A Success Story

by Jay Bernfeld (with Mary Hammann, violist)

Jay Bernfeld, now a successful, sophisticated Parisian, started out as a New York City kid, in 1960s Queens. His music career brought him to Europe as a young adult in the 1970s and he never left. He plays viola da gamba with Fuoco e Cenere, the period instrumental ensemble he founded decades ago in Paris.

Jay studied violin and went to the High School of Music and Art, the precursor of LaGuardia High School, when it was on 135th Street.

The cast list for La Bohème, December 30, 1965

The cast list for La Bohème, December 30, 1965

As a kid, my friends and I spent our free time wandering the city. If we had a day off, we’d head to Broadway and get tickets for a show, or just hang out in Manhattan. In 1965, I happened to walk by the old Met on West 39rd Street and Broadway. On the outside, it seemed like a dirty, old building, but the crowd drew me there. I asked what was going on and spent $1.25 for the performance that night. And that was it; I was hooked. It was Bohème, starring Renata Tebaldi and Sándor Kónya. I even remember the exact date: December 30, 1965. At the moment of Mimi’s entrance, I was transfixed. I lived this moment. Voices can do something that instruments cannot do. They activate your own resonances and stir emotions from deep within. Tebaldi did this to me. Even today, the beginning notes of that opera fill me with indescribable joy.

Jay Bernfeld with Renata Tebaldi, c. 1965

Jay Bernfeld with Renata Tebaldi, c. 1965

Following the performance I ran into a friend, Lenny Hindell, a bassoonist in the MET Orchestra, leaving the house. He graciously took me backstage to meet Tebaldi. She was one of the loveliest people I have ever met, a queen of opera, and yet so approachable. That meeting marked the beginning of a long and wonderful friendship. After that day, I always came backstage to see her. It’s amazing how we could just walk backstage after a performance. It was a wide-open world for me.

From then on, I went to the Met almost every Saturday afternoon. That half-year before the old Met closed, I saw Leontyne Price, Richard Tucker, Roberta Peters, Cesare Siepi, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, and Jan Peerce, just to name a few.

Leontyne Price in the title role of Aida (Photo by Louis Melancon/Metropolitan Opera)

Leontyne Price in the title role of Aida (Photo by Louis Melancon/Metropolitan Opera)

On February 12, 1966, Price and Tucker were performing the Aida matinee. I was suffering from pneumonia, so my mother sent me to the doctor, not the opera. Luckily for me, our family physician was a huge opera fan. He had put himself through medical school working at the Louis Sherry Café in the old Met. Of course, he was not going to let me miss that Aida, and diagnosed me as fit to go.

To fund my opera habit, I busked on the street with my violin. I played in front of City Center (where I met Marcel Marceau) and on 53rd Street, in front of St. Thomas’s church. The police would kick us off the street, but Sexton Jones gave us the permission to play there on a sliver of church land. If busking went really well, I’d splurge on a really good seat that night for $17.85.

The old Met was a theater that everyone felt very attached to. There were a lot of petitions signed, trying to save it. We felt this was the end of an era. I waited two or three days, sleeping overnight on line, to get ticket for the last performance at the old house. A lot of stars came by to visit us. One morning Anna Moffo brought us hot coffee and doughnuts. 

I also went to opening night at the new house and saw every opera that first week: Gioconda with Tebaldi, Frau ohne Schatten, and Turandot with Birgit Nilsson and Moffo. The new opera house was an impressive place architecturally, with so many great performances. So many possibilities. The Met is a success story as new opera houses go. In the end, it’s not about the gilding or the bricks in the building. It’s about what happens there.