Whether they pursue music, dance, or opera, most of Toledo's top classical performers and producers are married to their careers.
You might think sharing a life with someone so driven by personal vision would be difficult, if not impossible. Instead, many of these top performers are married to each other -- more than you might expect, in fact.
So how does it work to balance development of a personal passion with the day-to-day demands of home and family? Who walks the dog? Carts the kids to classes and playdates? Cooks and does the dishes?
It‘s not always easy, but the three couples we interviewed have made their own lives together, sans script, score, or choreographic charts. In the process, they describe lives even richer and more fulfilling, because they are shared.
Amy and Lee Heritage
Amy, second flutist, Toledo Symphony. Private teacher. Doctorate in music performance, Indiana University.
Lee and Amy Heritage, pictured at their home in Toledo. Lee Heritage is a composer and professor of composition at UT and Amy Heritage is a second flutist in the Toledo Symphony.
Lee: Associate professor of composition and theory, University of Toledo. Published composer. Doctorate in music composition, University of Illinois-Champaign/Urbana.
Married 30 years.
"I feel like my life is a patchwork quilt," says Amy Heritage
Between hundreds of Toledo Symphony gigs each year, teaching at the Toledo Symphony School of Music, performing the occasional recital, daily practice, homeschooling their son, Evan; walking their two large dogs, and maintaining their 1928 home, Amy's comment seems right on the beat.
Fortunately, summer is quieter for the couple, who met in the early 1980s at Shenandoah College and Conservatory (now Shenandoah University), a private, Methodist-affiliated institution in Winchester, Va.
Balance means finding time for Amy to practice new repertoire and garden; for Lee to get in a few more rounds of golf and work on new compositions late into the night; finding time for the three of them to just hang out.
The pull of music – playing it and creating it – has been the central core of their lives. It gives them boundless common ground, but also forces them to become savvy managers of their time.
They met, Amy recalls, because she needed a laugh. A scholarship student from Maryland, she was in her first year as a music therapy major.
"It was exam time. Everybody I knew was miserable that week. I needed to talk to someone who was happy. I thought of Lee."
Lee, a Delaware native who'd started strumming guitar at age 5 and worked his way through jazz, then rock, had turned toward composition during summer study at Berklee College in Boston.
Lee's face lights up as he recalls that moment when Amy paid him an unannounced visit.
"You can imagine the average 21-year-old male with a girl knocking on his door."
The relationship crescendoed. Just before their senior year, Lee and Amy decided, spur of the moment, to get married.
"Our friends registered for us," recalls Amy. She was 21; Lee was 24.
A year later, diplomas in hand, "we went traveling for graduate degrees," said Amy. Their itinerary ran from Madison, Wis., to Champaign-Urbana, Ill., and then to Bloomington, Ind.
By then, Amy had switched from music therapy to performance, studying and performing with leading lights in the flute world.
In a rare academic synchronism, both Lee and Amy got calls from the University of Toledo -- Lee to be a sabbatical sub for resident composer Dave Jex; Amy to teach flute. In addition to teaching, Amy performed in a flute-guitar duo with former UT instructor Amy Brucksch.
Lee also found a tenure-track post at UT, so they made their move to the city permanent, buying their West Toledo house in 1992. Evan was born in 2000.
During UT's ongoing metamorphoses, Lee moved into administration, first as music department chair, then associate dean for Arts and Sciences.
Lee liked the ordered work, but "it was taking all my time and energy from anything musical. I was composing very little."
In 2007 he returned to faculty status and his creative output spiked. Now, Lee composes minimalist pieces for orchestra, band, chamber groups and theater, is published by Brixton, and performed through the U.S. and Canada.
Amy left UT in 2003. "I was going to be a stay-at-home mom, but in 2005 Marge Szor (longtime TSO second flutist) retired after 49 years."
She took the position, adding lots of night gigs – rehearsals, concerts – plus constant practicing of wide-ranging repertoire to her routine.
She says she learned to be innovative about finding the two hours daily practice she needs, often toting flute, stand, and music along when driving Evan to classes or activities.
"I've practiced in schools, rec centers, churches, conference rooms," Amy said. "I consider it outreach for the symphony." Lately, she's added classes in the Suzuki teaching method to her calendar.
