Kathleen Berger: Singer, Musical Theater Actor and Teacher

Kathleen Berger, singer, musical theater actor and teacher, photographed at her home in Litchfield Park, Arizona, by Nicki Escudero

Kathleen Berger, singer, musical theater actor and teacher, photographed at her home in Litchfield Park, Arizona, by Nicki Escudero

Kathleen Berger

Kathleen Berger knows how to hit the high notes. The classically trained singer, who has had extensive experience singing opera in Europe, can be seen often on local theater stages as a musical theater performer. The 43-year-old Litchfield Park resident comes from a musical family and continues to carry on the legacy, as a performer, teacher and artist manager.

Catch her playing the Queen in Southwest Shakespeare Company‘s SpellBound! beginning May 7, and see her in The Joy of Sextets at Desert Foothills Theater beginning May 29.

Berger shares what fuels her passion for singing, as well as shares some tips, and you can watch her name her five favorite reasons for loving living in the Valley in a video.

What brought you to Arizona?

I grew up here. I was born at Maryvale Hospital and grew up in Litchfield Park. I went to Agua Fria High School, then to ASU, where I majored in vocal performance and minored in French. I finished my degree at University of Missouri—Kansas City.

After that, I moved to New York for 10 years, and in 2006, I got an offer to sing on a tour of La Traviata in Madrid, Spain. I took it, I learned the role in two weeks, got on a plane, and went to Spain without speaking a word of Spanish. I spent seven weeks on the tour and decided I wasn’t going back to the United States, so I deliberately missed my plane and stayed in Spain for seven years.

I met my husband there, and when the economy collapsed in 2013, we decided to try moving to Arizona so my family could meet my husband, and so we could make a living instead of being in a country with 25 percent unemployment. We’ve been back ever since.

What’s your earliest memory of being interested in singing?

When I was 3 years old, my parents took me to see an opera, The Tales of Hoffman, at Arizona State University. I have only two or three memories of the whole thing — I remember the girl who played the mechanical doll dancing en pointe, and I remember afterward going backstage to meet the guy who played the villain. He said, “Do you want to see some eyes?” He opened his cloak, and it was full of these mechanical eyes from one of the scenes. My mom and sister insist that all the way home I said, “I’m going to do that when I grow up.”

I don’t remember ever wanting to do anything else. In first and second grade, when they’d ask us what we wanted to be when we grew up, I’d write down, “opera singer.” Fortunately, my parents took me seriously.

Does your family have a musical background?

My dad retired as a pediatrician after 50 years, but he’s won numerous awards in Arizona as an actor and singer. My older sister always sang with the big ASU Choral Union and played the guitar. My older brother is a rock and fusion guitarist and has been for almost 40 years in New York, and my younger brother and his wife are both musical theater singers and actors.

What attracted you to theater and opera?

We always listened to opera and musical theater in the house. My very first eight-tracks were the soundtracks to Mary Poppins and West Side Story, which I would play pretty much every day.

When I was 5, my mom got me into piano and dance lessons, ballet and tap. When I was 13, when is really the youngest you want to do it because of physical development, she got me voice lessons. I fixated on Beverly Sills, a very glamorous soprano, and I decided I wanted to be her when I grew up and never changed my mind.

How have you honed your vocal skills since then?

I took and still take voice lessons once a week, where you learn singing technique — the physical technique and repertoire. Also, I’ve taken piano lessons, with the result that while I’m still a lousy pianist, I can really sight-read vocal music well.

When I was 14, my dance teacher told us she was going to be choreographing a production of Oklahoma! at the Glendale Amphitheater. She asked us who wanted to be in the dance ensemble, and I did. That was my first year of doing musical theater and getting on stage in an actual musical production, and I completely loved it.

The second year, they did West Side Story, so I went down and auditioned and was given a speaking role. The director, Peter Hill, and the choreographer, Noel Irick, who run the Fountain Hills Theater now, really changed my life, as well as the music director, Doug Durant. They taught me everything about being on stage. They taught me how to act, move and follow a conductor.

I worked with Peter, Noel and sometimes Doug for the next several years doing three or four shows a year. By the time I went to college, I had four solid years behind me of doing musical theater.

What’s your typical week like now?

When I moved back here, I started making connections again with the musical theater community here and auditioning for roles. In November 2013, I got a call from Arizona Broadway Theatre because they had just lost someone from the cast of The Sound of Music. They were opening in two days and needed someone who could learn the music fast. I jumped in and started an association with them.

