By Patrick Summers
HGO Artistic and Music Director
Over the summer a dear friend and colleague passed away. Sandra Bernhard was the founding director of Houston Grand Opera’s community and education initiative, HGOco, for the past eight years, but our relationship dated from decades earlier when we were colleagues at San Francisco Opera. Following are remarks I made at the celebration of her life that we held in Houston on September 28.
During the months of planning today’s celebration of Sandy’s life, it was unimaginable that by the time we arrived at this day we would be saying farewell to another beloved HGO staff member. The tragic death of our librarian, Tim Tull, just over a week ago, has shocked and stunned us all. In time, we will properly honor Tim as well, a man we would have expected to be sitting here comforting us today.
I have so many memories of Sandy from throughout our 30 years of friendship and working together. In 1996, for example, we were rather improbably put in charge of a group of ten singers for a two week cruise in the Mediterranean. Sandy flew with the singers from San Francisco to Genoa, where they boarded the gorgeous Vistafiord and sailed overnight to Barcelona, where I was to meet them the next evening and do our first concert. The problem was, only Sandy’s luggage made it to Europe; none of the singers had any clothes besides what they had flown in.
This was before cell phones and Wifi, so I knew none of this when I cheerfully arrived in Barcelona to meet the ship. When I arrived I knew immediately something was up, because all of the singers were dressed like Sandy. She had given them all the clothes she had. Later that night, their luggage arrived and from the promenade deck we could see it sitting on the dock in a police truck just beyond the border fence. The singers, in some version of wisdom, decided to scale the fence and retrieve it against the objections of the police. Seeing this happening, Sandy grabbed me and said, “Come on.” I watched her sort out the border patrol with infinite finesse and grace, like a great dancer; she got the bags put onto the ship and kept the police calm and the singers happy.
Sandy’s great passion was education, and she deeply believed that the telling of impactful stories was one of the few things that have ever changed the world. She was always incredibly industrious, very energetic. When it became clear, though, that there was no fighting this last medical challenge, she accepted it with peace, even with a hint of expectation for the opportunity to learn something. She found the energy to attend the Opera America conference in Washington D.C. last spring despite all of our objections to her traveling, and she held fast to hopes of visiting a few beloved places again: Cincinnati, where she had been a professor prior to coming to Houston; Lucca, in Tuscany, where she taught and directed annually for decades; and her home of many years, San Francisco. She had many friends and colleagues in those cities and elsewhere around the world, but the legacy of her artistic life will proudly be here in Houston, where she had an immeasurable effect on hundreds of thousands of students over the course of her years here, many of whom probably don’t know anything about her.
The great motivator of her passion for education was equality. When she discovered high schools in Houston with choruses, bands, orchestras, play analyses classes and instruction in music theory, she was thrilled, and she devised ways to collaborate with them and make them better. But when she also found, just miles from that sort of rigor, schools which had no arts education of any kind, schools forced to choose between a security guard and a nurse, she found ways to help them too. In the face of insurmountable inequities, she authored a diverse set of programs to make inroads to combat them. She thought it better to start somewhere and act rather than wait for the perfect idea and talk about it until you could implement it. Many of the programs she founded have been copied and praised all over the country, held up as models of what is possible.
She was a very spiritual woman, enlightened and empathic. She did not spend a single moment of her life wondering if the glass was half-full or half-empty, because she was too busy telling you about the beauty of the glass. She was a champion of those who had no champion. Though she spent her professional life working in opera, she was not prone to grandeur. Her favorite opera was Puccini’s delicate Suor Angelica. In music, she loved the smaller-scale. She loved poetry because poetry takes emotion down to its essence, removing a barrier, and she loved that.
Several years ago we named our two large rehearsal rooms at the Wortham Theater Center after two historic figures in the history of HGO, Carlisle Floyd and David Gockley. On the night of the dedication, Sandy met Lisa Long. Having worked around the world and traveled constantly all of her life, Sandy always dreamed of what she imagined to be an “ordinary” life: where you come home every night and share your day with your partner, and I know how joyous Sandy was to have had that with Lisa these past years. Ever practical, when Sandy found out that she was ill again, she told Lisa it was okay if she wanted to leave the relationship. Lisa stayed, and her tender care of Sandy right up to the end is a joyous example of what love looks and feels like.
In my memory, Sandy is bathed in Mediterranean sunlight. She loved the Sagrada Familia basilica in Barcelona, and she often spoke about it. As youngsters, we flung ourselves up the towers without even noticing the hundreds of steps—no breathlessness, no sweating— just joy. Construction on Sagrada Familia began in 1882 and it is not yet complete. I think she loved it because she loved things that took a long time to build. She knew that artistic work is never complete and that it never satisfies everyone, two things that not only didn’t bother her, they were motivations.
There was always a quality of Sandy that was about a higher purpose, of something beyond the self. Sandy chose the music on this program, some of it in her final days, some of it years ago, unknowingly, in our early years of friendship. And she loved metaphors and symbols, like the seed paper on which your programs are printed. Take this paper somewhere, place it on the ground, water it, and it will grow. She would love that.
One of the HGOco programs Sandy launched in her first season was a kite project here at Miller Outdoor Theatre, so let us reflect in these final two selections not on the sadness of her passing, but on the joy with which she lived, and the joy she radiated and created in others. Sandy loved the Joni Mitchell song, Both Sides Now, because it is very much her own philosophy. Joni Mitchell’s text says, “old friends are acting strange. They shake their heads and tell me that I have changed, well I have – something’s lost but something’s gained in living every day”.
At the end of the program we ask you to join us on the hill behind the theater to fly kites. We ask that you send them soaring with friends or strangers, accompanied by unforgettable memories of a remarkable woman. Rest in peace, my dear friend.