Voice student Quinn Bernegger (M.M. '18) was awarded first place in the American Prize in Opera and Art Song. He also landed a mainstage role with Des Moines Metro Opera for summer 2017. Bernegger talks about his experience as a competition winner and his upcoming opportunities.
How did you find out about the American Prize competition? What made you decide to participate?
I actually heard about the American Prize for the first time last year from friends who had placed in the competition that same year. There are so many competition and audition opportunities in opera; you have to choose carefully and strategically which ones match you best, so when I learned that my peers had been successful, I figured it would be worthwhile to try it.
What was the competition process like?
The process was very simple and very unique. Everything is done online: you fill out an application and send in recordings of your singing, then, months later, you find out whether you were selected as a finalist. They notify you again once the winners are announced. There is no live competition component, so in some ways it almost felt like waiting for lottery results, which is distinct from most other competitions.
What repertoire did you prepare for this competition? Which piece do you feel showcases you best?
The American Prize asks for recordings of multiple arias and songs for the awards in opera and art song. Along with the application, I submitted links to five arias and six songs I've recorded on video over the past two years. By watching all of them, the judges were able to get a picture of what my performing and singing has been like over that span of time. Had I been asked to choose one aria to perform in a live setting, however, I would have sung William Bolcom's gorgeous "New York Lights" from his opera A View from the Bridge. It was one of the first arias I ever sang and it has always been the piece that reminds me that I'm lucky to be where I am.
Besides practicing your repertoire, are there any other key strategies you use to prepare for performances or auditions?
I've learned that I have a tendency to overthink and let my mind race in anticipation, so any way I can relax and find calm and focus is helpful to me. I try to stay present in the waiting room by speaking to the other people around me—you never know who might be listening! I also take the time to review some key moments in my music and imagine the emotional journey of my arias with my eyes closed.
What advice would you give peers preparing for a competition or audition?
Above all, you have to let people see what makes you, you. As a singer, you are constantly being compared to your peers, and you're going to find a lot of people you think sing better, act better, and look better than you. But you have to remember that at the end of the day, no one can be you but you—you will stand out because no one else is just like you, and there's power in that. The other advice I treasure most comes from actor Bryan Cranston: "Know what your job is." Your job as an actor and a singer isn't to get hired; your job is to create compelling characters and stories, express strong emotions and thoughts with your voice and body, and present that in whatever space you're in at the moment—then you walk away. All the rest, the decisions that come after it, have so many factors involved that are out of your control. Your only job is to be an artist.
You were also given the opportunity to work with Des Moines Metro Opera this summer. How did your studio teacher help you to prepare for this experience?
When I auditioned for Des Moines Metro Opera, I was studying with Rebecca Folsom. We used my lesson to strategize what repertoire to offer for the audition and, in particular, which aria to sing first. Once that was determined, we spent some time applying the technical work we were exploring to those pieces. It's an ongoing process—you are constantly expanding and modifying your technique—but along the way you perform new roles and songs, and they are imprinted with the technical choices and habits you have at that time. Sometimes you have to go back to old, familiar songs and rework them. In this case, we still had more work to do after the audition day, because I was asked by the company to learn and record a video of me singing Henrik's aria "Later" because they were considering me for the role. It was a pretty quick turnaround and it was a team effort to quickly work on the piece with Dr. Folsom and my pianist Yukiko Oba in order to make the best recording possible. Ultimately, it paid off, because I was offered the role soon after that.
What is your upcoming role with Des Moines Metro Opera? Can you tell us a little bit about the show and your character?
I'll be singing the role of Henrik in Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music, a brilliant and hilarious exploration of human folly illustrated by a web of love affairs and triangles. The story centers around Fredrik Egerman, a successful lawyer and middle-aged socialite who has just married the much younger Anne, but has an encounter with his past lover, the famous actress Desirée Armfeldt, which rekindles their former romance. Henrik, his son, is an overly-serious, brooding seminary student, who spends his time hunched over his cello, frustrated that no one else takes his deep questions of the universe seriously. Pretty quickly, the whole cast of characters gets tangled up together in messy romantic trysts. It culminates in a tense and wild weekend gathering at Desirée's family estate in the country, filled with all sorts of plotting, jealousy, romance, and comedy.
How did your training at the Conservatory prepare you for success?
The opera program here at Boston Conservatory at Berklee does a great job prepping all of us for auditions, from all the little details of decorum that help present you well, to the fundamentals of voice technique and expressive singing. It helps a lot to work through your audition repertoire with people who encourage you to find your own voice and show off what makes you unique. Being here this year has helped me appreciate the parts of myself that are special, and taught me to highlight them in a competitive setting.
What do you love most about the voice program at the Conservatory?
The first thing I say to anyone about this program is how good the people are who run it. The team here is really top-level and geared so well toward young singers. Our conductor Andrew Altenbach, directors Nathan Troup and Johnathon Pape, and the entire team of vocal coaches possess a really special balance of high expectations and genuine nurturing support. I believe that, ultimately, this career is all about the people you meet and work with and the way they shape you through each experience. The Conservatory is filled with people who are dedicated to nurturing young singers, not just in our career, but in our growth as thoughtful, resilient human beings. That isn't something you find at every school.