Brenda Lewis, 96, Ferociously Intelligent American Soprano Who Premiered Title Role in Lizzie Borden, has Died
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16 September 2017

Brenda Lewis, 96, Ferociously Intelligent American Soprano Who Premiered Title Role in Lizzie Borden, has Died

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March 2, 1921, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania—September 16, 2017, Westport, Connecticut  

A FEROCIOUSLY INTELLIGENT  singing actress, Brenda Lewis came to prominence during a fertile time in American opera. She is most closely associated with two successful works—Marc Blitzstein’s Regina (1949), in which she created the role of the alcoholic Birdie before graduating to the scheming Regina, and Lizzie Borden, Jack Beeson’s searing 1965 masterpiece about events leading up to one of America’s most baffling murder cases.

Lewis was in the premed program at Pennsylvania State University before she got a scholarship to the Curtis Institute of Music. She was a very proficient musician who could play any role at the piano well enough to teach it to herself. As a young singer in Philadelphia, she sang with a contemporary music group. She later told OPERA NEWS that whenever someone was needed to learn a new piece, “I would be their sucker.” She sang her first major role at nineteen—the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier at Philadelphia’s Academy of Music. (Her age wasn’t the only thing unusual about the performance; her Octavian was a man—baritone David Brooks.)

Lewis’s New York City Opera debut came in 1945 as Santuzza. She remained with the company through 1967, appearing as Marguerite in Faust, Mařenka in The Bartered Bride, Tatiana, Donna Elvira, Salome and Giulietta in Les Contes d’Hoffmann. In 1948, Lewis appeared briefly on Broadway as the Female Chorus in Benjamin Britten’s Rape of Lucretia. Kitty Carlisle had the title role, but the supporting cast included several City Opera talents—Lewis, Adelaide Bishop, Patricia Neway and Emile Renan. It was a period when a number of new English-language operas were being produced on Broadway, and Lewis followed Lucretia with her acclaimed portrayal of Birdie in Blitzstein’s Regina, which bowed at New York’s 46th Street Theatre in 1949. Regina ran for only fifty-six performances, but it became a success when New York City Opera revived it in 1953, this time with Lewis playing Regina. NYCO presented a heavily revised version in 1958; this performance was recorded and is still available on Sony. Lewis’s intense performance of Regina’s credo, “The best thing of all,” is one of the most exciting moments in twentieth-century American opera.

In September 1951, Lewis made her first appearance with the Met as Rosalinde in a national company of Garson Kanin’s Fledermaus production, which toured the U.S. until February 2. Later that month, on February 26, 1952, Lewis made her official company debut, as Musetta in La Bohème. She appeared with the Met in New York and on tour through 1965, in roles that ranged from Samuel Barber’s Vanessa to Marina in Boris Godunov. In 1953, Lewis sang Rosalinde and Musetta with the Met in live studio telecasts for CBS television’s Omnibus series. 

Salome served as Lewis’s debut role at San Francisco Opera in 1950; six years later, she opened Houston Grand Opera in the same role. She was also noted for Marie in Wozzeck, which she sang for both the Met and NYCO. She was scheduled to sing the San Francisco Opera premiere of Wozzeck in 1960, but was forced to withdraw because of illness. She was replaced by a young unknown, Marilyn Horne.

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Soprano Brenda Lewis in the title role of Jack Beeson's Lizzie Bordon at New York City Opera
© Beth Bergman

But it was another triumph at New York City Opera that eclipsed these successes. Lewis made Beeson’s Lizzie Borden a chilling and unforgettable study in repression and pent-up rage. She later remembered that the score looked like “an Etruscan discovery. Blotch after blotch—chords that were about three inches tall.” As an actress, she brilliantly served Kenward Elmslie’s scorching libretto; the edge she gave to Lizzie’s great mad scene at the close of Act I—“Lizzie has a body / Lizzie has a head / Lizzie’s cut to pieces / Lizzie must be dead!”—was hard for audiences to shake off. Lewis looked back on the weeks of the original Lizzie Borden run as a time of great emotional turmoil. Perhaps her performance was so overwhelming because she “just wanted to get up there and get it out of my guts.” Elmslie later told OPERA NEWS, “She took it and ran .... Brenda wanted to go through every line of the text, and to know what I thought was going on inside and underneath the scenes—the subtext.” The opera was commercially recorded and also taped for public television. 

Lizzie was Lewis’s final role at New York City Opera. Throughout her career, she also appeared extensively in musical theater—touring in Call Me Madam, starring in Vienna Volksoper productions of Kiss Me, Kate and Annie Get Your Gun and returning to Broadway in Sigmund Romberg and Leo Robin’s Girl in Pink Tights (115 performances, 1954) and Albert Hague and Marty Brill’s Cafe Crown (three performances, 1964). 

For many decades, Lewis made her home in Westport, Connecticut. She directed operas for New Haven Opera Theater and spent many years on the voice faculty of the Hartt School of Music. A production of Die Fledermaus she directed was filmed for Connecticut Public television and won a regional Emmy. Her first husband was conductor/violist Simon Asen; her second was engineer Benjamin Cooper. After her retirement from teaching, she still kept up with performances and had no trouble voicing her opinions of them. Her no-nonsense wit never diminished; when she was honored at the 1997 Licia Albanese–Puccini Foundation gala, she drew a big laugh from the audience when she announced, “I feel resurrected!”  —Brian Kellow 

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