite! Just, working on your voice, working on your repertoire, working on your shape because sadly that’s important now, and don’t worry about what everyone else around you is doing. There’s room for everyone!
You spend so much of your time auditioning and being rejected, the only way to be happy in this life is to remember that it is not a competition. The only competition, if there is one, is with yourself, to make sure you do better at the next audition and to make sure the next time you perform this role you’ll do it differently.
If you can learn to enjoy the process, including the process of auditioning and performing and learning from what you do on stage then you enjoy every single day.
This December Kathleen will be singing a series of Christmas concerts with the National Orchestra of Kiev.
About Vicky Knill
Originally from Wales, I've been living here for 3 years, teaching English, enjoying life in the city and eating too many croquetas. I also write fiction and comedy.