2 July 2012
Evelyn Lear, 86, Singing Actress of Startling Imagination, Has Died
Brooklyn, NY, January 8, 1926 — Sandy Spring, MD, July 1, 2012
If any artist could be said to have had it all, it was Evelyn Lear — a striking beauty, a masterful musician and a singing actress of startling imagination. Lear had brains, heart and courage in equal and abundant measure; her personal warmth, professional generosity and passionate curiosity were nonpareil. And — no small matter when creating a professional legacy — she was a woman for whom honesty and frankness were almost a compulsion. Throughout her career, Evelyn Lear provided interviewers with great copy. As Stephen Wadsworth wrote in his perceptive 1980 profile of Lear for OPERA NEWS, "You don't have to work to get inside that head. It is open to the public…. [Lear's] honest and humorous acceptance of her weaknesses gives her uncommon strength and depth. The force is with her."
Born Evelyn Shulman, the soprano was raised in Brooklyn, the daughter of a musical family. She studied piano and French horn — an instrument she played in the Tanglewood orchestra under Leonard Bernstein during her student days. She did not seriously consider a singing career until her early first marriage, to physician Walter Lear, brought her to the Washington, D.C. area, where she made her nonprofessional opera debut in Weill's Down in the Valley. After her marriage to Lear ended in the early 1950s, Evelyn Lear — by then the mother of a son and a daughter — returned to New York, where she studied at Juilliard. It was there that she met Texas-born baritone Thomas Stewart, who was to be the love of her life. Lear and Stewart were married in 1955, marking the start of a union that endured for more than fifty years, until Stewart's death, in 2006.
During their active performing careers, Stewart and Lear never marketed themselves as a team, but they frequently sang together in opera and in recital. In 1955, both were cast in Marc Blitzstein's "folk opera" Reuben, Reuben, but the piece was an out-of-town flop that never reached Broadway. In 1957, eager to establish professional connections in Europe, Stewart and Lear went to Berlin to study on Fulbright grants. Stewart was hired by the Städtische Oper (as Deutsche Oper Berlin was then known) almost immediately; Lear, by her own admission, "scrounged" for a bit until she made her own debut with the company in 1959, as the Composer in Ariadne auf Naxos. (To better her chances of landing the engagement, Lear showed up for her Ariadne audition dressed as a boy.) In her early Berlin years, Lear mixed standard-repertory roles (Octavian, Micaela, Mimì) with new works, such as Giselher Klebe's Alkmene, in which she created the title role in 1961.
In 1962, Lear's reputation kicked up a notch when she was asked to sing a concert performance of Berg's Lulu in Vienna — on very short notice. As she told OPERA NEWS in 1967, "I was recommended as the only person in the world who could learn the role in three weeks. Of course, I dropped dead when I saw the score, but I did it." Two years later, Lear sang Lulu in a production staged for the reopening of Vienna's Theater an der Wien, with Karl Böhm conducting; such was Lear's success that there were to be six other new productions of the Berg opera mounted for her Lulu within the decade. She made her Salzburg Festival debut in 1962, as Cherubino, and the following year created Jeanne in Egk's Die Verlobung in San Domingo for the gala reopening of the Munich Nationaltheater. Rudolf Bing offered Lear the chance to sing three roles at the Met in the 1964–65 season — Octavian, Marie in Wozzeck and Vanessa — but the soprano chose instead to make her Covent Garden debut, as Donna Elvira, during the period in question. She did not arrive at the Met until the 1967 world premiere of Mourning Becomes Electra, Marvin David Levy's opera of Eugene O'Neill's cycle of plays about murder and revenge in a nineteenth-century New England family. The role of the calculating Lavinia Mannon, a daughter bent on avenging her father's murder, was a perfect fit for an artist of Lear's theatrical acumen and ambition; in 1998, she told OPERA NEWS's Brian Kellow that Lavinia "required of me more passion, artistry, technical skill, discipline and hard work than had ever been required up to that point." Under the incisive direction of Michael Cacoyannis — whom she called "the greatest director I had ever worked with" — Lear had a great personal success and was soon established as a regular presence on the Metropolitan Opera roster.
Within a few years of her Met debut, however, Lear experienced a devastating vocal crisis — a period in her professional life that she always discussed with disarming bluntness. In her 1980 OPERA NEWS interview with Wadsworth, she said, "I never lost my voice — I lost my confidence…. I've been quoted as saying that [singing] contemporary music made me lose my voice. That is not true. I didn't have the technique to handle the difficulties of contemporary music. It was my lack of technique, not the fault of the music." Thanks to intense restudy — she credited voice teacher Daniel Ferro with the reshaping of her technique — Lear recovered much of her old form and continued to sing in opera until the late 1980s.
