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Addio, Elena Servi

April 2, 2014

The Bay Area's musical community is mourning the passing of San Francisco Opera's beloved veteran Italian language coach Elena Servi Burgess, known as Elena to all.

A flood of response comes from far beyond local boundaries as the singers she had coached and nurtured are now engaged in careers around the world; her Facebook friends list is a veritable who's who in opera today.

Elena Servi in a recent photo Photo by Mark Streshinsky She was in her mid-70s, working extensively through a debilitating illness long after retirement. Her maiden and professional name was Elena Servi, she added the name of UC Berkeley Professor Jackson Burgess during and after her first marriage; for the past two decades, she was married to Martin Friedman. Services have not been set yet by the family. You are invited to use the comments field at the end of the obituary to express your appreciation for her life and work.

Sunday evening (March 30) Elena sent a message to friends:

Dearest, carissimi: My AL Amyloidosis is finally winning my 10-year battle with it. I want to tell you all — family, ex-Merolini, ex-Adlers, singers I have worked with, colleagues at SFO, friends everywhere — how you have sustained me this difficult past year ... I am immensely grateful, my love to all of you.

The next afternoon, she died peacefully in her Berkeley home.

West Edge Opera General Director Mark Streshinsky, a devoted friend since his Merola days long, posted the news on Facebook, quoting her husband that Elena died "as the light came down after a day of dramatic thunderstorms here."

Streshinsky added: "Only a week ago, I spent an hour getting help from her on the text of Monteverdi's]/Il Ritorno d'Ulisse. I will miss her terribly, but know she is watching, and even more likely listening for my correct pronunciation."

Yesterday, the San Francisco Opera chorus interrupted a rehearsal with a moment of silence in Elena's honor.

Elena ServiJonathan Khuner, a longtime colleague and friend, published an essay about her in a West Edge Opera program last year, including this:

She was born in Italy, to a Jewish family which fled Milan for the U.S. at the outbreak of the Second World War, when Elena was a young child. Her family spoke only Italian at home, and after the war they shuttled back and forth between California and Italy. To this firm grounding in Italian culture, Elena added an American education at UC Berkeley, specializing in languages.

Khuner added today:

None of what I wrote really is deep from my personal acquaintance with Elena in the many years we shared at rehearsals, performances, and carpooling together (just the two of us) from the Rockridge area in Oakland.

She was one in a million — I don't remember her doing or saying anything since I met her in 1981 that wasn't with perfect grace, style, and loving appreciation of the whole humanity of the person she was working with or speaking to. She saw me through many a bumpy moment personally and professionally.

West Edge Opera, where the Elena was active as a coach in recent years, will dedicate its next production, Verdi's Aroldo, on May 4, to her memory.

Kip Cranna, SFO Director of Musical Administration, spoke for the company:

Elena worked not only with mainstage singers but also with young artists of the San Francisco Opera Center and the Merola Program. Her wonderfully kind and elegant way of helping singers to perfect their Italian and understand what they were singing about was coupled with a strong and detail-oriented determination to achieve the best possible performances and a true love of the operatic art form.

Her expertise not only with the Italian language itself but also with its literature and traditions was an invaluable help in the development of supertitles in the early 1980s.

Countless singers are in her debt, and her contributions to San Francisco Opera will long be remembered by her many admiring friends and colleagues.

Cranna's statement is borne out by a flood of grieving and grateful messages from singers around the world, past beneficiaries of the coach's teaching and support.

Bass Kevin Langan wrote: "She fought the good fight and now there is a new angel in heaven. Will miss her terribly. She had a heart of gold."

From countertenor Ryan Belongie: "She was an angel to me. I remember her beautiful voice and diction so clearly, but her joy and kindness were the greatest pleasure in knowing her. RIP bellissima Elena."

"She leaves a legacy of pure Italian vowels that will be heard in opera houses around the world for a long time to come."  —Patricia Kristof Moy  Among Streshinsky's recollections: "There is a great moment in the movie In the Shadow of the Stars" when you see Elena discussing a point about Boheme staging with a young Francesca Zambello, who directed the huge production... and Luciano Pavarotti!"

A colleague and friend, SFO French language coach Patricia Kristof Moy told SFCV:

I came to San Francisco Opera in 1977 and we were three: Elena, Nora [Norden], and I became the diction guardians for the company's Italian, German, and French repertoire. Others joined on occasion (Russian, Czech, etc.) but we three covered the bulk of the territory — mainly, of course, Elena.Elena Servi

Before her retirement, the three of us combined represented more than 75 years of language coaching at SFO. That's a lot of Bohèmes, Zauberflötes, and Carmens!

Elena was the real thing: a brilliant scholar, patient teacher and coach, passionate music lover, generous colleague, mentor, and friend to young artists and superstars alike. She leaves a legacy of pure Italian vowels that will be heard in opera houses around the world for a long time to come.

From former SFO Publications Manager Kori Lockhart:

Although I lived in Italy for two years, it is to Elena I went every time I had an Italy-related question I couldn't resolve from books. It always led to a wonderful conversation, even in instances when the answer was not available, such as the time and details regarding the disappearance of the Latin letter "h" from most Italian names and pronunciation.

More than working with individual singers or even groups of Merolini, the really difficult task for a language coach is to help a 60- or 70-voice chorus do the right thing for each of the hundreds of Italian-language performances. As SFO Chorus Director Ian Robertson remembers:

A more caring and inspirational colleague I have yet to meet. Elena had a deep understanding and love for opera, singing, and the Italian language which was on display every day over the many years I had the good fortune to work with her. Her contribution to the success of the S.F. Opera Chorus was and still is singularly palpable.

Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at [email protected].