Singing and Swinging (a Bat) in Bern
Kim Hays
September 2003 
After 23 years in Bern’s opera company, Charles Vail will be going home to the United States at the end of the 2003-2004 theater season. When he leaves, the city will lose not only a good tenor but a dedicated baseball coach.

Not too many professional opera singers play baseball, but both music and sports have been part of Chuck Vail’s life since he was a boy growing up in Illinois, and, luckily, he has never had to choose between them. As a young man, Vail never planned to become a singer. In fact, when he graduated from high school, he had no idea what he wanted to be. But his father was a veterinarian, so he enrolled in a two-year pre-vet program at Iowa State University, planning to attend the four-year vet school afterwards.

Before he left for college, he promised his mother that he would go over to the music department and audition for them. The result was a stipend that covered the cost of his voice lessons during college.

“I had an excellent singing teacher in high school,” Vail says, “and in my senior year I was Professor Hill in the school production of The Music Man. I was also on baseball teams at every stage of growing up: Little League, Pony League, high school, and college. But I never thought seriously of music as a career, anymore than I did baseball.”

The prospective veterinarian took physics and math, which he enjoyed, and organic chemistry, which he hated. And he sang. He was in a rock band and a madrigal group, as well as some musical-theater productions. Then came the moment of truth.

“I realized toward the end of the two-year program that I didn’t have good enough grades to get into vet school. So what was I to do? Iowa State’s other big program was agriculture, and I didn’t see myself as a farmer. So I transferred to the music department and finished up my college years there. That’s when I started to sing great parts—solos in the Messiah, the role of Goro in Madama Butterfly, and lots of others. Suddenly, it became possible to imagine music as a career.”

From Iowa to Austria

Vail married in 1974, then went on to the University of Nebraska for a Masters and to the University of Iowa for a PhD in music. There he did his dissertation on Mozart’s The Magic Flute. During his last year at Iowa, Rudolf Knoll, an Austrian from the Salzburg Mozarteum Conservatory of Music, came to teach a Master Class.

“I owe my success as a professional singer to Knoll,” says Vail. “In Iowa he told me, ‘I can improve your voice. Why don’t you come to Salzburg and work with me?’ So my wife and I moved there in 1979. Knoll had a good ear and was a very good technician, and he taught me a lot.”

Like most professional musicians, Vail dreamed of a solo career. In 1980 he went to Vienna to audition for an agent who was going to help him find jobs as a soloist. He and his wife had just had their first child, and he needed work.

“The chorus director from Bern’s opera was at my audition in Vienna, and he said to me, ‘Look, I desperately need a tenor. So you don’t have to look for a job—if you’ll come to Bern for the next season, you’re hired on the spot.’”

Being in the chorus at Bern’s Stadttheater doesn’t mean standing in the wings singing background music. In Bern only the two or three most important solo parts in each production are given to guest artists. The rest of the roles are filled by members of the chorus. So Vail knew he’d have a chance to sing some interesting parts. He took the job.

“My contract said I started on August 1, and we drove to Bern in an old Austin Morris and arrived on July 31. I had no idea that August 1 was a Swiss holiday, so I got up early the next morning and went to the theater to start work. I couldn’t figure out why it was all locked up. It turned out everything was closed for summer vacation until August 15.”

Opera Roles

Vail’s last year at the Berner Stadttheater is also its 100th anniversary season. The 2003-2004 season opens on September 5 with Tannhäuser, the first opera performed there 100 years ago. Vail appears in small parts, as a dignitary and pilgrim. But he has had a variety of more substantial roles over the years.

“I think one of my greatest successes in Bern was singing the Prince in Alban Berg’s Lulu. But even better was playing both Tamino and the evil slave Monostatos in an adaptation of The Magic Flute for children,” Vail says. “I did it in Bern and on tour in Mannheim. In fact, when you combine my experience as a professional in Bern with all my years of singing as a student, I’ve sung every tenor part in that opera!”

“The most interesting and enjoyable opera roles I’ve ever had were as a student. Some of my favorites were Count Almaviva, the romantic lead in The Barber of Seville; Rinuccio in Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi; and Nika Magadoff, a magician in Gian-Carlo Menotti’s The Consul. The magician was especially fun because I got to perform magic tricks as well as sing.”

