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Lerner was born Emilia Lipczer in Sambir, Ukraine, in 1945 to Jewish parents who hid in the woods to avoid Nazi persecution until she was one. They then moved to Paris and later to the Bronx. She graduated from Queens College with a bachelor's degree in music education. She was teaching in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania while earning a master's degree at Carnegie Mellon. What started as a singing hobby led to her debut at the New York City Opera in 1979, singing Sextus in La clemenza di Tito. Later NYCO assignments included Adalgisa in Norma, Bradamante in Alcina, Smeton in Anna Bolena, and leading roles in the Central Park trilogy (which consists of Deborah Drattell and Wendy Wasserstein's The Festival of Regrets, Michael Torke and A. R. Gurney's Strawberry Fields, and Robert Beaser and Terrence McNally's The Food of Love).
Since the early 1980s she was a regular guest artist with opera companies throughout the United States, including the Dallas Opera, Glimmerglass Opera, the Houston Grand Opera, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the Metropolitan Opera, the Opera Theater of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh Opera, the Santa Fe Opera, Seattle Opera, and the Washington National Opera. She appeared on the international stage at La Scala, the Théâtre du Châtelet, and the Glyndebourne Festival.
- Heydarpour, Roja (April 14, 2007). "Mimi Lerner, 61, Opera Singer With an Unconventional Career, Dies". The New York Times.
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