Edgewater boy working for a song this summer

12-year-old plans career performing opera roles

July 22, 1999|By Mary Johnson | Mary Johnson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When people ask 12-year-old Zachary Bernhard what he did with his summer, the Edgewater youth can tell them he continued the career he started in December: that of a shepherd boy.

While most kids his age are playing video and soccer, Zach is performing in the opera.

Last December he had the role of Amahl, the crippled shepherd boy, in the Annapolis Chorale's production of "Amahl and the Night Visitors." When Giacomo Puccini's "Tosca" is presented at George Washington University by Opera International on Aug. 6 and 8, he will again be a shepherd boy.

Zach is a boy soprano who does not lose sight of his main goal, which is an operatic career.

"I love it -- the costumes, the music, everything about it," he says. He especially likes Giuseppe Verdi's music, "because his works are about real people and not mythical characters."

Boys who possess soprano voices have a mixed blessing. The voice has a unique quality in terms of strength, brilliance and flexibility. But while the sound of the boy soprano can be dazzling, it is a short-lived phenomenon. What will happen to a male soprano after his voice changes is anybody's guess.

Even during its most beautiful, the voice is sometimes looked upon as freakish and not in the vaunted macho realm.

Zach says unworriedly that opera is "not very hard. I have an hour every week of voice lessons and I practice whenever I have time. It is very relaxing.

"I found that in opera you use a technique of air coming up from your diaphragm, and you sing in a different place, so it's easier in some ways because I don't have to strain, but it's hard because I have to remember the technique."

Zach began performing at age 5 -- he was the ringmaster in his kindergarten class play. As he progressed through elementary school, he performed with Bobbi Smith's Talent Machine and with Children's Theater of Annapolis. Last year his performance opportunities expanded into Baltimore with television work and a role in a play.

Although he has grown busier recently, Zach manages to live a normal life. He maintained a 4.0 average through Broadneck Elementary School and home-schooling. He is an altar boy and plays clarinet and piano.

After moving to a new neighborhood and briefly attending Central Middle School, Zach and his parents -- his father, Larry, is a podiatrist; his mother, Carla, is a former French teacher and a homemaker -- decided that he could move along at a faster academic pace if he were home-schooled.

His performing career made following a regular school schedule all but impossible: He was playing a page in the Center Stage production of "As You Like It," getting home at 11 p.m. and facing homework assignments for the next day at midnight. In March, he started home-schooling with the Calvert School Program and now can go at his own pace while pursuing his career.

Last month Zach returned from a week's study at St. Mary's College Living History Center and within days auditioned for a feature film, "The Replacements," being shot in Baltimore. Between auditions and special courses, Zach studies voice with Carolene Winter and tap and jazz dance with Mary Slater to make him more versatile and more employable in a variety of stage roles.

He talks about performing like an old pro. "It's easier to perform in front of strangers because strangers you may never see again, but when you perform in front of people you know, if you mess up you will be stuck with that mistake for the rest of your life."

When Zach adds the Opera International experience to his growing list of performances, he may persuade other opera companies to give him a chance. After all, Annapolis Opera is planning its own production of "Tosca" in November. Wonder if they need an experienced shepherd boy?

"Tosca" will be presented at 7: 30 p.m. on Aug. 6 and at 4 p.m. on Aug. 8 at George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium. Opera International was formed in 1994 to encourage young people to perform lead roles beside established singers. Aspiring vocalists of all ages join singers of all nationalities in the opera. Tickets are $45, $40 and $30, with $15 discount tickets for students. For information or tickets, call 301- 365-3479.

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