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A Shining Star, Soprano Annabelle Bernard

Annabelle Bernard (1935-2005) was an internationally renowned opera star.

Portrait of Annabelle Bernard, undated. Photo credit: Heidelberg-Rohrback, Kirschartensir.

Born in New Orleans, Bernard began singing publicly at a young age in her school, Fisk Elementary and church, the Fourth Baptist Church. As a student at McDonogh #35 in New Orleans, she received her first formal voice training at an opera workshop under the direction of her music teacher, Edwin Hogan. Professor Hogan obtained an audition for her with Sister Elise, the director of Xavier University’s music department. Bernard won a scholarship to attend Xavier and during her time there (1952-1956) sang in various operas and concerts on campus. While at Xavier, she was mentored by art patron, Mrs. Edith Stern, who assisted her in further study at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. After earning both a Master of Arts degree and an artists’ degree in 1958, she won the prestigious Eleanor Stebert Award and the Fran Huntington BeeBee Scholarship to continue her studies in Europe. She went to the Mozarteum in Salzburg, Austria and studied at the Stuttgart Conservatory of Music under Professor Hermann Reutter.

Annabelle Bernard in “Manon Lescout” Act II, Premiere November 4, 1961. Photo credit: Heidelberg-Rohrbach, Kirschgartensir.

Bernard gained international notice in 1960 after winning the top prize in the International Radio Competition in Munich, Germany. In 1961, she made her debut under Maestro Karl Bohm in the role of Verdi’s Aida at the Deutsche Oper Berlin – the Berlin Opera. Bernard was highlighted in the February 1, 1962 issue of Jet magazine as the "Newest Negro Opera Star" for the critical acclaim she received from her debut. At the Berlin Opera, she became a permanent member and leading soprano for forty years, and sang the title parts for many operas, including “Madame Butterfly”, “II Trovador,” Mozart’s “Coris Van Tutte,” and Tchaikovsky’s, “Eugene Onegin.” In 1970, Bernard received the West German honorific of the title, Kammersänerin (chamber singer).

Even though Bernard sang internationally including a performance at the Vatican for Pope Paul VI, she didn’t perform often in the United States and had no plans to leave Berlin, admitting to a Stars and Stripes reporter, "I would eventually like to return to the States but there's so little opportunity there if you want to sing opera. And if it means staying in Europe to sing – I stay."

The color barrier at the Metropolitan Opera in New York was not broken until 1955 when the great Marian Anderson sang in Un Ballo in Maschera there. By the mid-1960s in New Orleans, Bernard's hometown, black singers were beginning to be part of the chorus and were singing a few supporting roles. However, no black vocalist would sing a major role at the New Orleans Opera until 1976 when Bernard starred in a local production of Giordano's Andrea Chenier in November of that year. After her appearance in New Orleans, Bernard performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. and Carnegie Hall in New York. The New York Post wrote, “Bernard has a creamy beautiful voice, easily produced and like an angel’s… why has she not sung here before is mind-boggling.”

Bernard retired from the Berlin Opera in 2000 and returned to New Orleans and she received the 2002 “Lift Every Voice” Legacy Award from the National Opera Association. Annabelle Bernard died in 2005 and was interred at St. Louis Cemetery No. 3 in New Orleans.

Images from the Annabelle Bernard Papers. Images from Amistad’s website, newsletters, and blogs cannot be reproduced without permission.

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