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Reunion: Jean Fenn

JAMES C. WHITSON visits the glamorous soprano who worked with Noël Coward, Liberace, Mario Lanza — and Rudolf Bing.

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Fenn, in rehearsal at the Met
© Erika Davidson 2013
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Portrait photographed by Gary Nolton / Limbofilms
© Gary Nolton/Limbofilms 2013
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Fenn as Lady Harriet in Martha at the Met, 1967
Louis Mélançon/OPERA NEWS Archives

Three hours into my lunch interview with Jean Fenn, at her home in Bainbridge Island, Washington, the rapid patter of her voice stops, and she looks at me levelly. "You know me well enough now to give a fair account of my career." Before I can reply, she continues, "This business about me going into 'limbo,' that just irks me!"

Now eighty-five, Fenn is referring to a quote from Lanfranco Rasponi's Last Prima Donnas, listing American sopranos "who showed so much promise … only to go into limbo." That judgment, mindlessly parroted in online references to Fenn, has somehow gradually acquired currency. Her Met career, which spanned much of Rudolf Bing's tenure, may be the locus of this vague critical disappointment. Fenn herself is candid, if not a little glib, about her time there: "I had an early break at the Met, but I blew it. When the same thing happened ten years later, I was ready." But one doesn't assess a ballplayer's performance from a highlights reel of flubs and clutch plays. As our conversation unfolds, the puzzle pieces of Fenn's career outside the Met begin to fill in a much larger and far more fascinating picture.

Born in Riverside, Illinois, Fenn spent the balance of her youth in rural Chillicothe, on a small farm in the center of the state. Both she and her younger sister Merri were encouraged to sing in public from an early age. Fenn graduated at the top of her high-school class a year early, immediately heading to Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri, for another two years of schooling. 

Expecting to have no work at the outset of a singing career, she moved to Los Angeles rather than New York, reasoning that "starving would be easier in the sun." She enrolled at UCLA and "entered every contest I could find." A Young Artists contest win garnered her a berth in the spring recital in 1947, and although she didn't place in the Atwater Kent Auditions that year, she came to the attention of Homer Samuels, who accepted her as a pupil.

Samuels, of course, was the husband of Amelita Galli-Curci, the long-retired Met soprano. During Fenn's first lesson at their home, Galli-Curci, who had been listening from her studio, walked in and said, "Never mind, Homer. She's mine." The two hit it off, and although Fenn says Galli-Curci gave her little to advance her technique, "I'd leave those lessons just floating on air!" 

A third-place finish in the 1948 Atwater Kent Auditions (fourth place went to her sister Merri, first to Lucine Amara) put her on the Los Angeles musical map. Sigmund Romberg asked her to perform some of his songs in a radio revue, but when she learned it was a thirteen-week gig, a flood of anxiety brought on acute laryngitis, and the twenty-year-old had to back out. The next year, Fenn met and married her first husband, Harold Entz. On the strength of several concert appearances, Edwin Lester, director of Los Angeles Civic Light Opera, asked Fenn to audition for Rose Marie, starring Patrice Munsel. The audition became a coaching session, and Lester's patronage quickly landed the young soprano leading roles in The Merry Widow and Song of Norway

Fenn credits much of her later success to the man she referred to as "the Boss." Lester encouraged his young protégée to pursue both opera and musical theater and facilitated introductions to influential musicians such as Erich Wolfgang Korngold. "I sang a set of his songs for his B'nai B'rith group," she recalls, smiling. "He played like this," she pumps her arms violently up and down. "He wasn't the most refined pianist." 

In early 1952, Lester arranged for an audition with Gaetano Merola of San Francisco Opera. Merola offered Fenn Elena (Mefistofele), Musetta and Nedda that fall. Her promising rookie season led to Musetta, Nedda, Violetta and Rosalinda the following year at New York City Opera, and her success in these rolessecured her an audition with Rudolf Bing. 

Her Met debut, as Musetta, on November 21, 1953, was a triumph, and it became the role most closely associated with Fenn during the 1950s. Fenn's stock rose so quickly during the next two months that stepping in for an indisposed Licia Albanese seemed an almost certain coronation for the Met's newest star. Unfortunately, Fenn hadn't thought the reliable Albanese likely to cancel Traviata and had been out late the night before.

"'Ah, fors'è lui' went very well," she remembers, "but when I started the runs in 'Sempre libera,' I knew I didn't have the high notes. The scales were accurate, but I dropped the two top notes both times. I remember crying 'Do I have to go out there?' before the curtain call. But during the break, Jenny, the wardrobe mistress, told me, 'Look, you're going to get control of yourself and sing the rest of this show.' So I did, and I was fine." The damage was done, however. Fenn quotes one headline that read "MET SOPRANO GETS BIG CHANCE AND MISSES." She remembers Lester saying, "I saw your career go back five years in five minutes." 

