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Bertha Melnik, Vocal Coach, Dies at 99

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Longtime Juilliard vocal coach Bertha Melnik died on August 25 in a Manhattan nursing home. She was 99.

Bertha Melnik

Bertha Melnik in Riverside Park a few months before she died.

(Photo by Greta Berman)

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Born May 11, 1914, in Hartford, Melnik attended the Juilliard Graduate School (1934-39), where she studied piano with Alexander Siloti, who had been a student of Liszt. She joined the Juilliard opera faculty as a musical assistant in 1958 and also taught Pre-College piano in the late 1960s. She received faculty emeritus status at Juilliard in 2008 and also taught at the Manhattan School of Music.

A member of the Philharmonic Piano Quartet, Melnik recorded on Columbia Records. She was the pianist and assistant conductor for the original New York production of Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, in 1968, and also conducted a 1981 Town Hall revival of the show. Among the solo artists she accompanied were flamenco dancer José Greco and Juilliard faculty members Bernard Greenhouse (’39, cello) and Dorothy Minty (’33, violin)

Liberal Arts faculty member Greta Berman took a moment to remember her good friend and colleague.

I arrived at Juilliard in 1979 and met Bertha, who was one of Juilliard’s most beloved vocal coaches, on my first day. Perhaps because she had no children, I became like her surrogate daughter. We were inseparable, attending hundreds of concerts together, sometimes as many as three in a night—and that was when she was already well into her 80s. This diminutive but powerful woman was indefatigable. Although I was never Bertha’s student, she taught me how to be a better teacher and human being. She also frequently invited me into her studio to hear coachings of some of the singers with whom she worked. 

Tenor Will Ferguson (B.M. ’99, M.M. ’01), who had sung for her not long before her death, said of her, “I don’t think I’ve ever loved and feared someone as much as Bertha. She had such strength and yet was so sensitive and comforting.” 

Around school, she was noted for posting a big photo of the Count from Sesame Street on the wall of her studio. “Count!” she told singers.

When Bertha and I and others were celebrating her 92nd birthday, at Cafe Arte, a casually dressed Renée Fleming joined us and spent at least a half hour sitting next to Bertha and telling her (and the rest of us) how much she valued her coaching and loved her. Most significantly, Bertha leaves a legacy of gifted singers, including Fleming (’86), Audra McDonald (B.M. ’93), Hei-Kyung Hong (Pre-College ’76, Diploma ’80, Postgraduate Diploma ’82), Faith Esham (B.M. ’76, M.M. ’88), John Aler (’76), Willard White (B.M. ’74), and hundreds of others. She shall be greatly missed.

Gifts in Melnik’s name may be sent to Juilliard. For more information, call (212) 799-5000, ext. 692, or go to juilliard.edu/giving. 

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