Vail remembers with pleasure working under Edgar Kelling, who came to Bern as the director of the musical theater in 1981 and was there for nine years. “For a singer, Bern was an exciting place to be in those days. We performed with lots of famous guest stars, including Plácido Domingo, and the work was very interesting. Today at the Berner Stadttheater there is a great need to rationalize and save money, to make everything more efficient. But the solution seems to be to spend more money on administrators and less on the artistic staff. The performers themselves seem to be growing less and less important to the operation as a whole. And yet surely it’s the business of a theater to present the best artistic performers to the public that it can afford.”

The director of the Berner Stadttheater, Eike Gramss, is in charge of all three branches of Bern’s theater: acting, music, and dance. To save money, all three branches are cutting down on numbers of performances, although dance has been suffering the most. After the 100th anniversary season, neither Félix Duméril, the director of the ballet, nor Miguel Gomez-Martinez, the director of the musical theater, will return. The latter will be replaced by Srboljub Dinic, the current — and well-liked — Kapellmeister at the Stadttheater.

Life in the Chorus

Bern’s musical theater stages an average of seven productions a year, with a total of 100 to 120 performances. In addition to two or three guest soloists for the top roles, there is also a guest conductor who prepares the piece musically, rehearses it with the cast and orchestra, and conducts it during its first run. When the piece is performed again later in the season, it is usually directed by an in-house conductor.

“During a typical month,” says Vail, “we may be working on five different productions at once. We are learning the music for one up-coming show, rehearsing on stage for another, and performing something that has just opened, plus doing one or two other, familiar productions from the season’s repertoire.”

After so many years in the Bern chorus, there aren’t many well-know operas that Vail hasn’t done — and some more than once, albeit in different productions. He has performed in Carmen, La Traviata, and Nabucco twice, and this season’s upcoming productions of Tannhäuser and Boccaccio will both be repeats for him. But he enjoys it all nonetheless, he says. And if he needs a break from opera, there’s always baseball to provide a little excitement.

The Bern Cardinals

In the mid-eighties, a few years after his arrival in Bern, Vail was riding his bicycle past Bern’s Commons when he saw some men practicing baseball. He stopped and found out that they were a team called the Bad Socks that practiced on Tuesday nights. Through them, Vail learned that Switzerland had a national baseball league with both A- and B-rated teams, as well as three youth leagues: juniors (aged 16-18), cadets (aged 13-15), and juveniles (aged 12 and under).

“I’d had a lot of experience playing baseball,” Vail remembers, “and I could see that the Bad Socks were well-named — they were pretty bad ball players! They told me they were a B-rated team losing most of their games. So I gave them my phone number and told them to get in touch if they wanted me to coach them. Soon after that one of them called.”

It wasn’t long before Vail turned the team around, and then they needed a new name. He had always been a fan of the St. Louis Cardinals, the nearest big-city team to Hillsboro, Illinois, where he grew up. So what better name could there be for the newly successful team? It became the Bern Cardinals.

“Our first season was 1987, and that year we came in second in the B League. The next year we moved up to A and we’ve stayed there ever since, playing against teams in Zurich, Basel, Lucerne, Geneva, and other Swiss cities. We’ve also started a woman’s softball team that competes throughout the country. Today, I only coach kids, which is what I really enjoy, and a guest coach from the States works with the Cardinals.”

Home to the US

Vail is now divorced and lives with his two kids, Chuck (22) and Alicia (20). But he has recently become engaged to a woman who lives in Sacramento, California, and will be moving there in the summer of 2004, when the current opera season is over.

“I love Bern, and I’ve been very happy living here,” he says. “But it’s time to go back to the US, after all these years. Of course I’m glad to be going home to get married. But I’m also going back to be near my parents. Both are well, I’m glad to say, but they are close to 80, and I’ve been far away from them for a long time now. I owe them a lot—they supported me for years while I was studying music, and I’ll always feel grateful to them for that. Now I need to spend more time with them.”

In the States, Vail plans to continue his musical career as a teacher, not a singer. “Not only can I teach voice, but also diction, which means learning to pronounce all the words in a song clearly and correctly, whatever language they are in. And I know a lot about staging productions. So I think I’ll be busy in Sacramento.”

