Obituary: Karel Berman

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The Independent Online
Karel Berman, singer, producer, director, composer, pianist: born Jinrichuv Hradec 14 April 1919; three times married (one daughter); died Prague 11 August 1995.

With the death of Karel Berman, Czech opera has lost one of the last of its great male soloists of the post-war era, a group which included Beno Blachut, Dalibor Jedlicka, Vilem Pribyl and Ivo Zidek. All of these were among the casts of the Czech operas (and Slovak opera) which the Prague National Theatre brought to the Edinburgh Festivals of 1964 and 1970, visits which remain among the operatic highlights in that festival's 50-year history. Berman made memorable contributions as singer and actor - as the President of the Court in Cikker's Resurrection, Vodnik in Dvorak's Rusalka, and four bass roles in Janacek operas: Dikoy in Katya Kabanova, the Little Prisoner in The House of the Dead, Kolenaty in The Makropulos Case and Wurfl/Caroskvouci in The Excursions of Mister Broucek.

Although he first made his name at the National Theatre in Prague and internationally in buffo roles, of which his Leporello in Mozart's Don Giovanni was a great portrayal, Berman won recognition of his ability in serious roles and his innate acting ability with his performance of Dr Kolenaty in Janacek's The Makropulos Case in 1956. In 45 years, Berman sang over 120 operatic roles in some 3,500 performances, as well as over 600 concert recitals. He was small and delicate in stature and certainly not the typical sturdy-looking bass. His voice was not that of the basso profondo, of a Gottlob Frick, but was strong and with a fine upper register, which made him a good Boris in Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov or Beckmesser in Wagner's Die Meistersinger.

Berman will be remembered not only for his Leporello and Boris but also for many tragic roles in Verdi, a powerfully portrayed Doctor in the 1959 Prague production of Berg's Wozzeck and his wonderful acting and singing in the operas of Smetana, Dvorak and Janacek. Martinu also featured in his repertoire, and he sung in The Greek Passion and The Plays of Mary several times between 1987 and 1990.

Berman was blessed with an instinctively accurate and musical technique. No doubt this allowed him to concentrate on getting inside the parts he was projecting and to which his great ability as an actor also contributed. Indeed, he could have had an equally successful career in the theatre and he is reputed to have been a fine dancer. His talent he passed on to his daughter, Jana Bermanova, today a successful actress in the Czech Republic. He contributed to contemporary Czech music not only as a composer but in writing the libretto for Ivo Jirasek's opera Medved a klic ("The Bear and the Key"). During the 1985 Prague Spring Festival he took the part of Sasek (the Jester) in Jirasek's opera Mistr Jeronym, a role which required him to be on stage for most of the opera but often only as an observer. Here his acting was superb, always involved, ever present but never obtrusive; it reminded me of this same quality in Alastair Sim. In a half-filled opera house to a largely unappreciative audience, he gave a performance which would have earned him a standing ovation in any of the world's great opera houses.

Berman was born in Jindrichuv Hradec, in southern Bohemia, and received his first training in music theory and piano from his father, Rudolf Berman, before studying piano there further with Ruzena Mukova from 1928 to 1937 and then with Vladimir Polivka. In the following year he entered the Prague Conservatory, studying singing under Egon Fuchs before his studies were interrupted in 1940 by the Nazi occupation. His Jewish origins meant that he spent the years 1942-45 in concentration camps, during which time and under terrible conditions he managed to involve himself in as much music as was humanly possible. Even as early as 1940 he was in the first Jewish camp at Lipa, in south-east Bohemia, already organising music there before his release. From September 1941 all Jewish artists were prohibited from performing but this did not stop Berman, who changed his name to Frantisek Havlas in order to conduct the choir in his home town and give recitals in Prague.

In 1942 he was re-arrested and sent to the camp at Terezin, 30 miles north-west of Prague. Here he became involved in all the incredible musical activities organised by the prisoners under unbelievable conditions, not only singing and playing the piano but conducting, opera directing and composing. In the camp were many fine musicians including the conductors Karel Ancerl and Rafael Schachter, the composers Paval Haas, Gideon Klein, Hans Krasa and Victor Ullmann, the pianists Alice Herz Sommer and Edith Steiner-Kraus, as well as the violinist Egon Ledec. By the time Berman arrived the inmates had begun to organise music, including opera, Smetana's The Bartered Bride being the first choice. In this he sang the role of Kecal for 25 performances.

