by Phillip Cunningham, Head of Research Services
Annabelle Bernard (1935-2005) was a New Orleans-born opera singer who spent four decades with the Deutsche Oper Berlin. Her papers at the Amistad Research Center, currently being processed, are evidence of a musical life well-lived.
Bernard’s love of music began at an early age; she began performing publicly at New Orleans’ Fisk Elementary School and at the Fourth Baptist Church. While attending McDonogh No. 35, the city’s first high school for American Americans, she began receiving vocal training from Edwin Hogan (the uncle of well-known composer Moses Hogan). Hogan, a graduate of Xavier University, encouraged Bernard to audition before Sister Mary Elise Sisson, chair of Xavier’s music department. Bernard secured a scholarship to study music education with a concentration in voice under Sr. Elise from 1952 to 1956.
Sister Mary Elise Sisson, born Lorraine Sisson (1897-1982), was no stranger to opera. Prior to her decision to join the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, she was herself an established singer in Europe and prepared to join the Metropolitan Opera Company. In 1934, Sr. Elise joined the faculty of Xavier University of Louisiana and created their music department. Bernard remembered Sr. Elise as a disciplined teacher “with much love for teaching Xavier University students. She vocally trained her students in classical music; dedicating not only her profession as a pressor for vocal training but also for implanting character in us as young students.”
While performing in Xavier University productions, Annabelle Bernard attracted the attention of Edith Rosenwald Stern, daughter of wealthy businessman Julius Rosenwald. After graduating from Xavier, with support from Stern, Bernard continued her studies at the New England Conservatory of Music. While there, she was enabled to study abroad at the Mozarteum University in Salzburg and the Stuttgart (Germany) Conservatory of Music. Her remarkable talent gained further attention when she won the top prize in the International Radio Competition in Munich in 1960.
In 1962, Bernard debuted with the Deutsche Oper Berlin (Berlin Opera), performing the title role in Aida. For nearly forty years, she performed with the Deutsche Oper Berlin in countless operas. One critic said in 1965, “her tiny appearance stands in stark contrast to her near impossible ability to develop and impassion resounding vocal strength.”
Her impressive talents were called upon as a U.S. cultural representative in the politically and ideologically divided Germany. Correspondence in her papers tell us she performed to audiences that included Willy Brandt, chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany); Kenneth Rush, the U.S. ambassador to West Germany; and Pope Paul VI in Vatican City. The Deutsche Oper Berlin took her around the world and, on occasion, back to the United States.
Bernard retired from the Deutsche Oper Berlin in 1998 and returned to New Orleans to teach at Xavier, her alma mater. She wanted to return to her roots “where I received an abundance of support—mentally, vocally, financially, and spiritually; with the hope of being able to instill in the students that the classic music industry for singers is a God-sent profession which is to be taken seriously with love, dedication, and self-discipline.” She passed away on January 29, 2005.
Her papers document her extensive career through personal and professional correspondence, programs (in English, German and Italian), photographs, as well as news clippings about her performances and about Xavier University. Among the correspondence are two congratulatory letters received from Edith Stern and Sr. Mary Elise in 1976 following Bernard’s appearance in Andrea Chénier, her first performance in New Orleans in almost twenty years.
“Annabelle, my dear:
What a perfect souvenir to a perfect experience. I am sure the little red bird can sing a hymn of joy.
So few events one looks forward to live up to great expectations but this one surpassed one’s fondest dreams. Best of all was to find you the same unspoiled, sincere, beautiful person I have always known. May your blessing continue. You deserve everyone.” – Edith Stern
"Over and over again I thank God for those wonderful days in New Orleans, for the thrill of watching your magnificent performance with the Opera and the [New Orleans] Symphony. I reveled in the beauty of your voice, your impeccable musicianship, your artistry and beautiful convincing stage presence. You are among the greatest in your profession, a Queen of Song.” – Sr. Elise
This project was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services [MH-245560-OMS-20]. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this blog post do not necessarily represent those of the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
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