About to begin rehearsals for the title role in Giacomo Puccini’s “Tosca,” Valerie Bernhardt has definite ideas about the tragic heroine. Still, she looks forward to what she calls “a collaborative interaction” with stage director Jamibeth Margolis.
“I’m not sure what Jamibeth wants,” Bernhardt says in a telephone interview from her Montclair home. “She’s pretty flexible and likes to see how things work out.” Bernhardt anticipates a “fluid” interaction. “I’m curious to see Jamibeth’s reaction,” she says.
Puccini’s opera is Boheme Opera’s inaugural main stage event in its new home at the College of New Jersey. Performances take place Friday, April 29 at 8 p.m., and Sunday, May 1, at 3 p.m. in the College’s Center for the Arts. Artistic director Joseph Pucciatti conducts. Pucciatti is a founding member of Boheme, which is now in its 22nd season.
As Tosca opens, Angelotti, an escaped political prisoner, takes refuge in the church where painter Cavaradossi is working on a portrait of Mary Magdalen. The biblical figure has the blonde hair and blue eyes of the Marchesa Attavanti. When singer Tosca, the beloved of Cavaradossi, approaches, Angelotti hides. Tosca sees that the portrait has features other than hers and is jealous; she imagines that Angelotti’s rustle as he hid was made by the Marchesa, with whom, she supposes, Cavaradossi is having an affair. Police commissioner Scarpia encourages Tosca to believe that Cavaradossi is untrue to her.
Scarpia tortures Cavaradossi to obtain information about political prisoner Angelotti. Scarpia agrees to stop the torture if Tosca will tell him Angelotti’s whereabouts. Cavaradossi realizes that Tosca has revealed the hiding place. Scarpia sentences Cavaradossi to death and Tosca pleads for him. Scarpia proposes that in return for Tosca submitting to him he will arrange a mock execution for Cavaradossi and provide a safe conduct pass for Cavaradossi and Tosca. Tosca kills Scarpia with his own knife.
Despite Scarpia’s promise that Cavaradossi will not really be executed, the firing squad kills him. Tosca kills herself.
“Tosca is a complicated character,” Bernhardt says. “She has a wide variety of emotions throughout the opera,” Her ambivalence drives the dramatic tension. “Tosca is in love with Cavaradossi, but she is jealous. In Act Two, Tosca is torn about what to do. She doesn’t want to see Cavaradossi tortured, but she wants to stay silent about Angelotti’s location. She feels revulsion for Scarpia’s manipulating her, but does what she has to do in order to save her lover.
“There is irony,” Bernhardt continues. “She actually trusts Scarpia to keep his promise not to execute Cavaradossi. She is naive and hopeful enough to think that a happy ending is possible after all that has happened. She would rather not submit to Scarpia, but she does it to save her lover.”
Bernhardt sees Tosca as “hard and worldly wise,” notably in the scene where she murders Scarpia. However, Bernhardt tempers her view of Tosca’s toughness. “There’s a balance to be had. I want the audience to have sympathy for Tosca even though she murders Scarpia. Tosca is upset and outraged, enough to kill him; but I want to show her remorse so that the audience will be sympathetic when she commits suicide.
“The musical transition after the murder is just instrumental after Scarpia is stabbed. There is no singing. I’m acting out what to do with the body and get rid of the knife. I take a drink of wine, and put the candles in the room around Scarpia’s body. Tosca is Catholic; that’s established in Act One. She makes amends for the murder in a ritualistic ceremony.”
Insightful as is Bernhardt’s take on the character, the transfer to stage performance requires mastery of vocal techniques. Bernhardt takes on the task of explaining exactly what she does in order to carry her conception of Tosca across the footlights. “Tosca is a very dramatic character,” she says, “so I use extremes of the vocal range.”
Bernhardt begins by describing the difference between the registers that singers know as a “head voice” and what they call a “chest voice” and talks about shadings in sound known as “colors.”
“The chest voice is rounder, darker, and heavier. The head voice is lighter. Every type of voice has certain pitches where you can make choices about weight and color. In the middle [range] you have artistic freedom to use varying amounts of head or chest voice. There are just a few notes where you can do that.