Vail’s children, who have lived all their lives in Bern, will probably stay in Switzerland, at least for the time being. “I’ll miss them,” he says, “but I have to give them up sometime, and I’m convinced that they’ll do a good job of making their own ways in life.”

Just as he himself did when he left the Midwest to move to Europe with his wife in 1979. But maybe 25 years as an expat is long enough. Chuck Vail has decided that it is.


Bern opens the hundredth anniversary of its Stadttheater on September 5th with a production of Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser.


Memorial Day 2006: Crowds pay tribute to sacrifice, history
By Niesha Lofing -- Bee Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 30, 2006                                                                 

Monday's Memorial Day observances were a chance to grapple with memories of wars and lives lost recently and long ago. From Davis to Cameron Park, dozens of Memorial Day events drew thousands of people who came out to honor the war dead. One of the largest was a late-morning tribute at Mount Vernon Memorial Park and Mortuary. Nearly 3,000 veterans, families and others gathered under crystal clear skies to participate in the 39th annual event, which included a jet flyover and a flag-folding ceremony.

Perhaps the most moving part of the ceremony, however, was prompted by a glitch in the sound system. Just as Charles Vail began to sing "God Bless America," his microphone stopped working. He continued, and as he reached the third line: "Stand beside her and guide her," the crowd's voices joined in, overcoming the need for a microphone and making the finale more moving.

Jon and Jan Edwards attended the event in honor of their son, Pfc. Andrew Edwards, an Army combat medic who is stationed in Fort Bragg, N.C., and slated to go to Iraq or Afghanistan in eight months. For the Orangevale parents, the ceremony drove home the sacrifices their son and thousands of other military men and women may face. "It's hard, but we're very proud," Jan Andrews said.

Elsewhere in the region, events meant to relay the historical underpinnings of the holiday also drew crowds.

At the Sacramento Historic City Cemetery at Broadway and 10th Street, about 50 people gathered Monday morning for the Civil War cemetery tour, a rong history lesson through the grave sites of the Union and Confederate soldiers buried there.

Memorial Day was originally known as Decoration Day and began during the Civil War era. when women's groups decorated the graves of fallen soldiers. The day was officially declared Memorial Day in May of 1868. In 1971, Congress declared it a national holiday to be celebrated the last Monday in May.

At the Sacramento cemetery, Chuck Davis regaled visitors with stories of soldiers such as William Stephen Hamilton -- the youngest son of the famous Federalist Alexander Hamilton and the cemetery's most "restless resident." He died once, was dug up twice and buried three times, Davis said.

As he led the group down meandering paths between family crypts and plots, Davis asked: "Do you know why the Confederate markers have pointy tops on them?" "To keep the damned Yankees from sitting on them," he said. The tour was an interesting take on Memorial Day traditions, said Valerie Bohling.

"It's a pretty good tour -- lots of history," she said.

History was also part of the day's celebration at Mount Vernon Memorial Park. Doroteo Cruz, a retired U.S. Army sergeant who served in World War II, recalled painful memories of his years fighting in Europe.

For years, Cruz avoided Memorial Day events, but he recently began attending the ceremony at Mount Vernon. The ceremony also got him thinking about lives lost during the war in Iraq. "I hate it because we fought (World War II) to end all wars," he said. But the tribute Monday was "very moving." "It all touched me," he said.

On Memorial Day, Lillian Deus of Orangevale brings flowers to the grave site of her son, Robert Yates, at Mount Vernon Memorial Park. He was killed in Vietnam Dec. 21, 1969, at the age of 19. Nearly 3,000 gathered at the cemetery Monday for an annual observance, including a jet flyover and flag ceremony, to honor the country's war dead. Sacramento Bee/Lezlie Sterling

Spc. Daniel DeGeorge Jr. with the state Color Guard carries the flag during Memorial Day ceremonies at Mount Vernon Memorial Park. Sacramento Bee/Lezlie Sterling

SFC Tom Candlish with the state Honor Guard plays taps during Memorial Day services at Mount Vernon Memorial Park and Mortuary, where thousands of veterans, families and others gathered to pay tribute to the country's fallen troops. Sacramento Bee/Lezlie Sterling


Concert Review
West Sacramento Community Singers
Capitol Rotunda Performance - June 30, 2013
by Dick Frantzreb

The West Sacramento Community Singers are a non-auditioned chorus that typically performs at private venues, such as retirement homes, senior communities, and hospitals.  I was lucky enough to catch their public performance this afternoon at the State Capitol Rotunda.  It’s a popular venue for choruses at Christmas-time, and it provides some of the most flattering acoustics imaginable.

