The Telegraph, August 15, 2012
Evelyn Lear, who has died aged 86, was an American soprano who ranged from the sweet innocence of Pamina in The Magic Flute to the smouldering sensuality of Lulu in Alban Berg’s opera; she won acclaim across a wide repertoire, from Handel to Strauss and on to Schoenberg.
For some 50 years Evelyn Lear and her husband, the bass-baritone Thomas Stewart, were one of the most popular couples on the international circuit. Known as “the musical couple who never say no”, they sang together frequently in recital as well as on the operatic stage. They recorded together, and in later years founded the Evelyn Lear and Thomas Stewart Emerging Singers Program, running master classes for young singers.
While her husband made his name in the big Wagnerian roles, Evelyn Lear made hers as an exponent of contemporary opera after she was asked to step in at short notice and sing the title role of Lulu in a concert performance of Berg’s “serialist” masterpiece at the 1960 Vienna Festival.
Based on plays by the German dramatist Frank Wedekind, Lulu tells the story of the rise and fall of a serial seductress who takes one man after another, rising in the social scale while killing them or driving them to suicide. By the end she has been reduced to prostitution in a squalid London garret; her last client is Jack the Ripper, who murders her and her lesbian lover, Countess Geschwitz.
With its wild melodic leaps and punishing coloratura, the role of Lulu is one that not only challenges the best singers, but also demands real acting. Evelyn Lear recalled that she had “nearly fainted” when she first saw the score.
Yet after learning the role in a matter of weeks, she stunned the critics with her performance, and two years later returned to Vienna for the Austrian stage premiere of the work. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf called her Lulu “one of the supreme achievements of the operatic stage anywhere in the world”. The performance was repeated in 1964 and recorded by Deutsche Grammophon. She also performed in Lulu in the 1980s, albeit in the supporting role of the Countess Geschwitz.
Evelyn Lear’s voice, though not large, was warm, affecting and well-produced, and the fact that she was also a good actress helped to convince sceptics that there was more to contemporary opera than jarring atonality.
She was born Evelyn Shulman in Brooklyn on January 8 1926. Her father was a lawyer and her mother a professional singer; her maternal grandfather was a Jewish cantor. As a young girl she learned the piano and French horn. After graduating in Music from Hunter College, New York University, she married Walter Lear, a doctor, and moved to Arlington in Washington State. The marriage broke down in the early 1950s and she returned to New York, where she enrolled at the Juilliard School of Music, studying voice, piano, French horn and composition.
She met Thomas Stewart, a fellow student, while working on a duet from Porgy and Bess. In 1955 she created the role of Nina in Marc Blitzstein’s Reuben, Reuben, and the same year Stewart became her second husband.
In 1956 they travelled to Europe to study on Fulbright scholarships at the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin. They soon became members of the city’s Städtische Oper, where Evelyn made her professional debut in 1959 as the Composer in Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos.
After her triumph as Lulu, Evelyn Lear became something of a specialist in what she called “neurotic modern heroines”. Her debut role at the Metropolitan Opera in 1967 was as Lavinia Mannon in the world premiere of Marvin David Levy’s Mourning Becomes Electra.
She went on to sing a leading role in Schoenberg’s Erwartung and was Marie in Berg’s Wozzeck, winning a Grammy Award in 1966 for her recording with Karl Böhm, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Fritz Wunderlich.
She also built a reputation as an interpreter of Strauss, making her London debut in 1958 in a concert performance of the Four Last Songs with the London Philharmonic under Sir Adrian Boult, and singing all three main female roles in Rosenkavalier.
In the late 1960s Evelyn Lear suffered a vocal crisis , and for a while she returned to more traditional — though far from easy — roles such as Cherubino, Donna Elvira (in which she had made her Covent Garden debut in 1965), and the title characters in Puccini’s Tosca (opposite her husband’s Scarpia) and Manon Lescaut.
But she returned to the modern repertoire in the 1970s, creating the roles of Irma Arkadina in Thomas Pasatieri’s The Seagull at the Houston Grand Opera in 1974; of Magna in Robert Ward’s Minutes to Midnight in 1982; and of Ranyevskaya in Rudolf Kelterborn’s Kirschgarten in Zurich in 1984.
After retiring from the stage she taught at the University of Maryland and gave master classes around the world.
In 2006 Thomas Stewart died of a heart attack. Evelyn Lear is survived by a son and daughter of her first marriage.
Evelyn Lear, born January 8 1926, died July 1 2012
This interview was recorded in a rehearsal room of the Civic Opera House in Chicago on June 1, 1981. It was used (along with recordings) on WNIB 1987, 1991 and 1996. A small section was also used on the website of Lyric Opera of Chicago as part of their 50th Anniversary Season which saluted several Jubilarians who were significant in the history of the company. A copy of the unedited audio was given to the Archive of Contemporary Music at Northwestern University. The full interview was transcribed and posted on this website in 2012.
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Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago. You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.