Perseverance Keeps an Opera Singer Singing

Photo: Devon Cass

Valerie Bernhardt '91

“Be prepared. Know your music and be ready to go with it,” advised Valerie Bernhardt ’91 to an audience of music students and faculty at the McEachern Recital Hall in March. “You never know when you will be called on to perform.”

Bernhardt, a professional dramatic soprano, was sharing her life story and insights into the music world as the keynote speaker for the annual Sacher Memorial Alumni Lecture sponsored by Montclair State’s John J. Cali School of Music.  The advice comes from her own experiences with being called into action on short notice and underscores her belief in preparation and perseverance.

Bernhardt’s perseverance has taken her from “a small town outside of Trenton” where she was born, to operatic roles and solo performances around the country and abroad. She has performed with the New York City Opera and the Pittsburgh Opera, among others, and soloed in performances at venues such as Carnegie Hall, and the St. Louis and Newark Cathedrals.

Although Bernhardt has always loved to sing, she wasn’t considering a career as a performer when she first came to Montclair State.  “I didn’t know what to major in,” she recalls.  “A counselor asked me what I enjoyed and then recommended music therapy.”  A major instrument was required for the program “so I chose the only one I had—voice,” she says.

Bernhardt continued to develop her voice and performed in the Montclair State production of the opera The Marriage of Figaro. “That was a watershed moment for me,” she says. “Then I knew that I wanted to be an opera singer.”  Since that decision, Bernhardt has earned two graduate degrees in voice from The Juilliard School and has continued to sing professionally.

It didn’t come easily, though.  Bernhardt was a lyric soprano, which she says is “probably the most densely populated spot in music.”  She faced considerable competition at auditions and learned about perseverance out of necessity.  Her attitude and advice to others became “Keep going—there’s something there that’s going to happen.”

And it did.  In 2006, under the guidance of a new teacher, David Jones, Bernhardt began to reinvent herself.  She recalls, “When [Jones] heard me, he said ‘You’re not a lyric soprano. You’re a dramatic soprano—in fact, you’re a dramatic Wagnerian soprano.’”

Bernhardt’s second career as a Wagnerian soprano has taken off and she is making a name for herself.  She has most recently distinguished herself in the Wagner Division at the 2007 Liederkranz Foundation Competition and is part of the Evelyn Lear and Thomas Stewart Wagner Emerging Singers Program, under the auspices of the Wagner Society of Washington, D.C.  Bernhardt just returned from six months of auditions in Europe and is busy preparing for new operatic roles.

Bernhardt admits that it has been a lot of work and there were times when she had doubts, but it has all been worth it.  As the only person she knows of in her Montclair graduating class who is still pursuing her singing career, she certainly can teach others a thing or two about perseverance.