Ed Berkeley’s unexpected death last month was a shocker in the performing arts community here and abroad.
It was extraordinarily hard-hitting for the two organizations with which Berkeley had longstanding relationships: the Aspen Music Festival and School and The Juilliard School.
Berkeley had been Director of the Opera Theater Center of the Festival for 40 years and a member of the Juilliard faculty for 34. He had been involved in training thousands of students at the two prestigious organizations.
The circumstances of his death greatly compounded the somber news.
Berkeley, 76, was found unresponsive in his Aspen apartment, a few hours before the Festival premier of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, a production he directed and was planning to attend. The local coroner determined it was a natural death due to cardiovascular disease.
Backstage at the magnificent Benedict Tent, site of the premier, the cast was informed of Berkeley’s passing just minutes before the start of the opera. It was decided by all concerned that, in Berkeley’s honor, the show would go on.
Then, in a highly charged moment, the Music Festival’s leadership team walked onstage to inform the sold-out audience of the loss.
Festival President and CEO Alan Fletcher said, “The entire cast, orchestra, AMFS artist-faculty, and staff are channeling their emotion into the performance tonight that we are dedicating to him…it is an emotional moment…his contributions are immeasurable.”
Robert Spano, Music Director, added: “However strange it may seem on the surface to have The Magic Flute upon hearing this news is a testament to the joy he gave all of us…the ebullience of this music speaks to the ebullience he brought to his students and the genius he brought to Aspen every year. We are all going to miss him terribly.”
“It buckled us,” a member of the audience said. “Ed Berkeley has been a pillar at this Festival for decades. His work has been a big drawing card. It was stunning to hear of his sudden death.”
By all accounts, Flute showcased Berkeley’s inimitable style. It was, due to COVID-19 restrictions, a truncated version of what is normally a two-and-half-hour opera. Berkeley had just 90 minutes to present a complex allegory about finding truth and reason in the human spirit. Editing Mozart was a demanding intellectual reach — right in Berkeley’s wheelhouse.
Not only did he have to do major alterations to the plot, but he added what critic Harvey Steiman, writing in The Aspen Times, called a “witty narration” that filled in the gaps and cleverly kept proceedings moving along in a Mozartian fashion. It did not hurt that Berkeley’s words were delivered by a true opera diva, Grammy Award winner Renee Fleming.
The irony that Fleming, a pupil of Berkeley’s when she attended the Music School in the 1980’s, played a major part in his very last project would not have been lost on the director. Berkeley had a keen eye for a risible coincidence.
Later, on social media, Fleming posted this: “Remembering Ed Berkeley, with fondness and gratitude for his gifts to so many young opera artists, myself included…in my student days a formidable experience was working with Ed… I left imagining every opera production would be like that, not knowing what a rare gift that would be… Ed’s 40-year tenure and commitment to Aspen Opera Theater nurtured countless young artists.”
Adam Cioffari, Artistic Administrator at Maryland Lyric Opera, echoed Fleming’s sentiments: “It’s difficult to think of one individual so completely synonymous with a long-standing institution, but such was the case with Edward Berkeley and Aspen Opera Theater. I am also hard-pressed to think of an operatic stage director who has influenced and inspired such a volume of performers and artists over the last few decades.”
The optimal venue to observe Berkeley’s skill at close range was the weekly Opera Scenes Master Classes conducted on Saturday mornings during the 60-day summer festival.
The sessions were held downtown in Aspen’s storied Wheeler Opera House, an intimate setting where every seat feels like it’s on the front row.
There, students presented brief opera scenes they staged themselves – then, Berkeley would re-direct the action, always producing enormously enhanced results. It was like seeing The Wizard of Oz go from black-and-white to color.
Berkeley’s manner was calm, full of dry humor, never barking orders or condemning anything. “Ed never told us what to do,” one student remembered. “He asked questions that guided us into discovering new aspects about the character or the action on stage. His questions led you to a greater depth of understanding the performance.”
Despite his remarkable intellect and towering professional status, Berkeley was a most unpretentious personality. Being a native New Yorker, he never learned to drive a car–so, in Aspen, he was often seen riding a bicycle, wearing his trademark shorts and knee socks, hauling a stuffed backpack. He could have been mistaken for a seasoned Colorado camp counselor.
Primarily identified with Aspen and Juilliard, Berkeley had an exceptional career across a variety of theatrical settings. He directed New York premieres of plays by Tennessee Williams, Derek Walcott, Terrence McNally and other top talents. Very notably, one of his efforts, Wilder, Wilder, Wilder, was Tony Nominated.
Berkeley was also a faculty member of Circle in the Square Professional Theatre and directed a plethora of New York Shakespeare Festival works. He was active with the Young Artist Development Program at the New York Metropolitan Opera; he was in demand at major opera houses across the country for decades.
An African proverb observes, “When an elder dies, a library burns.” In Berkeley’s case, his wisdom will live on in the performances of those students who were fortunate to have him as their teacher.