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Aspen Music Festival Opera Director Dies Hours Before Performance

July 19, 2021 | By Nicholas Beard, Musical America

Aspen Music Festival dedicated its July 17 performance of Mozart's The Magic Flute to its director, Edward Berkeley, who died unexpectedly hours before the curtain went up. Berkeley had been the Aspen Music Festival and School Opera Program Director and was in his 40th season on faculty at the Festival.

The news was announced from the stage in the Benedict Music Tent moments before the performance was due to begin. “The entire cast, orchestra and AMFS artist-faculty and staff are channeling their emotion into the performance tonight that we are dedicating to him, and it is an emotional moment,” Music Fest President and CEO Alan Fletcher told the audience.

According to the Aspen Police Department and the Pitkin County Coroner’s office, Berkeley, 76, was found unresponsive by a colleague at home in Aspen late on Saturday afternoon and was already dead when medical personnel arrived. The cause of death will be determined by an autopsy, expected to be performed Monday July 19.

The cast and orchestra were backstage when they learned of his death just 15 minutes before they were due to perform. Fletcher, AMFS Music Director Robert Spano, and Board Chair Michael Klein shared the news of Berkeley’s passing on stage and led the audience in a moment of silence before the opera commenced.

“However strange it may seem on the surface, to have The Magic Flute upon hearing this news is a testament to the joy he gave all of us and the ebullience of this music speaks to the ebullience he brought to his students and the genius he brought to Aspen every year,” Spano told the audience. “We are all going to miss him terribly.”

A respected director and educator

Berkeley directed a mix of opera classics and new works in Aspen. He also mentored generations of emerging singers each summer. An apparently fit and healthy stage director, he was known for conducting rehearsals in his signature shorts, high socks, and sneakers and was famous for riding around Aspen on a bicycle. He was also known as an opera and theater director in his home city of New York where he was also a longtime faculty member at The Juilliard School.

Berkeley was the founder and first Artistic Director of the Willow Cabin Theater Co. where in 1993 he directed the Tony-nominated revival of the play Wilder, Wilder, Wilder. He also taught Shakespeare at the Circle in the Square Theater School and Pace University and worked with orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic, Atlanta Symphony, and Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra.

For most of his time in Aspen, Berkeley served as director of the Aspen Opera Theater Center. Rebranded this year as Aspen Opera Theater and VocalARTS, the program is now being managed by co-Directors Renée Fleming and Patrick Summers. Berkeley had been announced as staying on board as Stage Director. “This was Ed’s 40th summer with the festival, and his contributions to the institution and to the young singers he nurtured in the program are immeasurable,” Fletcher said. “We will be fully recognizing him in the days to come, and his presence here will truly be felt for all time.”

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