They hired me back to do The Secret Garden, and I’ve worked essentially nonstop since then in musical theater. I’ve done shows with Theater Works, Fountain Hills Theater, Desert Foothills Theater, Glendale Community College, and Yavapai College. I haven’t done any opera since I’ve been back, but I’ve been able to do some recital and oratorio, or sacred classical music, performances.

I also teach two to three voice lessons a day amid rehearsing and performing most nights a week. Somewhere in there, I fit in the job I started to do when I decided to travel less. My agent asked me if I would be interested in coming on as a manager, and that is something I’ve been very interested in for a long time. I’m good at the promotional and business aspect of this, and I have a very good sense for what roles will show off a singer best and where to promote them.

I joined her as a manager under the name Anne Alba, which is my middle name plus my husband’s last name. We have a roster of about 40 opera singers, some of who do some crossover, but our main focus is opera, classical concert and recital. They’re from everywhere. We have singers in California, Washington, Ohio, all over the Midwest, Florida, New York, and Europe.

Who are your typical vocal students?

The youngest one is 10 years old, who is playing young Eponine in Arizona Broadway’s production of Les Mis[erables]. My oldest student is a lady who wants to sing at her daughter’s wedding. They’re anyone from people who just want to do this because they enjoy it, to people who are actively pursuing it professionally.

I have classical singers, I have rock singers, I have pop singers, I have musical theater singers. One thing I have discovered is the technique I have learned works for every kind of voice.

Why would you say someone should hire you as an instructor?

I wouldn’t necessarily say that they should. The singer-teacher relationship is a really personal thing, and one teacher may work spectacularly well for one kind of person and not well at all for another person. I have certainly had teachers who have students who are doing absolutely fantastic work, and for whatever reason, their idea of how to explain technique and my body and way of processing things just didn’t mesh.

I would characterize myself as a teacher as being focused but laid-back at the same time. I don’t try to get inside my students’ heads. My only goal when I am working with a student is to get their voice working as efficiently and as effectively as possible so they produce the best sound with the least amount of unnecessary effort on their part. What they do with it after that is entirely up to them.

I certainly know teachers who are very insistent their students go at this at 1,000 percent and try to have careers, and I don’t care if my students want to have careers. All I care about is that they sing well and that they enjoy themselves while they’re singing.

Are there any people who should just stay away from singing altogether?

I’ve never met anyone who is actually tone-deaf. Anyone can learn to use his or her voice to the best of his or her ability. That doesn’t mean anybody can be the next pop star, but it means to whatever the best of their ability is, absolutely, they can learn. So far, I haven’t met anybody who just can’t totally sing at all.

Do you have any basic tips for breathing while singing?

Think about your body from your armpits to your thighs as a flexible cylinder. Breathing naturally — don’t gasp — fill the cylinder all the way around, up — that is, keep your upper body active, but don’t raise or tense your shoulders — and down, as though your pelvic floor were an elevator slowly going down, with air. As you’re singing, don’t push the air out, and don’t lock up and hold it in. Gently resist the walls of the cylinder out and down as you sing until you can’t resist anymore, and then take a breath.

What happens immediately when you do that is you can hold a line for about three times as long as you thought you ever could, and your voice will suddenly project about twice as much as you thought it could.

What are your goals?

I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing. I’m going to keep managing my singers and get them to better and better levels of houses they’ve working at. I have some singers who are working at some truly wonderful houses, including two who are performing with Arizona Opera next year. I’m going to keep auditioning for musical theater.

I would really love to do some opera locally. I have a couple roles I’d like to do again and a couple I’d like to try, but I’d like it to be in the same no-pressure, collegial situation I find myself performing in now, where it is important where we give a good performance, but it’s not like I’m singing at The Met.

How do you take care of your voice?

I try to stay in shape and stay fit. You don’t have to be size two to be a singer, but you should be in reasonable physical shape for your size. I swim and bicycle.

I drink three or four liters a day of water. I know a lot of singers who have to avoid dairy products or certain things because they feel it clogs up their throats. I don’t have to avoid any foods except ones I’m allergic to.

I try to get enough sleep. I use a humidifier in my room to keep the moist air going.

I practice a lot. That’s about it.

Do you have any tips for auditioning?