It fell to Berman to conduct the girls' choir in Terezin, and he also took part in the cabaret shows there of Karal Svenk. In 1943 Smetana's Hubicka ("The Kiss") was added to the camp repertoire, in which Berman sang the part of Father Paloucky in 15 performances. Mozart entered their repertoire with The Magic Flute, with Berman as Sarastro in seven performances. He took part also in The Marriage of Figaro, Carmen, Wilhelm Blodek's V Studni ("In the Well"), as Janak, and produced Pergolesi's La serva padrona. Perhaps the most famous of all the Terezin operas was Der Kaiser von Atlantis ("The Emperor of Atlantis"), written for the camp's musical forces by Viktor Ullmann and making a thinly veiled criticism of Nazi activities. The role of Death was written for Berman and the work reached rehearsal before the Nazis tumbled to its message. Within days, on 16 October 1944, many of the cast, musicians and the composer were on the next transport to Auschwitz. Of these, only Karel Ancerl avoided entering the gas chambers the following day.

Berman had been taken to Auschwitz some days earlier, on 28 September. Like Ancerl, being young and fit, he avoided death by telling the dreaded Josef Mengele that he was a "worker" and not, like the others, admitting to being an artist. Berman wrote his memoirs in which he vividly and chillingly described life in Terezin, Auschwitz, as well as the Kauffering camps II and IV and Allach by Dachau to which he was moved towards the end of the year. Berman finally returned to Czechoslovakia on 2 May 1945.

Picking up his life, Berman returned to the Prague Conservatoire in 1946 and continued his singing studies with Jan Hilbert Vavra and Apollo Granforte, as well as opera production with Ferdinand Pujman and conducting with Pavel Dedecek. He was engaged by the opera at Opava until 1948 when he went as a soloist and producer to Plzen. Here he stayed until 1953 when he returned to Prague as a soloist of the National Theatre, with which he was associated to the end of his life.

As a mature recitalist Berman appeared first in Prague in September 1947 but he had sung many recitals in Terezin of Beethoven, Schubert, Wolf, Smetana, Dvorak and other Czech composers, as well as his own songs and those written for him by the camp's composers. It was for him at Terezin, between February and April 1944, that Pavel Haas wrote his Four Songs on Chinese Verse which Berman first performed there in the May. He continued to sing this cycle and I heard him perform it three times in the past four years, including once at the first of the Musica Iudaica festivals in Prague and for the last time only in May this year at Terezin. A commemoration of the liberation of the camp was organised. Survivors from that time came from all over the world. The opening concert on 2 May 1995 began with Berman singing the Haas songs written for him there 50 years earlier. The voice was old but yet firm and with good tone. The emotion in the interpretation was unforgettable.

Berman studied composition with Rudolf Karel and Viktor Ullmann in Terezin. In March and April 1944 he wrote his Three Songs for high voice and piano and a cycle of four songs, Poupata ("Flower Buds"), for bass and piano. At this time also he wrote Terezin, a suite for piano, which he revised up to 1984 with the new title Suite for Piano Solo 1939-1945, as well as an orchestral march. In later life he also wrote music for the theatre. His talent as an accompanist emerged in Terezin.

From 1961 to 1971 Berman taught at the Prague Conservatoire and from 1961, until his retirement at 75, at the Prague Academy of Musical Arts. Although created a National Artist at home in 1982, he was not as well known abroad as he should have been. He produced some 50 operas and some of these were for houses in Berlin, Leipzig, and Gothenburg, where he was also a guest soloist, as he was in Austrian, Italian and other German theatres. Prizes did not interest him but it was gratifying that he was awarded the Italia Prize in 1994 and the Vienna Fidelio Medal earlier this year.

Berman was widely educated and a good linguist. He was essentially sensitive and modest, and remembered the war years with sadness but never with bitterness. In recent years he again suffered personal tragedy when he was badly injured in a serious car accident in which his second wife, Hana Bohmova, was killed. His essential gentleness was clear from the kindness with which he always greeted people and the tact with which he offered kindly criticism of the performance of others.