Lear sang fifteen seasons with the Met, where her ninety-three performances in New York and on tour ranged from Cherubino, Octavian and the Composer to Donna Elvira, Alice Ford and Marie in Wozzeck. In 1973, Lear was Dido to her husband's Aeneas in the Met premiere of Purcell's opera, presented at Lincoln Center's Forum Theater (now the Mitzi E. Newhouse) as part of the short-lived "Mini-Met." Other choice assignments were Countess Almaviva in the 1975 premiere of the Met's Günther Rennert staging of Le Nozze di Figaro and Countess Geschwitz in the 1980 performance of Lulu that marked the Met premiere of the completed version of Berg's opera, with Act III orchestrated by Friedrich Cerha. More than thirty years later, Lear's Geschwitz — chic, feminine and vulnerable — remains a revelatory characterization; in Lear's interpretation, Geschwitz's infatuation with the amoral Lulu had an almost unbearable poignancy, as witness the DVD release of the Live from the Met telecast of December 20, 1980. Lear made her unannounced Met farewell in 1985, as the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier, a role that had become one of her specialties since her first performances of it, in Berlin in 1972.
Lear was also an important artist at other North American opera companies; a list of her credits in U.S. theaters is a testament to her extraordinary versatility and vitality. In 1965, she made her U.S. debut as Cleopatra in Handel's Giulio Cesare at the gala opening of the Kansas City Performing Arts Center, as well as her debut at San Francisco Opera as Lulu. The following year, Lear made her Lyric Opera of Chicago debut as Monteverdi's Poppea; she returned to Chicago for Hanna Glawari in The Merry Widow (1981) and Geschwitz (1987). San Francisco Opera also welcomed her as Geschwitz (1989), as well as Marie in Wozzeck (1968), Tatiana in Eugene Onegin (1971), Marina in Boris Godunov (1973), Fiordiligi (1973) and Kabanicha in Kát'a Kabanová (1983). At Houston Grand Opera, Lear was Irina Arkadina in the world premiere of Thomas Pasatieri's The Seagull (1974) and Madame Armfeldt in the company premiere of Sondheim's A Little Night Music (1999). She sang her first Countess Almaviva (1973) for Dallas Opera. Santa Fe Opera heard Lear as Venus in Cavalli's L'Orione (1983) and in the title role of Giordano's Fedora (1977).
Lear was also a passionate and indefatigable recitalist, with a special affinity for the songs of Richard Strauss and for twentieth-century American music. Several releases of live performances by VAI document her interpretive skill and musical power in recital and in concert; the best of these are Evelyn Lear: The Art of the Recital, which preserves some of her best work with pianist Martin Katz, and A Celebration of Twentieth-Century Song, which gathers haunting Lear performances of Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915 and Berg's Seven Early Songs.
Given her personal glamour and acting talent, it was inevitable that Lear would "cross over" from the world of opera to film, television and musical theater. In Robert Altman's 1976 film, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, Lear played the cameo role of Nina Cavallini, a lyric soprano. She took on Lilli Vanessi in Cole Porter's Kiss Me, Kate (opposite Stewart's Fred Graham), at Wolf Trap in 1979, and Elizabeth I in the York Theater's 1984 Off-Broadway production of Elizabeth and Essex, a musical version of Maxwell Anderson's play, Elizabeth the Queen. In 1992, Lear was the tippling singing teacher Madame Dilyovska (Madame Dilly) in a concert of Leonard Bernstein's On the Town at London's Barbican Center, conducted by Michael Tilson-Thomas. (That performance was later televised.)
After Lear stopped singing, she remained active as a teacher, working with students privately, on faculty at the University of Maryland and in master classes throughout North America. In 1999, Lear and Stewart established the Evelyn Lear and Thomas Stewart Emerging Singers Program (in partnership with the Wagner Society of Washington, D.C.), dedicated to identifying singers with the potential for a career singing Wagner. It was a subject in which Lear remained fiercely interested until the end of her life: in late May, just six weeks before her death, Lear was in the audience at the Washington Chorus's Wagner program, The Essential Wagner, applauding the artists from the program that she and her late husband founded together.
F. PAUL DRISCOLL
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