This woman is Mimi Lerner who overcame incredible odds, the skepticism of others and her own self-doubt to become an internationally renowned opera singer.
Mimi was born into a Jewish family in Poland in 1945 at the end of World War 2. The Nazi killing machine had seized her grandparents and executed them. To survive, her parents fled and lived in the woods for several years prior to her birth and remained there until she was a year old.
The war decimated Europe and life for many of its people was a continuous battle for survival and especially for those most impacted by the war’s horrific impact, such as Jewish families.
Mimi and her family got to Paris and 7-years later, to America, which was thriving and it offered immigrant families like theirs, a much better life. They settled in New York City, in the Bronx. It was nothing fancy but it was safe and comfortable, and it became home.
Mim was a music lover and graduated from the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan and then Queens College. She dreamed of sharing her love of music by becoming a music teacher.
But in 1967, Mimi’s life changed suddenly, when she and her friend went to Carnegie Hall in New York City and heard the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.
There she met a flutist, Martin Lerner and the young couple soon fell in love. After her graduation, she moved to Pittsburgh and in 1969, they were married.
Just as she dreamed, Mimi became a public school music teacher. And that might have been as far as her career would have taken her, except to keep teaching, it was mandatory for her to take an advanced studies course.
“I [took] lessons from a woman who was in the Mendelssohn Choir, Norma France,” Mimi told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “She had this amazing love of singing and … taught me what a precious thing that is…”
Mimi was deeply touched by this woman’s passion for singing and could now see a much bigger career for herself. She got a Master’s Degree from Carnegie Mellon University in 1975 and at age 30, a very late start for an opera singer, she began looking for stage work.
“You have this idea of an opera singer as gorgeous, 6 feet tall with blond hair … superhuman and bigger than life,” Mimi later told the Post-Gazette. “I am not a big person. I’m 5-4. Also, I always had to work hard because I don’t have a particularly large voice…”
Mimi sang in the temple as a cantorial soloist, did recitals and then advanced to singing in small opera houses, all the while gaining experience and confidence. This led to bigger opera houses and then she made her New York City Opera debut in 1979.
As her career blossomed, it took her to such world renowned stages as the Metropolitan Opera, the Washington Opera at Kennedy Center and to other grand opera houses across the United States, Europe and Canada. Mimi became widely known and very much in demand.
And despite her fame, she taught and chaired the voice department at Carnegie Mellon University and continued as a cantorial soloist at her temple. And she and Martin had been blessed with the birth of their son Daniel. Mimi’s life was what she hoped it would be.
But for Mimi, life had another test of her spirit. In 1995, at the top of her profession, she began to suffer from shortness of breath. Doctors diagnosed a cancerous tumor in her heart. Surgery and chemotherapy followed but the cancer persisted.
Mimi still continued her very active career. However, in 2000 she underwent radical heart surgery, but the cancer recurred. It appeared her career was over and her days left would be few.
Despite the severity of her cancer, in October 2001, Mimi performed in Carnegie Mellon’s Kresge Recital Hall. How did this brave lady do?
The Post-Gazette’s critic said, “[her] performance was a triumph of artistry, technique and sheer determination over tremendous physical – and surely also emotional – adversity. She vocalized her part as a personal statement, as if she were composing the words and music herself on the spur of the moment.
“Yes, there were … moments of evident struggle, but there were also stretches of extraordinary beauty…”
“She lived with the Sword of Damocles over her head,” her husband Martin told the Post-Gazette. “But she knew she couldn’t live like that and be happy. We would take vacations, cruises; go to concerts and plays, even though she had to take oxygen with her.”
Mimi died in her sleep on March 29, 2007. She is survived by Martin, Daniel and her sister Lizette Corman and by opera fans across the globe as well as by her many students. For hers was a life lived in full and one that is widely celebrated.