Thursday, July 05, 2012

A note about Evelyn Lear

Evelyn Lear. Who needs Liz Taylor?
The soprano Evelyn Lear died last week at the age of 86. She was always a very beautiful woman and I suspect she was on her last day. Being a Liz Taylor lookalike paid off for Evelyn Lear. More on that later.

Martina Arroyo, great artist that she is used to say, "I've never been the queen's delight." Meaning she lacked the vociferous and generally enthusiastic following of other sopranos of her time. Evelyn Lear might have said the same thing. Lear's repertoire was light on the Italian blood and guts, at least in New York: No Tosca at the Met, no Butterfly, no Desdemona-operas she sang to acclaim elsewhere. Instead we got the wonderful American opera Mourning Becomes Electra by Marvin David Levy, in a production by Michael Cacoyannis, conducted by Zubin Mehta. Would I had seen it! Lear's success in this role, and as Berg's Lulu and Marie in Wozzeck led to a snippy remark from Rudolf Bing: "You can't get a Callas for contemporary opera. you're lucky if you can get a Lear."

Lotta people were lucky Sir Rudolf. Lear helped put the two Alban Berg operas on the map in the States.It was after Bing left the Met that Evelyn Lear began singing Octavian, Countess Almaviva, Donna Elvira, Alice Ford and her exquisite, world class Marschallin. (Elisabeth Rethberg called this definitive') Here was a beautiful woman singing in an opera about a beautiful woman. She had a long and happy marriage to baritone Thomas Stewart, who was the go to guy for Wotan, Sachs, and Amfortas und so weiter. During a radio interview years ago they talked with some hilarity about their anxiety provoking years trying to "make it" in Germany. Nothing shy about these two people. They were meant to sing, and sing they did.

Thomas Stewart narrated Schonberg's Gurrelieder with the Cincinnati Symphony some years ago. He had retired from singing-and he seemed a bit frail. I remember seeing Evelyn Lear in the audience, on the edge of her seat, watching with concern and love as her husband stole the show.

Lear was a fantastic musician. Follow her performances with a score and see how scrupulous she was. There was no excess, no ranting. The tone was spinning, warm and lovely, be it Berlioz, Mozart, Verdi or Ginastera. And listen, being gorgeous didn't hurt. Evelyn Lear was signing Elvira in London hen a savvy producer spotted her, just as Elizabeth Taylor's 'Cleoparta' was hitting the screens. Long story short, Evelyn Lear played Cleopatra in Handel's Giulio Cesare shortly thereafter, . She was gorgeous and so was Liz, but Evelyn could sing!

A few years ago I was dramaturg to a production of  Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock. I wanted to find out all I could about Blitzstein's work, and his 1955 musical Ruben Ruben kept coming up. Further research told me that Evelyn Lear was featured in this show that didn't survive a Boston tryout. I wrote a note to the lady c/o the Washington Opera asking if she would share some memories of working with Blitzstein.

A few days later the phone rings at 8  AM. "Mr. Purdy, this is Evelyn Lear". Took the trouble to call me, and gave me a fantastic conversation about Marc Blitzstein ("he loved to play canasta and I was one of a few in the cast who could play"), about music and theater, about opera and she spent a lot of time asking about me. "You call me anytime, if there's anything I can do for you." This to a total stranger. I'll never forget the class of this lady-that her singing was superb was almost a bonus. And superb it was.

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