George Mason High School senior Mariagracia Rivas Berger said living in Falls Church for three years, where she was highly exposed to music and arts through teachers and mentors, convinced her to accept an invitation to study vocal performance at the prestigious Shenandoah Conservatory in Winchester, Va. However, the seed was planted years before.
She considered singing merely a hobby but in fifth grade, that pastime landed her the lead role in a musical production of “Little Red Riding Hood.” Performed alongside the Peruvian Symphonic Orchestra, Berger’s family realized her gift was no joke.
“They knew I was talented, but I don’t think people figured I would actually pursue it. When I tell my family in South America that I’m going to do this, they’re impressed but a little hesitant as well,” said Berger.
Her father, Carlos Rivas, said professional artists are more accepted in the U.S. than they are in Peru, where Berger spent the first 11 years of her life. She said pursuing a high-risk field like entertainment was culturally frowned upon and therefore wasn’t an option. Berger’s family moved to California in 2002, where she immediately got involved in her school’s choir and theatre groups. Her mom, Giselle Berger, was happy to see her daughter involved, but figured it was perhaps a phase.
“As per our traditional way of thinking, we were kind of worried about this possible choice, but she was in 10th grade, so we thought she could change her mind at any moment,” said Giselle.
One of Berger’s Falls Church mentors, pianist David Boyer, said that skepticism is something all too familiar for students to hear when thinking about pursuing the arts after high school.
“It’s the classic, parental ‘you can’t make a living’ statement that I’ve been hearing all my life. There are a plethora of artists who, yes, must find other ways to make a living while they explore their art, but I would tell students to fully explore [the arts] to make good decisions about the future without looking back with regret,” said Boyer, who met Berger when he played piano for her school’s production of “Brigadoon.”
He was afterwards asked to accompany Berger, who he called a quick study, to make recordings of opera arias she used to apply to college programs. Berger spent three consecutive weekends in January auditioning for various universities, but it was Shenandoah that she had her eye on the whole time.
“I’m done with general education classes. I’ve focused on that my whole life,” said Berger, who will graduate in June with an International Baccalaureate diploma. “What I like about the conservatory is it will go straight into focusing what I’m there to study.”
She plans on taking extra classes this summer at Northern Virginia Community College in music theory and appreciation to catch up with her Winchester peers, many of whom she’s already connected with by joining Facebook groups online.
Though Berger may not have had a musical icon growing up, she’s since gained respect for the works of internationally-recognized Peruvian opera singer Juan Diego Flórez. Her grandmother once sung with Flórez’s father, and was also the first to suggest that alto-convinced Berger was actually a soprano.
Berger admitted she’s always hoped to catch her big break, listing names of Hispanic females who’ve made it big in the U.S., including Thalia and Shakira. But she’d be happy with even a little one.
“If I just got one role in an opera or musical, it’d be the happiest moment of my life. And if I become the next Diego Flórez, then that’d be amazing,” said Berger. “But I don’t even need to be known by the world.”