I listened to them rehearse before the start of the performance, and what I observed was a small chorus – 13 women and 6 men – all dressed casually.  A hot Sunday afternoon in the summer is a hard time to draw a crowd, though from the rehearsal alone, I could tell that they would be singing music that would easily draw a crowd on a weekday with a lot of passers-by.  As it was, there were only about 30 of us in the audience, and the Capitol staff kindly brought out folding chairs so we could sit through what turned out to be a 35-minute performance.

The program began with a lively rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner,” during which all the singers held their hands over their hearts.  It was one of the best a cappella choral arrangements of the national anthem that I’ve heard.  This was also the arrangement they sang at Friday’s River Cats game, and I’ll bet it really went over well with the crowd there.

Next on the program was the doo-wop classic “Book of Love,” which was followed by “High Hopes” from the 1959 film A Hole in the Head (that Frank Sinatra popularized), and the pop “Shoop Shoop Song” recorded by Betty Everett in 1964 and by Cher in 1990.  This was fun, smile-while-you’re-singing music.  And I don’t see how those who were watching could keep from smiling, too.  Director Charles Vail was a genial and enthusiastic spokesperson, announcing each piece and giving background on it.

A lot of the singing was in unison or 2-part.  But these people produced a very listenable, unified sound, especially from the women, and occasionally I could hear some very good individual singers.  Later in the program, when there was more multi-part harmony, it wasn’t always tight, and occasionally, I thought I could hear intonation problems among the men.  But the Capitol Rotunda was a very forgiving venue, and I honestly enjoyed everything I heard.

This is a happy group of people; even their brief rehearsal before the performance was lively and full of laughs.  And that spirit carried over to their concert.  I got the feeling that these people are in this group for the pure love of singing, and Vail not only allows the joyfulness to show – he stimulates it.  In fact, I’d say he’s one of the most joyful directors I’ve seen.  And his energy was reflected in the body language and faces of the singers.  In fact, the faces of some of the singers I saw this afternoon seemed almost to go beyond joy to ecstasy – it was quite disarming.

As they proceeded to a George M. Cohan medley, it struck me how well-rehearsed the group was.  Their entrances and cut-offs were sharp, and tricky rhythms were well synchronized.  Of course, a lot of that was due to Vail’s spirited and sharp directing.  Next was ABBA’s “Thank You for the Music,” and from this point to the end of the concert, I thought I heard a lot more multi-part singing.  I should note that everything they sang was by memory and of course, a cappella.  It made me think about the difficulties with flatting that I’ve experienced in groups I’ve sung with when we’ve tried to sing a cappella.  No problem for these people:  they had far too much energy to go flat.

The Lion Sleeps Tonight” was, for me, a high point in this brief concert.  It was beautifully, even sensitively performed.  I have strong memories of the recordings of this piece by The Tokens and The Kingston Trio, and this afternoon’s rendition sent me on a pleasant journey down memory lane (as did so much of their repertoire).

The program continued with the 1936 hit “The Glory of Love” and the almost contemporary “Java Jive” (1940).  Then we were treated to an arrangement of “God Bless America” that was energetic and moving, starting with a segment of “America the Beautiful.”

The gospel song “Operator (Information, Get Me Jesus on the Line)” was an appropriate finale for this group.  It starts with a series of big chords followed by rests, and that allowed the harmony to really ring as the sound echoed in the Capitol Dome.  The soulful solo by Cammi Seigle brought out the gospel character of the piece, and it wasn’t long before all the listeners were clapping in time to the music.

I love to see people singing for fun, expressing uninhibited joy.  And I have great respect for those whose musical talent gives people such an outlet.  What a gift to those lucky enough to witness such a display, and I felt enriched to be one of the recipients of such a gift today.