Mentor to singers held positions at USC, UCLA

Times Staff Writer

Natalie Limonick, an ebullient mentor of generations of singers who headed the opera departments at UCLA and USC, died Saturday in her sleep at her home in Los Angeles, said her longtime friend and colleague Jay Kohorn. She was 87. She had had heart valve replacement surgery in 2005 and since then had largely been confined to bed, Kohorn said.

A native of New York, Limonick studied piano at the Juilliard School with Ignace Hilsberg. She moved to Los Angeles when she was 17 and went on to study with Fritz Zweig and Arnold Schoenberg. She made her Southern California piano debut in 1942.

Limonick also studied at UCLA and in the early 1950s became assistant to Jan Popper, who directed the UCLA Opera Workshop. When Popper left the university in 1953, she became director of the workshop, and remained until 1974.

During the summers, she also taught at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, working with such celebrated singers as German soprano Lotte Lehmann and French baritone Martial Singher.


Limonick also was one of the first women to coach singers at Bayreuth, Germany, home of the famed Wagner Festival, where she taught in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

She accompanied art-song singers such as Elly Ameling, Carol Neblett and Marni Nixon and played recitals with fellow pianist Leonard Stein, among others. She also was a visiting professor at the universities of Indiana and Texas.

In a move to rebuild its opera program, USC appointed her professor of voice and director of its opera program in 1974.

“We will have none of this nonsense of throwing singers into leading roles before they know how to move their left feet, because the training, not the immediate operatic production, is the important thing,” Limonick told The Times upon her appointment.

Her first full-length production at USC was Benjamin Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which was staged by Dutch director Frans Boerlage. Previously, she had produced one-act operas that included Gian Carlo Menotti’s “Amahl and the Night Visitors” and Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi.”

She stayed at USC until 1986, after which she taught voice and piano privately.

In 1983 at the University of Judaism, she created an opera ensemble competition, whose judges included opera impresarios, to encourage singers to work together. “I was just so tired of going to all these auditions and seeing these singers who ‘have five arias, will travel,’ ” Limonick told The Times in 1992. “They might have wonderful voices, but so many times I have seen people hired on the basis of an audition and later it turns out they can’t learn music; they can’t move across a stage.”

A sports fan, Limonick often advised students to think of a Lakers player preparing for a free throw when trying to sing a smooth, continuous musical line.


“My grandmother saw basketball as an art,” said Dr. Deborah Berger of New York, adding that Limonick could predict when someone such as Shaquille O’Neal would complete a successful throw based on whether he breathed into his movement the way a good singer breathes into a phrase.

In 2002, Limonick endowed the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies with the annual Natalie Limonick Symposium on Jewish Civilization. Each year, the symposium addresses a crucial historical and contemporary issue. The inaugural topic was “The Ethics of the Neighbor.”

In addition to Berger, Limonick is survived by her daughter and son-in-law, Pam and Dr. Berle Berger, of New York; another granddaughter, Lauren Ben-Avi, of Tel Aviv; and two great-grandsons, Yonatan and Nadav, both of Tel Aviv.

A funeral will be held at noon today at Mount Sinai Memorial Park, 5950 Forest Lawn Drive, in Los Angeles. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made in Limonick’s name to the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies, 302 Royce Hall, Box 951485, Los Angeles 90095 or to the Opera Guild of Southern California c/o Doyle Kutch, No. 309, 1142 N. Campbell St., Glendale 91207.