On the Beat

On the Beat

The Reluctant Wagnerian.

On the Beat Farrell sm 1111
Farrell, costumed as Isolde for an appearance on the Bell Telephone Hour, 1959

THE LATE 1990s was one of the happiest times in my working life. I was collaborating with EILEEN FARRELL on her memoir, Can't Help Singing, and as we worked together on the book, friends of mine who were also fans of hers naturally asked me lots of questions. In the professional arena, one question came up more frequently than any other: why hadn't she sung more Wagner performances?

In fact, Eileen did sing a great deal of Wagner, but as anyone familiar with her career knows, she sang his operas in concert performances and on recordings only. Eileen onstage in Wagner is now seen as one of history's great lost opportunities, like Garbo's abortive return to the screen in La Duchesse de Langeais. It's also something of a mystery to a lot of people. Eileen was one of the more famous sopranos of her time — she was on the cover of Newsweek, for God's sake. Just how difficult would it have been for her to wind up in a fully staged Wagner production?

I was thinking about this recently, as I was listening to her 1949 recording of Siegfried's Act III, Scene 3, with the very fine SET SVANHOLM in the title role and ERICH LEINSDORF leading the Rochester Philharmonic. She was approaching her prime, vocally. Yet there's a strange detachment in her Siegfried performance that prevents us from responding to her singing as much as we might want. 

Eileen's Wagnerian education began with LEOPOLD STOKOWSKI in the mid-1940s. "Stoki" coached her rigorously in the Wesendonck Lieder, which he then recorded with her in 1947. She performed Wagner's works with a number of major conductors, from PIERRE MONTEUX to CHARLES MUNCH, through the 1950s and '60s. I treasure a 1951 recording of Isolde's Liebestod and Brünnhilde's immolation scene with the New York Philharmonic under VICTOR DE SABATA: Eileen's voice has amazing sheen and power, and while she can't summon the immediacy of a FRIDA LEIDER, she is quite committed emotionally without over-emphasizing anything. 

But Eileen's great Wagnerian collaboration came with LEONARD BERNSTEIN in the 1960s. Their Grammy-winning 1961 recording of the Wesendonck Lieder and the immolation scene has justly achieved classic status. She worked with many powerhouse conductors long before Bernstein came into her life. And yet, despite the fact that she was well established professionally, he became her great musical mentor. He knew how to handle her, for one thing. Eileen was always suspicious of arrogance and pomposity in the music world, and she usually reacted to it by freezing up and digging in her heels, sometimes musically as well as personally. Bernstein delighted this staunch Irish Catholic girl with his naughty, high-energy, smart-funny Jewish boy persona. And because she could relax around him, she listened to him: he got her to think more deeply about Wagner's themes and motives than anyone had done previously. Even in her youngest days, she had been capable of a certain majesty, but her performances with Bernstein demonstrated a new warmth and spontaneity. 

Her Wagnerian connection with Bernstein continued into the 1970s. Many of these performances are available on pirate discs. Her 1968 Act I of Walküre,with JAMES KING, and her 1969 Tristan, with JESS THOMAS and JOANNA SIMON, both show off one of the most spectacular facets of her sound — its womanliness. Having listened to so many steamroller Isoldes, I once commented on the sensuous beauty of her interpretation. "Well, honey," she said, "you've always gotta remember — she's an Irish princess." My colleague RICHARD DYER, former music critic of The Boston Globe, recalls being at Lincoln Center for one of these performances. The concerts were sold out, and he was unable to snag a ticket, but in the end he didn't need to: he stood outside Philharmonic Hall and heard every syllable of Eileen's performance. 

Eileen had an uneasy relationship with the opera world; she was essentially, I think, a solo performer, and not entirely at home in a large company full of other stars. I remember how hard I laughed when she told me that one of the best parts of singing at the Met came after the performance, when she and her husband would stop at the Howard Johnson's on the New Jersey Turnpike for a glass of milk and a frankfurter. 

For years, interviewers asked her why she had never performed Wagner onstage. As she did for a number of things, she had a pat answer. "Nobody ever asked me." She played this particular card with me a couple of times before I showed her what my research had revealed: she had been offered a staged Tristan und Isolde at San Francisco Opera, as well as Ortrud in a Met Lohengrin. I thought about how thrilling that voice might have sounded hurling out Ortrud's curse. "Why didn't you do it?" I asked. "Because it's a mezzo part," she answered. When I told her that really wasn't correct, she looked at me with a profound lack of interest and said, "Really? Well. You learn something every day."

The truth, which I finally got her to admit in print, was that she was leery of getting on the Wagner track, because she had witnessed the vocal erosion it brought to other singers. Eileen's image as a hearty, sunny, uncomplicated woman was a little deceptive: in reality, she had as many twists and turns as the rest of us. "I'm afraid of a lot of things," she once told me. "Heights. The dark. Cats." She was also afraid of damaging her voice, and as far as she was concerned, a heavy Wagner schedule was the fastest way to do it. She was extremely concerned about DEBORAH VOIGT, a young singer in whom she took an especially keen interest, because she thought that singing too much Wagner would do her harm. 

Another reason Eileen avoided Wagner onstage was that she was surprisingly sensitive about her size. She thought that verisimilitude was not so essential in an opera such as Il Trovatore or Andrea Chénier, but in Tristan she thought it was, or should be, of paramount importance. In 1999, shortly after our book was published, she attended a performance — her first at the "new" Met — of Tristan, starring JANE EAGLEN and BEN HEPPNER. I was out of town at the time, and when I returned, I asked her what she thought. She said she had loved RENÉ PAPE as King Marke, and that she thought the Met looked like a bordello. What else? I asked. "Well," she finally said, "it made me realize that I was wrong never to sing it onstage. Because that was basically a concert performance. The two of them didn't move! What was I thinking of?" The answer — and I say this with all respect and love — was probably dinner. spacer 

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