While this mishap kept her from vaulting into bigger roles at the Met, she continued to make appearances on Thirty-ninth Street as well as the spring tour. Fenn gives a modest shrug about sharing the stage with the dazzling company of the mid-'50s, in particular a Zdenka she sang opposite Eleanor Seber. "I learned the role well enough to perform it. Then it was gone," she laughs. She continued to add roles at regional houses, such as Thaïs in New Orleans and The Desert Song in Louisville, but as her multi-faceted career began to take off, her marriage foundered. Following her divorce from Entz, she met Bill Farwell, the brother of a UCLA classmate, during a run of Kiss Me, Kate at Los Angeles Civic Light Opera. A salesman from Seattle, the much older Farwell assumed control of Fenn's career on the heels of their marriage in November 1955, and the two eventually settled in Pacific Palisades.

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Eva in the Met's Meistersinger, 1960s
Louis Mélançon/OPERA NEWS Archives

Tall and attractive, Fenn gradually trimmed down to a svelte 125 pounds. Critics were captivated by her good looks. Her onstage poise and glamour were matched by a well-produced but not highly individual lyric soprano that, judging from surviving tapes, had little trouble cutting through the orchestra. (Only when she sang Eva in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, much later on, would critics complain that she couldn't be heard properly.) In a 1967 recording of Tosca opposite Carlo Bergonzi and Giuseppe Taddei, one hears a voice of great style and technical security, certainly worthy of her costars.

Being L.A.-based gave Fenn certain advantages. She made a brief appearance onscreen singing "O soave fanciulla" with Mario Lanza in Warner's 1956 musical drama Serenade. Because of a contractual tangle, Fenn stood in for Kathryn Grayson on the soundtrack album of Paramount's Vagabond King. Her only other studio recording came ten years later, on the LACLO cast production soundtrack of Forrest, Wright and Korngold's Great Waltz

Fenn's first encounter with the musical came in 1956, starring opposite Liberace in Dallas. The flamboyant pianist had detoured into musical theater to reignite his then-flagging career. "Lee asked if I'd like to join him in his Vegas show at the Riviera, and that turned into a year-long American tour. Bill proposed a fairly handsome weekly fee, and he mulled it over. Then Lee said, 'That's not enough,' so I got a raise before we even started!" she recalls. "That's the way he was — generous to a fault. 

"After the opening numbers, he'd go change (of course) while I sang Musetta's waltz, then we did 'Ciribiribin' together. Later in the show, I'd sing 'I'm in Love with Vienna,' and the two of us would waltz around the stage." Liberace and Fenn performed selections from their act on The Steve Allen Show and The Perry Como Show the following summer. "It was a lot of fun, but the Boss was concerned about what our association would do to my career in opera." 

He may have been right. A year after she appeared on the 1959 Met spring tour, calls from opera houses had all but dried up. It was then that she received an invitation from Noël Coward to star opposite Elaine Stritch in his new musical, Sail Away. Sadly, by the time the show opened in Boston, it was clear to Coward that Fenn's refined character was being eaten alive by Stritch. The two roles were combined, and with her dismissal went Fenn's dreams of a career on Broadway. Although she regrets missing the chance to appear in a Coward show, today she seems clear-eyed about the decision that was made in favor of Stritch.

Fenn soldiered on: work continued to trickle in, and early in 1963, Farwell received a call from Bing asking if Fenn was available for Die Fledermaus the following season. "Who canceled?" he snapped. Bing assured them that Fenn was not a fallback choice for Rosalinda, and the run marked the beginning of her Met comeback. 

It was covering for Anna Moffo in Manon during the 1964 spring tour that put her name back on everyone's lips. When Moffo canceled for the Minneapolis performance, Fenn's assumption of the role finally atoned for the debacle of ten years before. The following season she took over several Met performances of Manon assigned to Teresa Stratas, adding Eva and Antonia to her repertoire during the 1964–65 season. 

Early 1967 was her "season of Toscas." Fenn had portrayed Puccini's diva in Philadelphia, Boston, Caracas, Cincinnati and in park performances in New York by the end of the summer. It was to become a signature role in the waning days of her opera career. Late in the year, she headlined as Lady Harriet in the Met's Martha, with Rosalind Elias as Nancy. In 1967, she joined Giorgio Tozzi for his famous Meistersingers, and early the next year she learned Micaela for the Met's Carmens, starring Regina Resnik, but following a few more Evas, her career there trailed off. She was approached in early 1969 by Meredith Willson to play Isabella in what was to be his final show, 1491. High hopes for a run on Broadway sank after the Los Angeles preview. Orchestra leader John Scott Trotter said of the score, "It's all verses, no choruses." 

Fenn and Farwell relocated to Bainbridge Island, in a "fisherman's cottage" with moorage for their thirty-two-foot cruiser. She continued to appear in regional opera houses and musical theater, pursuing club dates, galas and cruise gigs for the next twenty years, and gave her final concert with the Bremerton Symphony in 1991. 

Farwell died just two years ago, in his mid-nineties. Fenn remains philosophical about his death and detached, in what seems a healthy way, from her long and busy life onstage. "I had a good career," she says, smiling. "And almost none of it was spent in 'limbo.'" spacer 

JAMES C. WHITSON is an architect and writer based in Seattle. 

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Current Issue: December 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 6