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Celebrating a grand opera man at 100

Bernard Beaudreau of Garden City South celebrated his

Bernard Beaudreau of Garden City South celebrated his 100th birthday at the Inn at New Hyde Park on Saturday Jan. 27, 2018. A longtime voice teacher, Beaudreau spent five years as a professional Radio City Music Hall singer. He also founded and directed the Island Lyric Opera Company. Credit: Jessica Rotkiewicz

When Bernard Beaudreau arrived at the Inn at New Hyde Park on the weekend of his 100th birthday, he walked into the restaurant expecting to enjoy a simple repast with family. Instead he stepped into a party scene reminiscent of “La Traviata,” one of the operas he produced during his days with the Island Lyric Opera Company, as 50 guests, including former voice students and leading ladies of the Garden City South man, were waiting inside a decorated party room.

They surprised him by singing “Happy Birthday” the way it might be voiced at the Metropolitan Opera. Then they drank a Champagne toast, clinking glasses as a trio performed “Libiamo,” the famous drinking song from “La Traviata.”

Beaudreau waved at the crowd, and paused to give a special hello to James Besser, a friend from his opera company and the day’s piano accompanist, before sitting at the head of a table with his wife, Bernadette.

Even with no baton or podium, Beaudreau was still the maestro, conducting from his seat by moving his hands to the tempo. A passion for music is the secret to his longevity, he says. “If you like music, do it, and work hard at it,” Beaudreau told his guests.

A few days later in a telephone interview, Beaudreau said, “My love of music and my ability to bring music to others is what helped to keep me young. Without music, life would be empty.”

Life has indeed been a full glass for Beaudreau, who made a living singing, teaching and bringing the high art form he loves to the suburbs as the founder of the Island Lyric Opera Company. As artistic director of the Garden City South-based company from 1977 to 2009, Beaudreau put on dozens of operas a year, mainly at public libraries as well as special events attended by hundreds of opera lovers.

“His whole premise of starting the opera company was so that people who would never have the opportunity to see opera would experience this beautiful art form,” says Bernadette, 81, who still works as vice president of personal lines insurance for Insight Companies Inc., in Melville.

BIRTH OF AN IMPRESARIO

Beaudreau was born on Jan. 26, 1918, in Sainte-Victoire-de-Sorel, Quebec, where his father was a milkman. Beaudreau was 2 when his father was killed in a robbery while making his rounds, and Beaudreau’s mother had to work as a seamstress to support him and his five siblings. Beaudreau always had a desire to make music, though he started by studying guitar, a good fit with his original dream of being a country music singer. When Beaudreau was in his 20s, the family moved to Putnam, Connecticut, where he fell in love with opera after seeing the 1936 Jeanette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy movie “Rose Marie.” He convinced his mother to relocate the family to Jackson Heights, so he could take opera lessons in Manhattan.

Beaudreau developed his bass-baritone with renowned American voice teacher Samuel Margolis, who mentored opera great Robert Merrill. Beaudreau worked as Margolis’ chauffeur to defray the cost of lessons.

“He [Beaudreau] had a very big voice,” Bernadette says.

For five years during the 1950s, Beaudreau sang with the Radio City Music Hall Glee Club, performing in the Christmas Spectacular and other Rockettes shows. In the late ’50s he began giving voice lessons and opened a studio in Carnegie Hall, eventually moving his studio to Garden City.

“When I started working with him, I had this little voice,” says onetime student Abbie Hattauer, 68, formerly of West Hempstead. When Hattauer, who now lives in Alpharetta, Georgia, needed to expand her vocal range, Beaudreau made her sing facing a wall so she couldn’t see the high notes he was playing on the piano. Her voice became rich enough to perform mezzo-soprano roles in eight operas, including Suzuki in “Madama Butterfly.”

“If you came in and had a very small voice, he would train you and build your voice to the stamina you needed to perform,” Bernadette says.

The couple, who have been married for 47 years, met at St. Sebastian Roman Catholic Church in Woodside, where he was a paid singer and she was in the choir. Bernadette had been hoping to find a teacher to cultivate her voice for a career in musical comedy. “I hated opera,” she says.

That changed after Beaudreau invited her to an opera in Manhattan’s Central Park. A year later, he won her hand by proposing with a rendition of “If Ever I Should Leave You” from “Camelot.”

AN OPERATIC OPENING

Marriage prompted Beaudreau to finally get down to forming his own opera company in 1977, in part to showcase his wife’s talents as a soprano specializing in lyric coloratura. In a whirlwind four months, scores were learned and parts cast, sets and costumes were assembled, a schedule was set and the first production debuted by May of that year. There was no money for luxuries such as a lawyer, so Bernadette studied the legalities at the local public library and filed the incorporation paperwork herself and then applied for arts grants.

“We worked together at home,” Bernadette said. “He was the inspiration. He would hand me a score and say, ‘This is the opera we’re going to be doing.’ ” With Beaudreau conducting, she sang many of the great roles of French and Italian opera.

Bernadette “was always the best prepared, the best singer onstage with her beautiful voice, and the best actress,” Hattauer said.

Hattauer and Bernadette also made costumes for the men and women, which was a task. “In ‘Merry Widow,’ all the men had to have matching vests and cummerbunds,” Hattauer said. Beaudreau did just about everything else.

“It was a full-time job” for Beaudreau says Besser, 62, of Manhattan, a freelance musician and vocal coach who provided piano accompaniment for many of the productions. “He had to rehearse the singers, select the operas, contact the libraries.”

“He held the whole thing together,” Hattauer says. “The show had to go on, no matter what.”

At their first performance at the YMCA in Franklin Square, Hattauer says, “The windows of the auditorium were open and the people who could not get in were standing on the top of their cars to see and hear it.” Next came a weekend of performances of “Madama Butterfly’ at the Plainview Library.

In its heyday, the company performed 30 operas and concerts annually at a dozen public libraries, parks such as Steppingstone in Kings Point, and on the road, including Massachusetts and Canada. In 1993, the Island Lyric Opera Company performed at the grand reopening ceremonies of the expanded Roosevelt Field.

A near-fatal bout of pneumonia in 2009 forced Beaudreau to retire at age 91, ending the company’s 32-year run. Bernadette declined offers to sing with other opera companies. “It wouldn’t have been the same without him,” she says.

At the birthday party, Hattauer and others read tributes to their former teacher and opera boss. Hattauer serenaded Beaudreau with “Mon Coeur S’ouvre à Ta Voix (My Heart Opens to Your Voice)” from “Samson and Delilah.” But she changed the French-language lyrics to “We love you, Bernard, we love you.”

She held Beaudreau’s hands, and he raised his arms the way he used to when, Hattauer says, he wanted her to “sing with everything you’ve got.”

At home a week later, Beaudreau was still feeling the afterglow of the nostalgic afternoon.

“My greatest joy was to bring music to as many people as possible,” he told his wife. “I love opera and my mission was to share that joy with everyone.”

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