Campus mourns loss of Mimi Lerner, voice

Mimi Lerner, head of the voice department, renowned opera star, and Carnegie Mellon alumna, died on March 29 at her Oakland home after a 12-year battle with cancer. She was 61.

Lerner received her master’s degree in voice from Carnegie Mellon. She went on to perform with opera companies around the world, including the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

“When Mimi was still a graduate student, there was so much buzz about her that the graduate recital had to be moved off campus, to Synod Hall, to accommodate all the people who were expected to attend,” said Riccardo Schulz, associate teaching professor.

Robert Page, professor of music and director of choral/opera studies, conducted Lerner’s performance of Orfeo in the Opera Theatre of Pittsburgh in 1975. The theater was founded by Mildred Miller Posvar, artist lecturer in voice and Lerner’s longtime mentor.

“I told my manager about her, and she nurtured her along the way,” Posvar said. “She was such an example to all of us in so many ways. She was a woman who had such passion within her that it exuded in her performing. That is so memorable in my mind — she could move people to tears through the wonderful communication of the text.”

Kenneth Keeling, professor and former head of the School of Music, emphasized Lerner’s commitment to her students.

“We had a number of meetings ... as she sought to perfect every aspect of her service as a faculty member. I will never forget how impressed I was with the depth of her commitment to her students while still working for uncommonly high standards for her own musical performance,” Keeling said.

“[Mimi] was the kind of person who would walk into a room and people would instantly fall in love with her. Her strength was that she made everyone feel at ease, which is so important when you are working with students,” said Stephen Totter, artist lecturer.

Lerner’s students exuded similar praise.

“When I think of Mimi, I don’t think of her as a professor first; I think of her as a dear friend, a mentor. She taught with a beautiful spirit and unbelievable grace. She was a brilliant woman inside and out,” said Alexa Devlin, a first-year voice major and one of Mimi’s students at the time of her death.

“I had the privilege to have coached with her on the role of Bradamante in Alcina. Those coachings were so inspiring and uplifting. She always had so much energy and spunk and spirit. I always looked forward to those coachings and got so much from them,” said Chrystal Williams, a junior voice major.

Sophomore voice major Adam Richardson described Lerner as a factor in his decision to enroll at Carnegie Mellon.

“Mimi called my house in April of 2005 to see if I was coming to CMU. I felt as though this woman must have seen something special inside of me that I didn’t see, and I should go to CMU,” Richardson said.

On March 29, students, faculty, and staff from the School of Music gathered in Kresge Hall to mourn the passing of their colleague, teacher, mentor, and friend.

“I have never experienced anything like the devastation at the voice faculty and students shared in Kresge,” Posvar said. “We just tried to console each other and stood and spoke up. Faculty spoke up with memories of Mimi. It was a wonderful healing event but excruciatingly painful. I had never experienced anything like it before. This was a special person, this really truly was.”