In July 2022, Maestra Laura Bergquist lifted her baton and ushered the hauntingly beautiful overture of the Sweeney Todd musical into the Opera Saratoga Festival season. As notes from the orchestra swept through the 5,000-seat amphitheater, Bergquist’s eyes filled with tears.
In a field dominated by younger musicians, Bergquist had conducted her first Broadway show about the same time she had become a grandmother. In November 2015, Bergquist was chosen to be the music director and conductor of the Broadway show Allegiance: A New Musical. It was a dream come true to lead a Broadway show starring George Takei, Broadway’s Telly Leung, and Tony-winner Lea Salonga. After Allegiance, she stayed busy at first-class regional houses such as the Old Globe in San Diego, Chicago Shakespeare, and Arena Stage in Washington D.C. She was a cover conductor for the off-Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish, directed by the legendary Joel Grey.
Joe and Laura Bergquist were in their 40s when they moved to New York City in 2003, a city where people typically begin building their NYC resumes in their 20s. “When the industry shut down, I thought my career was over,” Bergquist said in an interview for Common Good. “I didn’t see a world where after two years I would still be relevant and hireable. It’s a young person’s game, and I already felt before the pandemic that my days might be numbered by producers who wanted younger professionals to direct their shows.”
The pandemic turned careers upside down, and like many others at the time Bergquist seriously considered a career change. She had spent the last few years mentoring music students and young actors and believed her age, experience, and sensibility had equipped her to pour wisdom and encouragement into the next generation. Maybe, she thought, she could expand her passion of mentoring young people in the music industry to mentoring anyone who wanted to explore spirituality. She decided to work toward becoming a certified spiritual director, a position she describes as a cross between a friend, a mentor, and a chaplain.
“I feel very led to mentor,” Bergquist says. “This is really important to me now. And Jesus was the ultimate mentor. You see him through his life on earth always making time to teach, listen, help, encourage, exhort, and love others wherever he was. I wanted to follow in his footsteps by being a companion on someone’s spiritual journey.” She completed a formation and certificate program, the Sustainable Faith School of Spiritual Direction, in May this year.
As the world began to reopen, Laura was surprised to be fielding offers of theater gigs. The steady stream turned into a flood. She directed for Opera Saratoga in the summers of 2021, 2022, and 2023, doing more concerts, recordings, and worship leading than she had been before the pandemic. And in May of this year, Bergquist was invited to conduct the Lincoln Medal of Honor Awards at Ford’s Theater.
She is currently in rehearsals as music director and supervisor on The Bridges of Madison County at the Signature Theatre in Washington D.C. Future bookings find her conducting and arranging a workshop of a new musical in New York City and a world premiere of It Happened in Key West at the Fulton Theatre in Pennsylvania.
Bergquist no longer fears her career will be ending prematurely, but she says she doesn’t regret a minute of the time she spent on her spiritual training. That training has helped her incorporate her faith into her career in ways she never imagined before the pandemic.
“I’ve been experiencing another renaissance in my work — I’ve never had this amount of work before,” she said. “But this new spiritual skill set adds a new dimension to my profession. It changed me; it made me get rid of past trauma and feel God’s presence in my own life. I feel more loving and healed and confident and assured as a child of God than I’ve ever been as a result of that program.”
It is still all a balancing act, she says. “I’ve been gone 12 weeks now, and I’m about to do a 72-hour week,” Bergquist said. “I miss my church and my bed and my books and art and my husband.”
Part of that balance, Bergquist says, is knowing “our work is only what we do — it’s not our identity. It is not who we are.” She says she has learned she cannot place too much of her self-worth in her career.
“God’s given all of us gifts and skills. They are his — all of it. I feel deeply humbled and grateful to God for everything in my life and can’t wait to see what is next.”