BWW Cabaret Profile: Vocalist CELIA BERK Draws Her Own Map From Fear to Craft

Profile by Alix Cohen

What would you attempt if you knew you could not fail?

The four-night Mabel Mercer Foundation's annual Cabaret Convention at Lincoln's Center's Rose Hall in late October has become arguably the most important cabaret event of the year. For the most part, it is a star-studded affair featuring celebrated veteran performers and exciting young newcomers. Night four of this year's 25th Convention featured a "Songs of Irving Berlin" theme hosted by the popular Klea Blackhurst, and starring acclaimed cabaret entertainers such as Anita Gillette, Karen Mason, Sidney Myer, Karen Oberlin, and Stacy Sullivan. Also in the lineup was a relatively unknown vocalist named Celia Berk.

Few in the audience that night were aware Berk had recently issued her first CD, was preparing for a run of shows at the Metropolitan Room, or that she'd intermittently appeared on the cabaret scene over the past several years during what is the second half of her life. Even fewer knew that in order for Berk's pilgrimage to live appearance necessitated not only learning performance skills but also overcoming debilitating stage fright. She did both with unusually resolute purpose and creativity. The audience certainly wouldn't have even guessed at any of this once they heard Berk sing. Her rendition of Berlin's "Yiddisha Nightingale" brought down the house.

Celia Berk is practical, organized, and disciplined, adjectives not often associated with artists. She could probably administer a small country. When she's not performing cabaret, she applies her management skills in her full-time job as the Chief Talent Officer at the marketing and communications company, Young & Rubicam. As veteran cabaret star Jeff Harnar, who directed her debut show, notes, "She moves forward with a gentle, but steady, pin-point trajectory." Yet, Celia Berk never intended to perform.

From brief, childhood piano lessons to vocal instruction since junior high school, music coursed through Berk's life so organically she barely recognized its importance. Movie musicals and the American Songbook were shared with her enthusiastic father; she attended opera with her mom. "I took piano, but had no instinct for it," she sighs. "Voice became my instrument."

In 1966, Berk crossed out Ethel Merman's name on a souvenir program of Annie Get Your Gun and wrote in her own. "I was determined to be the First Lady of the American Theater," she says, leaving out the defining word "musical" before theater. Nor did she seek out dramatic training until majoring at Hofstra University--chosen, in part, for the proximity to Manhattan voice lessons. Performing in summer stock followed.

After graduating, the aspiring actress moved to New York where a predictable succession of menial jobs supported auditions. Instead of fueling determination, the experience made her realize that a thespian's lifestyle would not be sufficiently secure. Berk told herself she was just taking a year off and, changing her singular plan, registered at an employment agency. "I'm not sorry I walked away from that life, but I didn't know I wouldn't be sorry."

She found employment as an administration assistant, project manager, and ultimately rose to her current position at Y & R. The voice lessons continued throughout. When Berk's beloved brother died suddenly in 2003, sessions with a grief counselor exposed "either a hole or a space." If a hole, Berk might sink into despair. If perceived as space, she might proactively occupy it. "I thought 'how am I going to make it a space and with what am I going to fill it?'"

Around that time, she was given a paperweight that read: What would you attempt if you knew you could not fail? Instead of reflexively thinking, I would act, she was shocked when her subconscious came up with, I would sing. For years, Berk had practiced the craft more for a kind of spiritual nourishment and pleasure than for any driving ambition. Perhaps it should be more fully explored, she decided. She would fill the space with singing, for the first time acknowledging music as a through-line in her life.

Berk found a vocal coach with whom she could explore interpretation, in addition to the voice teacher who concentrated on technique. She arrived at the coach's apartment an upper range soprano and, immediately asked to take it down a fourth to mezzo, was surprised at her capabilities. "My voice teacher was worried I would lose the top of my range, so I'd sing mostly opera with her and songbook with my coach," she recalls. On evenings and weekends, Berk would travel to her teacher or coach, tired but grateful she could afford the expertise.

One day, about six years ago, Berk met Sarah Rice (the original Johanna in Sweeney Todd), a fellow voice student whose revolving group Broadway Concerts Direct performs professionally in an upstate church once a month. Acknowledging her stage fright, Berk initially refused Rice's invitation to perform with the group, but was eventually convinced the environment was non-threatening. "In theater, you can't see the audience," she says, "There, I got used to people looking back at me."

When arrangements began to waft through her head, referrals lead to renowned Musical Director Alex Rybeck, who has worked with such luminaries as Liz and Ann Hampton Callaway, Faith Prince, and Michael Feinstein. Berk approached the maestro with full disclosure about being a corporate executive who pursued her art at night. "I told him I took it very seriously, but wasn't trying to have a career." He agreed to work with her. "From the start, her intelligence and eagerness were as evident as her musical talent," Rybeck says. After several years of collaboration with Rybeck, he asked, as had her voice teacher and vocal coach, "Are you ever going to do anything with this?"

"Yes," Berk thought. She was ready.

"Now, I wanted to listen to what we were doing with other instruments," Berk recalls. "Alex said, 'When you get some shekels together, we can go into a studio.' I had some shekels." With the addition of a bass, drums, and saxophone, five songs were recorded. Two hours. Two takes each.

Berk would find what has already become her signature number, "Yiddisha Nightingale," in a book of early Irving Berlin. "Yiddisha nightingale, sing me a song/Your voice has got such sweetness that it makes me strong . . . " It reflected her Jewish heritage and reminded her of a great aunt who sang German opera. "Can you imagine what it must have been like to court a young lady who you knew would fill your home with music?" she asks. Rybeck suggested she insert something into the song to illuminate those roots.