“The key to Tosca’s character is adding as many different colors as possible to express the various emotions that she has. When I use the lower middle voice, I mix in more chest register to express her sadness, rather than using a pretty middle voice.”
During the last five years Bernhardt changed her voice type from lyric soprano to dramatic soprano. As a lyric soprano, she sang Mozart and the lighter Puccini roles. “I sing some Wagner roles now. Mostly it’s Puccini, Verdi, Strauss, and Wagner.
“I consider myself a spinto dramatic soprano,” she says. It’s a little less than fully dramatic. “I was not having success as a lyric soprano. It’s the most common voice category, and there was too much ompetition.”
When she was a lyric soprano Bernhardt felt that an absence of physical focus was undermining her career “I was lacking a full body connection to my sound,” she says. “I wasn’t using my core to connect my vocal support from top to bottom in a full way. Partly, it was a matter of physiological maturation; the female voice reaches maturity at 35 or 36. I thought of quitting singing.
“It took finding the right voice teacher to help make the transition in my voice type,” Bernhardt says. She now studies with two vocal teachers and has experienced a change in her physical sensations as she sings. “I’m using more of my body as my instrument than I did as a lyric soprano — not just the throat area and head resonators. It was a process of adding on to what I already had and finding more connection with my body. I developed a better sense of how your body can produce a desired tone. I became more focused physically. Now I’m able to take on a more dramatic repertoire.”
Born in Trenton, Bernhardt grew up in Robbinsville. “My father had a beautiful bass-baritone voice. He sang in a church choir and in local theater. He wanted to be singer, but in his generation you got job and took care of the family.” He became a welder whose wife was a homemaker.
“My sister has a wonderful voice. She sang in summer stock and church music. My brother played guitar as a hobby. I was the only one who decided to do music as a profession. I’m the baby of the family. My brother is 13 years older than I am. My sister is 15 years older. By the time I knew what was going on, they were out of the house.
Bernhardt got involved in music in high school. “When the guidance teacher asked what I liked to do I said ‘music and helping people.’” At Montclair State University Bernhardt participated in chorus and in an opera workshop. She pursued classical vocal technique. Her 1989 bachelor’s degree is in music therapy.
I passed the board certification exam for music therapists and was on the edge of being offered a job by the facility where I did my internship when my voice teacher told me that Juilliard was having auditions. I tried out and got into Juilliard.” Her Juilliard credential is a master’s degree in voice.
“I thought that I could always fall back on music therapy. I learned that power of music can do the most amazing things. Music can reach people when nothing else can. It can touch people in a visceral way; it’s intimate.”
Bernhardt is a member of the adjunct voice faculty at Montclair, where she teaches private students. She lives in Clifton.
How does she balance teaching and performing? “I have only eight students,” Bernhardt says. “I knew that I would be doing this performance of Tosca, so I could schedule it easily. I will have to miss some lessons, and a colleague will step in and teach for me. We study with the same teacher and have the same voice technique; I’m not concerned about her messing up the kids. I’m not so insecure that I worry. I’d rather collaborate.”
In addition to Tosca, Bernhardt has factored another concert engagement into her schedule. On Saturday, May 7, at 8 p.m. she sings in a concert version of Puccini’s “Turandot” with Coro Lirico. The Summit-based ensemble uses the Ridge Performing Arts Center at Basking Ridge High School for the concert.
Bernhardt has made the first moves in establishing herself as a European performer. She sang in Giussepe Verdi’s “Nabucco” in Pforzheim, Germany. Her website includes both German and English versions “so those who don’t know English can understand,” she explains. I wonder why not Italian and Bernhardt points out that “it is generally believed that the Italian opera scene is rather closed to non-Italians.”
Tosca is Bernhardt’s third production with Boheme Opera. She sang in Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi” and played the principal role in his “La Boheme” before changing her voice type.
For the Tosca performance, Bernhardt and director Margolis seem to share a common view of presenting characters. Director Margolis told U.S. 1 (April 14, 2010) “Rich and full character portrayal is fundamental. I would never give up character development for staging.”
Tosca, Boheme Opera NJ, College of New Jersey, Mayo Concert Hall. Friday, April 29, 8 p.m.; and Sunday, May 1, 8 p.m. Register. $25. 609-396-2435 or www.bohemeopera.com.