Yes, and they apply to life, as well. This is not a competition. You have exactly one thing at an audition over which you have any control at all — you. You have control over how you sing, how you present yourself, how you look, and how you feel. You do not have any control whatsoever over what the panel is thinking or feeling or what they want.

Therefore, it behooves you as a singer to go in there and be absolutely the most “you” you can be. Do not go in there trying to be what you think they want. Go in there being exactly who you are. If they hire you, that’s what they were looking for. If they don’t, they weren’t going to, anyway, because that’s just the way it is.

It will not hurt you or do anything bad to you to be happy when the people around you have success. It will make your life much more pleasant.

I see a lot of young singers who make themselves absolutely miserable because they put so much emphasis and importance on the result of the audition. The result is not important. Yes, it’s great to get cast, but what’s important is that you walk into the audition, you show them who you are, and then you walk out and go do something else.

If you can come out and go, “Wow, that is absolutely the best job I could have done on this particular day in this particular moment,” then that’s a positive result in itself. The rest of it doesn’t actually matter — it’s just nice if you get the role.

How would you characterize the Valley’s theater scene?

What has happened in the 20 years I’ve been gone has been absolutely amazing. The sheer number of professional and semi-professional and community theaters that are giving jobs to people from all over the country is tremendous. We have a tendency, I think, to downplay the culture in Phoenix, and that’s ridiculous. There’s so much culture.

You have professional theaters — Arizona Theatre Company, Arizona Broadway Theatre, Phoenix Theatre, The Palms — that are fully professional theaters just off the top of my head that hire Equity actors.

Then you have places like Theater Works, Desert Foothills, and Fountain Hills Theater that are giving actors opportunities and doing extremely creative, awesome things. In the production of Follies I’m in now at Theater Works, the director is from here but lives in New York. The choreographer is from here but lives in New York. I’m up there on stage with two people who have been on Broadway and now live in the Valley and do professional theater all over, and professional actors who have been Valley luminaries for years and years and years.

We have an amazing theater scene in the Valley, and I’m also extremely impressed with the amount of youth theater that’s going on. The number of high schools now that are performing arts schools — those didn’t exist when I was growing up here. They’re great and are doing great work.

What do I think could be improved? I would love to see a little more collaboration among the theaters so there isn’t so much repetition, so there aren’t four theaters producing Anything Goes in the same season. There are still a few people who view this as competition between the theaters, and it is not. We are all here to help each other. I would love for theaters to start focusing on how we can all collaborate and make this all better.

What advice would you have for someone who wants to be a professional singer?

If you want to be a professional singer, find the right teacher for you right now. Find the teacher who will teach you how to sing with a technique that will serve when you are sick, when you’ve just had a bad breakup, and when you’re having your best day, and the teacher who will encourage you to get out the door and on stage so you can spend a year away from that person and come back singing better than when you left.

Find the repertoire that suits you. You may want to be the fabulous Broadway ingénue or the fabulous high soprano or the fabulous opera tenor. If your look and sound don’t suit that, get over it, and find what they do suit.

Then, don’t get trapped in grim versatility. You do not have to be all things to all people. Find the niche where you do well, and hone that, and go for that. Once you’re having success in that, then branch out and see what else you can do.

Always bear in mind, no matter what anyone tells you, you do not have to throw yourself into this 1,000 percent and do this to the exclusion of relationships and having a life. You will be a better performer if you have a life, relationships, friendships and things you do outside of the theater. You’ll also be a much more well-rounded person.

You can do this as long as you understand you may have to have other ways to earn money for the times between shows. As long as you understand and accept that, you can do this to the extent you like.

How do you stand out as a performer?

I bring a whole heck of a lot of personality and a lot of fun. I love performing and enjoy it immensely. Being on stage for me is a better high than anything else I’ve ever experienced. There is, at its best, an energy transfer between you and the audience. You are giving something to them, and they are also giving something back, and that’s what creates the high.

Come see me perform, and let’s make that happen. Let’s give and receive something awesome together.

Learn about other Valley singers:

Learn more about Jimmy Eat World singer Jim Adkins here on Phoenix People.
Learn more about Harper and the Moths singer Harper Lines here on Phoenix People.
Learn more about The Love Me Nots and Zero Zero singer Nicole Laurenne here on Phoenix People.
Learn more about Treasurefruit singer Anamieke Quinn here on Phoenix People.

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