Magazine article Opera Canada

Mario Bernardi

Magazine article Opera Canada

Mario Bernardi

Article excerpt

It's 17th century, he tells me. English--at least, England is where he bought it--and something of a marvel of marquetry. We are in Mario Bernardi's home, in Toronto's Forest Hill neighborhood, staring at a tall cabinet, its surface a riot of rich veneers in patterns extravagantly floral, and he is taking some pleasure in opening its doors for me, revealing yet smaller doors within, and drawers of various sizes and shapes, all of them yet more richly and meticulously decorated. Doors opening to other doors opening a rich and varied history--rather the way I would come to think of Mario Bernardi himself.

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He's a stout, genial fellow--rather Papa Geppetto-ish, right down to the twinkle in the eye--and, at 74, has the audacity to look a good 10 years younger (I can't help but notice, over years of meeting musicians, how a career in music seems to impede the aging process). He hums a bit to himself as we head upstairs to his studio, a large, bright, second-floor room featuring a piano at dead centre, and he remarks that, like everybody else, he can't seem to get tunes out of his head, and at the moment it's Cavaradossi's aria, "Recondita armonia," from Tosca, which leads him to pick the tune out on the piano, which reminds him of the time he conducted the opera in Vancouver and the tenor was Placido Domingo and the soprano became indisposed and he had to replace her and the only substitute he could find was a woman who could sing the role only in German. Which he proceeds to imitate, with a lot of comical gutturals--remembering that she did suddenly switch, in performance, to Italian for "E avanti a lui tremava tutta Roma!"

Opera has played a large part in Bernardi's life, though it was not a childhood passion. He was born August 20, 1930, in Kirkland Lake, Ontario--not a hot town for opera--but had the good fortune to be the son of recent Italian immigrants who were intent on connecting him to Italian cultural history and language. When he was six years old, his father packed him off, along with his mother and two younger siblings, to Treviso in Italy, a town not far from his parents' town of Asolo, near Venice. Good choice of locale--the region is famously beautiful. Bad timing--World War II was about to begin. He recalls that he didn't much want to leave Canada, but was persuaded by the promise of a piano when they got to Treviso, and lessons from his uncle, a local priest.

It was a bit of a ruse; the promised piano turned up in Treviso two years after they did, and only, he says, as the result of much childish pestering. That piano would have an adventurous life. On Good Friday, 1944, 13-year-old Mario Bernardi, his mother and his brother and sister were in nearby Asolo, visiting relatives. At 1:15 that afternoon, the Americans bombed Treviso, destroying many of the city's historic buildings and killing thousands. Bernardi remembers that "on Easter Monday, we went back, expecting the worst. But our building wasn't badly damaged, and the piano was intact, and we had to take it by horse and buggy back to Asolo, where we moved." He also remembers the war as a time of great privation, of seeing German tanks approach Asolo--and then turn away at the gates, daunted by the town's narrow streets. It was, though, also a time of great learning for the boy. He studied piano, organ and composition at the Manzato Conservatory in Treviso, graduating at 15, that year's youngest graduating student and the lad with the highest marks. (He would encounter Italian bureaucracy that same year; his teacher had to travel to Rome to obtain permission for him to continue his studies. He'd been told it was against the rules for someone his age.) And opera? Not much. He saw just one, Il barbiere di Siviglia, in Treviso, though it did star Gino Becchi.

That would change after he returned to Canada in 1947, the real beginning of the many-doored and many-drawered life of Mario Bernardi. …

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