Binyumen Schaechter, the Award-winning composer, arranger, and conductor of the Jewish People's Philharmonic Chorus in New York, translated passages of Puccini (which the nightingale would sing) from Italian into English, then into Yiddish, and back into English maintaining remarkable lyric probity and giving Berk a roadmap for delivering the song. Referencing Berk's great aunt Hadassah offers a perfect introduction. Berk sings the English with Lower East Side inflection and comic timing; the translated Yiddish with operatic styling. "I had to learn to perform it without cracking up," she admits, laughing.

Rybeck began taking Berk to cabaret clubs. Among the performers she saw was vocalist, Jeff Harnar, who spoke to her of another era, one "more elegant and polished." Berk asked Harnar to be her Director for a cabaret show the three of them would craft together. "Jeff said, 'Well children, you can't perform the album, it's too quiet. You can use some of it, but you have to earn the right to sing ballads.'"

Still wracked with stage fright, Berk would get up and sing one or two songs at open mics and variety shows. In 2010, she and singer Rich Flanders performed a duo show called Double Standards at Don't Tell Mama. "I thought I was going to die of fright," she admits, and knew something had to be done to conquer her phobia. Approaching the issue with perceptive originality, Berk began working with a Sports Psychologist, Beth Howlett.

"Sports analogies were used to describe how athletes train mentally; their ability to recognize a problem, regroup, and take care of themselves in the heat of the moment," Berk explains. "For a pitcher, the mound is a place of safety. When I performed, the place of dread was the stage. I learned a baseball player sometimes walks off the mound to do whatever works to get focus back. He also doesn't play an entire game in his head. It's one pitch at a time. I wanted to learn how a great athlete stays in his own game."

Maintaining her energy was also an issue. Like many performers, Berk's stomach "doesn't register hunger under stressful circumstances." She consulted with a nutritionist who told Berk she needed to adhere to a 24-hour routine. The vocalist now decides beforehand what she can comfortably ingest that will supply energy, carries it with her when necessary, and makes herself eat. It took a village to create a performer.

Rybeck, Harnar, and Berk took two years to finish the CD at Scott Lehrer's Second Story Sound. (Lehrer co-produced.) They decided to make a virtue of what was jokingly called "A Tantric release." First Berk organized a Facebook page and promoted through social media. Then they made the title track available online. ("Marketing computes to me," Berk says.) The CD was sent to various movers and shakers in the recording and cabaret worlds. One day in March, they stumbled upon Jonathan Schwartz playing it on his iconic WNYC radio show. Then an invited audience heard a portion of the CD in cabaret supporter Susie McLear's gracious living room. New York's Metropolitan Room was booked for Berk's solo debut in late November 2014.

"I was impressed by how methodically and wisely Celia prepared," the seasoned Rybeck admits. "I told her that being past the 'ingénue stage of life' she'd be compared to those who'd spent decades perfecting their talents and that she couldn't afford to look like a beginner. She took that to heart." During off-work hours, Berk spent time acclimating herself to the club stage and practiced with the microphone. She wrote a complete first draft of her own patter and enrolled in a dance class to help get in touch with her body so she'd feel more confident onstage.

Harnar hand delivered Berk's CD to the Mabel Mercer Foundation office. In what he describes as a "kill two birds with one stone attitude," he was asked to put the recording on immediately. As the first song played, all activity in the Foundation's came to a halt. Berk was invited to participate in the final night salute to Irving Berlin. Could she get over her stage fright enough to perform at such a high-profile event in front of a huge audience? The Associate House Manager for Jazz at Lincoln Center gave her access to the stage before the show. "I don't want you to be scared," he told Berk, aware of her phobia, "it's very big and dark." "You mean theater dark?" Berk asked hopefully. "Get outta my way!" She grins widely.

Next on the agenda was debuting her three-show cabaret run, You Can't Rush Spring, named for the Ann Hampton Callaway song on the CD. "By the time we got to show day, I was in a fugue state [meaning calm]. The second night, I was a basket case. Jeff counseled me to not even attempt to repeat my performance. It was very intense, but I understood this was a conversation between the audience and me. By the third show, I thought 'My God, I could do this!'" Reviews were highly receptive. Mine can be found at:

Berk and Rybeck have already begun work on another CD. This one too will be personal. Despite having thought of herself for years as an actress, Berk chooses not to sing in "character" as do most musical theater artists. "I've learned the key to cabaret is intimacy," she says. "If you become an arbitrary character, it gets in the way. Alex and Jeff have shared a lifetime of experience with me."

What does Berk want from all this? "I don't know," she shrugs, "I'm so surprised at the reception. I'd love to sing with a big band, to go back to the studio, to be asked to do interesting musical things . . . " she pauses, "I have a day job." What happens if someone wants to book her in Florida? "I don't know," she laughs, "but it would be a great problem to have."

What would you attempt if you knew you could not fail?

The question signaled an onramp for Celia Berk. Unsure of outcome, the performer was and is determined to create a journey embodying integrity and artistry.

Celia Berk's show, You Can't Rush Spring, will return to The Metropolitan Room on February 8 & 16; March 28 & 29 ( The CD can be secured at:


1. Berk performing her show You Can't Rush Spring at the Metropolitan Room. Copyright Fred Cohen Photography.

2. Berk in her early days performing Kiss Me Kate in Summer Stock and her first actor head shot.

3. Berk (second from left) with Broadway Concerts Direct group.

4. Berk rehearsing with her Musical Director Alex Rybeck.

5. Berk at the Second Story Sound recording studio with CD Co-Producer Scott Lehrer.

6. Berk performing Irving Berlin's "Yiddisha Nightgale" at the 2014 Cabaret Convention at Lincoln Center's Rose Hall. Photo by Maryann Lopinto.


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