December is crunch time, with Amy performing every day except Monday. Then, Lee shoulders more family tasks. He tries to keep her playing schedule at least two weeks in advance. "I like order," he says.
Somehow, this complex lifestyle works for the couple.
After 30 years together, they are still negotiating schedules, week after week. But their obvious comfort with their life, their sense of moving onward and upward together, makes them seem relaxed and able to savor the moment.
"We're still figuring out how to be married," said Lee. "We're dedicated to figuring it out."
Don and Denise Ritter Bernardini
Denise Ritter-Bernardini and Don Bernardini at the UT Performing Arts Center.
Denise: Assistant professor of voice, University of Toledo. Doctorate in vocal performance, University of Oklahoma.
Don: Operatic/concert tenor, instructor and director in UT opera program. Master's in opera production and direction, Indiana University.
Married seven years.
"Being a team doesn't come easily. It's a different kind of animal," says Don Bernardini, internationally renowned tenor whose opera and concert performances have drawn huge audiences and rave reviews through Europe and the Americas.
In opera and concert halls, he's "Mr. Bernardini." At home in West Toledo, he's "dad." Or "honey."
Well, most of the time.
With a dimpled grin to his equally glamorous wife, soprano, educator, and producer Denise Ritter Bernardini, Don says, "As long as I give in, everything's fine."
This kind of banter has been a constant since the couple met a decade ago. Denise, a Texas native with some residual drawl, grins devilishly, recalling that night at the University of Oklahoma.
She was a doctoral student, working with renowned soprano Marilyn Horne, and the single mother of two young boys. She had just finished a required recital. Don was a visiting artist, fresh from a 22-year performance tour as a Columbia Artists property, a graduate student at Indiana University. His young sons were living in Switzerland with his ex.
During the post-concert gathering, Don approached Denise. She narrates the moment: "He gave me the typical pick-up line: 'Would you like for me to introduce you to my agent?'
"I'm smiling. I had a date. He (Don) thought we were having a moment."
Don, who says, "It was the voice, the looks, a lot of personality, she looked great," didn't miss a beat.
He sought permission from university officials to date Denise and, though they had great chemistry, neither was in a rush to get married, at least at first.
There was that blended family bugaboo – "I knew how serious it is to take on someone else's kids," said Don, who says he draws from his military training to raise boys to men with structure and discipline.
The only child of a New York fireman, he'd grown up singing but been warned off by his dad. He graduated from Virginia Military Institute, but never really stopped making music. And, after four mandatory years in the U.S. Air Force, he mustered out as a Captain and entered graduate school at Indiana.
Fate intervened when, during a stint as understudy at a Colorado opera company, he gained a moment in the spotlight, was plucked by Columbia Artists, a major talent group, and embarked on his major career.
Meanwhile, Denise, who is a decade younger, was balancing parenthood, academics, and performing, gaining a reputation as an engaging cabaret singer as well as operatic soprano. Her heart was set on building an opera program in a university, starting one student and one workshop at a time.
After their 2003 encounter, they fit dating into their complex lives, finally getting married on the spur of the moment in 2007. In the years since, they moved from campus to campus in Indiana, during which Denise developed her Art Song Festival, a summer intensive for budding singers.
When she came to UT in 2011, Art Song Festival was part of the package. This summer, she will take select students with her to Sansepolcro, Italy, for a week of study and performing. Then Denise will embark on her own recital tour in Europe.
In an impressive display of focused energy, Denise also has revived UT's opera program, with full productions twice a year – past highlights included Monteverdi's Orfeo, in December 2012 in the Toledo Museum of Art Cloister, and Copland's The Tender Land, in fall 2013 in Doermann Theater.
Recently, she was named coordinator of vocal music at UT.
Don has become an equal partner in many of the productions, handling stage direction and coaching while Denise oversees the entire project.
"Don and I are really great partners," says Denise. "I do the big picture production stuff, the people machine of it. What turns Don on is making really detailed fine art out of a production."
Don nods. "What's good about that is we trust each other more and more."
Denise: "It's one of the reasons our partnership works. Don sees the details where I am looking at the outcome, what I want it to be. Don is more about what the experience in the moment is.”
Another point the Bernardinis agree on is a conscious determinism: whatever you do with your life, it's all about choosing a role and living into it.
