Janet Baker

The album cover is dominated by a photograph of Janet Baker with slightly downcast eyes and introspective facial expression.
Album cover for Janet Baker's recording of Mahler's Kindertotenlieder on EMI ASD 2338 (1968)

Dame Janet Abbott Baker, CH, DBE, FRSA (born 21 August 1933) is an English mezzo-soprano best known as an opera, concert, and lieder singer.[1]

She was particularly closely associated with baroque and early Italian opera and the works of Benjamin Britten. During her career, which spanned the 1950s to the 1980s, she was considered an outstanding singing actress and widely admired for her dramatic intensity, perhaps best represented in her famous portrayal as Dido, the tragic heroine of Berlioz's magnum opus Les Troyens.[2] As a concert performer, Baker was noted for her interpretations of the music of Gustav Mahler and Edward Elgar. David Gutman, writing in the Gramophone, described her performance of Mahler's Kindertotenlieder as "intimate, almost self-communing."[3]

Contents

Biography and career

Early life

Baker was born in Hatfield, South Yorkshire, northern England. Her father was an engineer who sang in a male voice choir. Her brother Peter died when she was ten. Members of her family worked at Bentley pit, in Doncaster, South Yorkshire.[citation needed] She attended York College for Girls and then Wintringham Girls' Grammar School in Grimsby. In her early years she worked in a bank, transferring to London in 1953 where she trained with Meriel St Clair and Helene Isepp. The death of her elder brother, Peter, when she was 10 years old, was a formative moment that made her take responsibility for the rest of her life, she revealed in a BBC Radio 3 Lebrecht Interview in September 2011.[4]

In her early years she worked in a bank, transferring to London in 1953 where she trained with Meriel St Clair and Helene Isepp, whose son Martin became her regular accompanist. Knocked down by a bus in 1956, she suffered concussion and a persistent, nagging back injury.[5] That same year, she came second in the Kathleen Ferrier Memorial Competition at the Wigmore Hall, winning national attention.

Debut

In 1956, she made her stage debut with the Oxford University Opera Club as Miss Róza in Smetana's The Secret. That year, she also made her debut at Glyndebourne. In 1959, she sang Eduige in the Handel Opera Society's Rodelinda; other Handel roles included Ariodante (1964), of which she later made an outstanding recording with Raymond Leppard, and Orlando (1966), which she sang at the Barber Institute, Birmingham.

Opera

With the English Opera Group at Aldeburgh, Baker sang Purcell's Dido and Aeneas in 1962, Polly (Benjamin Britten's version of The Beggar's Opera) and Lucretia (in Britten's The Rape of Lucretia). At Glyndebourne she appeared again as Dido (1966) and as Diana/Jupiter in Francesco Cavalli's La Calisto, and Penelope in Monteverdi's Il ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria. For Scottish Opera she sang Dorabella in Mozart's Così fan tutte, Dido, Octavian in Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier, the Composer in Ariadne auf Naxos and the role of Orfeo in Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice. The latter was considered her signature role; she sang it everywhere and a videotaped performance from Glyndbourne is available (see below).

In 1966, Baker made her debut as Hermia at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and went on to sing Berlioz's Dido, Kate in Britten's Owen Wingrave, Mozart's Vitellia and Idamantes, Cressida in William Walton's Troilus and Cressida and the title role in Gluck's Alceste (1981) there. For the English National Opera, she sang the title role in Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea (1971),[6] Charlotte in Massenet's Werther, and the title roles in Donizetti's Maria Stuarda and Handel's Giulio Cesare.

Oratorio and song

During this same period she made an equally strong impact on audiences in the concert hall, both in oratorio roles and solo recitals. Among her most notable achievements are her recordings of the Angel in Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius, made with Sir John Barbirolli in December 1964 and Sir Simon Rattle over twenty years later; her 1965 performances of Elgar's Sea Pictures and Mahler's Rückert-Lieder, also recorded with Barbirolli; and, also from 1965, the first commercial recording of Ralph Vaughan Williams's Christmas oratorio Hodie under Sir David Willcocks. She performed in 1971 for the Peabody Mason Concert series in Boston.[7] In 1976 she premièred the solo cantata Phaedra, written for her by Britten; and Dominick Argento's Pulitzer Prize-winning song cycle From the Diary of Virginia Woolf, also written with Baker's voice in mind. She has also been highly praised for her insightful performances of Brahms's Alto Rhapsody, Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder as well as solo songs from the French, German and English repertoire.

Retirement

Dame Janet Baker's final operatic appearance was as Orfeo in Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice, on 17 July 1982, at Glyndebourne.[8] She published a memoir, Full Circle, in 1982. In 1991, Baker was elected Chancellor of the University of York. She held the position until 2004, when she was succeeded by Greg Dyke. An enthusiastic Patron of the Leeds International Pianoforte Competition, she gave an address at the closing ceremony of the 2009 event.[9]

Honours and awards

Baker was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in 1976 and a member of the Order of the Companions of Honour (CH) in 1993. In 1968, she was initiated as an Honorary Member of Sigma Alpha Iota International Music Fraternity by the Alpha Omicron Chapter at Occidental College, California, United States.[10] She received the Léonie Sonning Music Prize of Denmark in 1979. In 2008, she received the Distinguished Musician Award from the Incorporated Society of Musicians.

Private life

She married (James) Keith Shelley in 1957 in Harrow. Following her retirement as a singer she did perform and record some spoken roles, for example the role of the Narrator in Britten's incidental music for The Rescue of Penelope; in later years, apart from occasional public appearances such as the 2009 Leeds event, she now has "nothing to do with anyone except close friends".[8]

Recordings

References

Notes
  1. ^ Blyth, Alan, "Baker, Dame Janet (Abbott)" in Sadie, Stanley, ed.; John Tyrell; exec. ed. (2001). New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd ed. London: Macmillan. ISBN 9781561592395 (hardcover). OCLC 419285866 (eBook).
  2. ^ Janet Baker Biography at musicianguide.com, retrieved 12 December 2010. "In the mid 1960s ... she became known for her impressive handling of dramatic roles such as that of Dido in French composer Hector Berlioz's opera Les Troyens".
  3. ^ David S. Gutman in Gramophone, April 1995, p. 60. Retrieved 30 November 2009.
  4. ^ http://www.artsjournal.com/slippeddisc/wp/wp-admin/post.php?post=2220&action=edit
  5. ^ http://www.artsjournal.com/slippeddisc/wp/wp-admin/post.php?post=2220&action=edit
  6. ^ ArkivMusic.com. Retrieved 30 November 2009.
  7. ^ Christian Science Monitor, 12-Feb-1971, Louis Snyder, "Janet Baker recital cheered at Sanders", Boston
  8. ^ a b Limelight, April 2009, p. 52
  9. ^ http://www.yorkshirepost.co.uk/news/Female-winner-makes-history-at.5643490.jp
  10. ^ Sigma Alpha Iota. "International Music Fraternity". Honorary Members. http://www.sai-national.org/home/Membership/DistinguishedMembers/HonoraryMembers/tabid/241/Default.aspx#b. Retrieved Feb. 25, 2011. 

External links

Academic offices
Preceded by
Michael Swann
Chancellor of the University of York
1991–2004
Succeeded by
Greg Dyke

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