Celebrating Rebecca Sarkisian’s life of love, music, family and song

On the opening night of “New Wrinkles,” the show went on. Rebecca Sarkisian would have wanted it that way. She’d spent decades vocal coaching for Fresno-area theater productions, after all, from “H.M.S. Pinafore” to “American Idiot.” She was steeped in the traditional show-biz mentality that whatever happens offstage — the events that occur away from the make-believe, the drama that unfolds in the sometimes sad sliver of the real world the audience can’t see — you make sure the curtain goes up as scheduled.

Rebecca Sarkisian

Mrs. Sarkisian died early Thursday, May 23, of complications from cancer. She was 63.

It was the day that the three-weekend run started for “New Wrinkles,” Fresno City College’s musical revue. She had been vocal coach for the franchise the past three years. For this season’s installment, titled “California Dreamin’,” Mrs. Sarkisian shared coaching duties when she became sick with a dear friend and colleague, Julie Dana, a fellow faculty member at Fresno City College. (Help and expertise in vocal assistance also came from Randy Berger and Laurie Bridges.)

But even though she needed reinforcements for her last professional endeavor, Mrs. Sarkisian’s imprint was all over this season’s show.

“She started us out in September with the choral numbers,” says cast member Jim Irvine. “She just had the ability to draw things out of us and make us good. I’d watch her while she was directing, and every now and then, this smile would come across her face. You knew something good had happened.”


Indeed, the vocals in “California Dreamin’ are particularly fine. Many of the solo and ensemble numbers have the crisp confidence and smooth vocal blend that is the mark of singers who know what they want to do and are aware of exactly how to make their voices get there.

Pictured at top: Rebecca Sarkisian, left, in the 1978 production of Theatre 3’s ‘Kismet.’

“You just always wanted to give your best to her,” says cast member Jane Parsons. “You just wanted to make her happy because she made you so happy.”

“New Wrinkles” was just a small part of a distinguished local career for Mrs. Sarkisian that included working with just about every theater company in town and teaching classical voice.

Her credits include productions with Good Company Players, StageWorks Fresno, CenterStage Clovis Community Theatre, Fresno City College and Theatre 3.

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Mrs. Sarkisian was born in Kansas during a tornado. (And her mother was named Dorothy, her husband is quick to tell you.) She moved as a girl to Fresno with her parents, who loved classical music.

Learning was important to her. She graduated in 1981 with a degree in vocal performance from Fresno State. She went on to earn a master’s degree in vocal performance from San Francisco State University. Later she earned another master’s degree, this one in higher education administration, at Fresno State.

She brought to her vocal-coach duties high expectations and meticulous preparation. She could be tough. But she tempered her rigorous standards with a sense of caring.

Related story: A top-notch ‘New Wrinkles’ is a California dream all its own

“Becky was the most prepared, most professional, most demanding — but also the most encouraging coach,” says Dan Pessano, managing director of Good Company Players. “I loved working with her because of that but even more because we shared a sense of humor. That was her lovely wonderful secret weapon. I miss my friend.”

Her husband, David — himself an accomplished conductor and vocal coach — says her approach helped “set her singers free” to realize their potential.

“They felt safe with her about letting their inner voices come out that they might shelter in front of someone who’s more controlling,” he says.

And just how did that work out, living in a two-vocal-coach household? Her husband says they often bounced ideas off one another. Sometimes he marveled at Mrs. Sarkisian’s results with her singers, asking: “How did you get the parts to go together so well?”

Once a friend at dinner ambushed them with a question: Which one of you is the better voice teacher?

David Sarkisian merely said with a smile, “You don’t want to go there.”

He marveled at his wife’s organizational skills, whether it was singing, attending class or going on vacation. “She was pretty meticulous about getting everything right and learning her part. And that’s a good reflection of her life, too. She always took notes. Lots of lists and lots of notes.”

She and David met when they were at Fresno State. They were in a production together of “Kismet” at Theatre 3. (And, yes, he jokes about how it was fate.) He played the poet and she played his daughter, which was an interesting way to kick things off. They have two children, Philip Sarkisian and Amelia Parks.

While she was known for her precision, her husband always admired her adventurous spirit. When the opportunity came for her to vocal coach Green Day’s “American Idiot” at Fresno City College, people asked if she really wanted to do such a hard-edged show, her husband says.

She took the challenge, even though she joked she should use her maiden name. (The vocals were great in that show, too.)

Watkins Photo Archive Project

‘New Wrinkles’ cast members celebrate the legacy of Rebecca Sarkisian.

For the folks in “New Wrinkles,” the first performances after hearing the news about Mrs. Sarkisian were hard. Director David Bonetto wrote on Facebook about the night before she died: “I felt her spirit Wednesday night at dress rehearsal. She was ever present. Giving me strength to push through and make this show happen. She hung on to see the dream become exactly as we talked for months, actually a year to the day, and countless hours on. I am beyond grateful.”

You can say, finally, that the timing of her death also had a certain eloquence. Parsons notes Mrs. Sarkisian’s deeply held religious beliefs and is comforted by them.

“One of our friends said that our opening day was her opening day — with Jesus,” she says.

•    •    •

Services will be held 10 a.m. Tuesday, June 4, at St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church.

Scholarship info

The cast of ‘New Wrinkles’ and the FCC Music Department have started a memorial scholarship in her name to honor her legacy. If you would like to donate, follow this link, scroll to the ‘OTHER’ designation and type in ‘Rebecca Sarkisian Memorial Scholarship.’ You can also call the Foundation directly at: 559-243-7500.

Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

Comments (5)

  • Gary Unruh

    Thank you, Donald, for this article and for your continuing exceptional contribution to the arts in Fresno. I have wonderful memories of Becky and David.

  • Judy Irvine

    We loved her so. We had taken her beginning voice class at FCC just for fun. When she became vocal director for New Wrinkles we rejoined the cast, just to get to work with her. She was such a good team director.

  • Brigid de Jong

    Thank you for this beautiful article. I didn’t really know Becky until she joined the NATS chapter we formed here a few years ago, but I knew even before I met her that she was a wonderful teacher from the students we would get at Fresno State who had studied with her. She was a huge asset to the arts community, and a dear, kind person. She will be very much missed.

  • Joel Abels

    She was an incredible woman. So talented, so giving and such an incredible human. I will be forever grateful to have had the opportunity to perform with her and to have had her work with our performers. She knew her stuff and always got the best work out of actors because she was passionate in all that she did. There was such respect showered upon her. She was specific and direct but in such a loving way. I will miss her jam. She made the BEST jam. I will miss my friend. Thank you Becky. ❤️

  • Thank you for this excellent tribute. Becky was a great joy! I learned much from her in the (much too short) time I was privileged to work under her direction in New Wrinkles.


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