The Sounds of Music
Coming from a singing family where music was an elemental part of her life from a young age, Denise Ritter Bernardini says it was only natural that she would choose singing as a lifetime effort. She began her professional life as a studio musician in Nashville, but wanted to return to school and pursue a degree in music. After teaching in public schools for three years, she decided to enter the master’s program at Texas Christian University, which had a partnership with Fort Work Opera. This partnership provided your artists the opportunity to be in the opera apprenticeship program while also enrolling in the university’s graduate fellowship program. “To my shock, I won the audition,” she says. And the rest, as they say, is history.
While singing with the Fort Worth Opera and Bernardini, was also section leader with both the opera chorus and a local church, had her debut at Carnegie Hall in New York with Skitch Henderson and performed the Merry Widow with Encore Arts, a traveling group. “At that time, there were a lot of traveling opera companies,” she notes, “but that is no longer the case.”
Part of the requirements for her degree in vocal pedagogy included an internship at an allergist’s office where Bernardini learned about the physiological and anatomical aspects of singing. She says she became fascinated by that part of her education and decided to pursue an opera career and teach voice. She knew she would be able to pursue her interests at the university level and so set out to get her doctorate, studying with Marilyn Horne along the way.
Bernardini’s scholarship follows three distinct paths: first she is an opera singer, with her other pursuits following ; second is her interest in a teaching method that incorporates science and pedagogical techniques; third is her passion for the history of vocal literature and cabaret in particular.
A singer’s voice changes continuously, Bernardini explains; it is never the same. She says that she continues to see a coach and is now singing better than ever before. Part of this change process is hormonal, she adds, but a singer never stops learning and studying. “Use it or lose it is so true vocally,” she notes. “It is not like riding a bicycle.” The range of scholarship required of a singer is extensive, Bernardini comments, and includes music theory, playing an instrument, music history from the Renaissance through the modern era, anatomy, vocal literature, acting, stage deportment, diction in multiple languages and how to write about music. Physics also enters the picture because the travel of air, acoustical sound and the Bernoulli effect Her background, knowledge and experience have led her to concert performances and opera roles with companies around the globe.
The knowledge acquired for her degree has made Bernardini a diagnostician and given her the ability to treat vocal faults. She says she is fascinated by how the voice can be manipulated to make it more resonant and how voice problems can be resolved. Some of those problems include hoarseness, nodules on the vocal chords, breathiness, holes in the voice and especially bad habits. Anatomical knowledge and an understanding of the effect of allergies can lead her to help students overcome some of these deficits. “Sometimes the problem is muscle paralysis, or vocal chords not meeting correctly,” she explains. “We have to teach the person how to exercise the vocal chords, somewhat like being a physical therapist for vocal chords. But it can be difficult because you can’t look down someone’s throat or feel what the problem is.” Sometimes she says you just have to send the person to a doctor for a more in-depth physical diagnosis.
Bernardini says she is not a voice therapist but has worked closely with physicians and therapists to help people recover from surgeries, nodes and thyroid and throat cancer treatments. Helping to overcome voice problems is both rewarding and frustrating, she comments. “It is very frustrating if we can’t figure out what the problems are, and it can be truly devastating if someone has an irreparably damaged voice.”
Close to Bernardini’s heart and her talents, however, is her research on cabaret, a topic on which she has become an international expert. Cabaret takes its name from the place—a bar, bistro or restaurant with a stage for performers who can be comedians, jugglers, singers, actors, instrumentalists. It is a form that bridges the traditional and contemporary divide. Coming out of the chaos of World War I, the cabaret format had no rules.
Cabaret originators thought they were being very art nouveau in breaking all kinds of performance rules, developing a new art form and rebelling against ‘the man’,” she explains. Many composers we think of as “classical” got their start in cabaret. Three of those who initially made their living by writing music for cabaret performers are Erik Satie, Arnold Schoenberg, and Kurt Weill. Francis Poulenc and Benjamin Britten, embracing the philosophy of art imitating art, wrote music in cabaret style. Both wrote instrumental, orchestral and vocal music and were seen as innovators
Through her study of cabaret, Bernardini finds that cabaret songs have given a rich palate of emotions—funny, sad, witty, dark, sexy, innocent—but above all they are about the human condition. “This ability to tell the story of humanity is the one thread that has not changed in cabaret. To be cabaret is to be versatile, culturally relevant and historically expressive. It is difficult to pin down whether cabaret has influenced society or if society has influenced cabaret. The constant process of creativity and artistic evolution is the essence of cabaret. Cabaret is proof of the vibrancy of popular culture,” she concludes.
Denise Ritter Bernardini is an assistant professor of music who appears on both the concert and opera stage in music of many periods. She has sung in Verdi’s Requiem, Handel’s Messiah, Pergolesi’s Magnificat, Bach’s Missa in A Major, Dvorak’s Te Deum, and Mozart’s Requiem. She has also appeared as Violetta in La Traviata, Mimi in La Boheme, Yum Yum in The Mikado, Gilda in Rigoletto and other leading roles. She was looking for a home in a culturally active locale for an art song festival that she founded—The University of Toledo welcomed them both. She has also created a one-woman show that looks at cabaret history and performance. She was invited to present the show at the International University of Global Theater in Austria and at the Toledo Museum of Art.