"You act every day. You think you don't, but you're actually playing a part," says Denise. "Maybe you're the overachieving straight-A student. Those are parts you've chosen to take on. If you believe them, you can achieve them."
Michael Lang and Lisa Mayer
Dancers Michael Lang and Lisa Mayer in front of a mural at the Valentine Theater,
Michael: Spring artistic director, outreach coordinator, Toledo Ballet. Certified personal trainer, Pilates instructor, licensed massage therapist.
Lisa: Artistic director, school director, Toledo Ballet. American Ballet Theater certified teacher. Adjunct professor, University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance.
Married 13 years.
"If we want to see each other, we have to work together," Michael Lang says of his wife and dance partner Lisa Mayer.
Happily, they do work together, at Toledo Ballet, where they have been chief artistic staff since 2007. It's just that often they are working on different projects.
Lisa directs the busy school and the annual production of The Nutcracker each Christmas. Michael conjures up and produces the company's spring performances – his most recent full-length show was "From Heart to Quill."
Their lives are so entwined with dance it's impossible to imagine either one in a different field. Both started dancing very early – Michael at age 4, Lisa at age 6. Neither has looked back since.
But with two active children at home, plus another daughter from Michael's previous relationship in Florida, and about 100 artistic offspring in the TBA studios, carving out time together is a challenge.
Between the fall, when preparations for Nutcracker dominate Lisa's time and the spring show, which consumes Michael, the couple play a lot of back-and-forth with parenting duties, which includes driving their daughters to gymnastic lessons and other activities.
Summers offer a welcome respite.
"I'll tell you right now, from September to June our house is not always spotlessly clean," says Lisa. "In summer, we have 12 Saturdays off, we have more time to have dinner together. We're not rehearsing until 10 at night. It's a nice break."
They wouldn't have it any other way.
After nearly a quarter century performing – on Broadway, on tour, and even on cruise ships – they have put down roots in Toledo.
Lisa and Michael met in 1998 performing in Beauty and the Beast, one of Disney on Broadway's big-time hits. Right away, there was heat.
"She lit my fire," says Michael. Literally.
Lisa, playing the Enchantress, nightly was to bring about Michael's transformation from Young Prince to Beast with a bit of stage magic – a fireball that creates a brief flare and smoke.
Trouble was, sometimes that flare lasted too long and singed Michael's wig. Michael forgave Lisa, but he didn't forget her.
"It was her eyes," he says today. "I was mesmerized."
By then, Lisa, a graduate of Marie Vogt's Toledo Ballet program and programs at Interlochen, had been dancing her way around New York's stages, with the occasional tour of the U.S.
Michael, a national high school diving champion and skilled Taekwondo practitioner, had danced, flipped, and sung his way around as much of the world as he cared to see.
They were married in 2001, just before the Twin Towers attacks. Among the devastating aftershocks was the near darkening of Broadway, one of the Big Apple's main tourist industries.
She ended up going out on a year-long tour. Michael, who had blown out his knee after Beauty, stayed in town to recover. He was still recovering when their first daughter, Isabella, was born.
With a grin, Michael says, "We planned our children around injuries. So I had time to care for Isabella." When their baby was 4 months old, Lisa joined the cast of another Broadway show. "It helped me bounce back, but it also caused me some injuries," says Lisa. "I was still working but he was watching Isabella. That was tough. She was so young."
The time off and hands-on parenthood caused Michael to reflect. "Kids definitely change everything in this business – in a good way. The biz can be a bit narcissistic. If you are ready for (parenthood), for putting your energy and focus on someone else is very liberating. It's not just about me anymore."
When daughter Kiera was born a few years later, the couple rethought their plans to stay in New York. Being closer to family – Lisa's in Toledo; Michael's in Indiana – now made sense.
They loved Ann Arbor and began work on opening the kind of multi-style dance studio they thought would best prepare the most young dancers for professonial work. Then Madame Vogt called, asking them to come take over her venerable but challenged company.
They began to reshape TBA to their vision, which included a healthy dose of reality based on injuries both had suffered during two decades of performing professionally.
Next year, Lisa and Michael plan to collaborate on a new production of Alice in Wonderland for the spring show.
"In a lot of ways we make a good team," says Michael. "In class she is a stickler for technique. In my class, we try to remember why we were running around the living room. The two elements have to be there – the balance of technique and artistry. The two combined are really good for each other."