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Happy 80th birthday, Dame Janet Baker

Michael Kennedy salutes the mezzo-soprano Janet Baker,who celebrates her 80th birthday next week

17 August 2013

9:00 AM

17 August 2013

9:00 AM

Raise your glass on 21 August to wish a happy 80th birthday to one of the greatest singers and singing actresses this or any other country has produced — Dame Janet Baker, the mezzo-soprano from Yorkshire, who never went to a music college and won the hearts of her audiences in a career spanning 35 years. Joining us in our toast will be some shades from the past who have much for which to thank and applaud her. Make way for Bach, Handel, Elgar, Monteverdi, Britten, Mahler, Strauss, Purcell, Schubert, Berlioz, Schumann and Wolf, all of whose music she has sung with penetrating insight. In the concert hall and the opera house she has lavished her art on theirs.

It is now more than 30 years since she sang in public. During the celebration of her birthday, Radio 3 will broadcast many of her recordings to remind us of the variety and breadth of her repertoire, which stretched in opera from Monteverdi to Britten. The clear line, immaculate diction and understanding of the text in whatever language she was singing — ‘Think Frank Sinatra,’ she has told young singers — were attributes that set her apart.

The operatic characters she has sung on stage stay in the memory because of the intensity of her interpretations. ‘I adore the stage,’ she says, ‘and I think I am a good actress. A celebrated director once told me I could earn my living as an actress.’

Baker’s career began in an almost haphazard fashion. Her family was far from well-off. She left school to work in a bank. She also joined Leeds Philharmonic Choir because singing had begun to mean something important. She sang as a soloist in Haydn’s Nelson Mass in Leeds in 1953 with Ilse Wolf as the soprano soloist. Wolf said Baker should go to London and study with Helen Isepp. The bank obligingly transferred her to London but before she left Yorkshire she was making a name in competitions and in Messiah. She had no money and neither had her parents, but they supported her determination to make singing her career, as did Ilse Wolf, Meriel St Clair (with whom she studied French song) and Helen Isepp, who gave her three lessons a week even if she could not always pay for them. She joined the Ambrosian Singers, worked as a receptionist at Morley College and in the spring of 1955 earned seven guineas from the BBC; a few weeks later she gave a recital of Brahms and Elgar on the BBC Northern Home Service.

Her singing of Bach was already being praised. She won second prize (£500) in the 1956 Kathleen Ferrier competition. One of the judges, the soprano Joan Cross, told her colleagues, ‘As far as I’m concerned, there is only one singer here and that’s Janet Baker.’ At the same time she made her opera début in Oxford University Opera Club’s production of Smetana’s The Secret. London critics singled her out for special praise. She spent the summer of 1956 at Glyndebourne as part of the off-stage chorus in Mozart’s Idomeneo. It was in this year that she was knocked down by a bus in London and suffered concussion and a back injury that still troubles her.

Attending a Lotte Lehmann masterclass was a major formative experience. The agents Ibbs and Tillett put her on their books, and in the autumn of 1957 she married Keith Shelley, who gave up his own work as a motor engineer to become her business manager. It was about this time that I first heard her, having been tipped off that it would be worth attending the concert as a critic just to hear her in the St Matthew Passion. It was.

Passion, dramatic intensity, radiant expression, total absorption in what she was singing: these are the qualities that distinguished her interpretations. She was at first compared with Kathleen Ferrier, the greatly loved contralto who had died at the age of 41 in 1953. Although their careers followed a similar pattern, Baker never heard Ferrier in person. Their voices were really not very much alike. Ferrier was a true contralto with a lower compass than Baker and could never have comfortably reached the high notes that sometimes strained her in Mahler.

They were different personalities. If Ferrier sang a jaunty folk song and the mood took her, she could not resist a wink at a member of the audience or a fetching toss of her hair. This was not Baker’s style — she did not ‘do’ flirtatiousness, as we say today. She did not lack humour, though. I have not seen a funnier Dorabella in Mozart’s Così fan tutte than in Scottish Opera’s 1967 production with Elizabeth Harwood as the perfect Fiordiligi. Perhaps because they were both from Yorkshire, they had a telepathic rapport.

A recording of English songs made thousands aware of her. Another landmark was her 1964 recording of Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius conducted by Sir John Barbirolli. After Ferrier’s death he had been searching for a mezzo who, if they could not take her place, would satisfy him in most respects. He had one or two singers in mind for the Gerontius Angel. A friend implored him to hear Janet Baker and, after listening to a test tape, he engaged her. The result was a recording classic. Working together did not come easily. ‘He judged us all by Kathleen and it was grievous for him to hear the same music sung by anyone else. Then quite suddenly he began to take me on my own terms. That was marvellous. His music was from the heart.’ The ghost of Ferrier was laid to rest.

The sheer hard work involved in learning an operatic role did not faze Baker. In 1970 she sang both Diana and Jupiter in Cavalli’s La Calisto at Glyndebourne and in the same house two years later she had one of her finest triumphs as Penelope in Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria. But there was a price. She was so involved in every role that one could not imagine her saying, as she did, ‘I want to be at home more. I want to be a person who has a life in which music plays a very important part but not an all-absorbing one. I want to be a person who also happens to be a musician — which simply means I want to do fewer performances a year. Physically and mentally it is a great strain appearing so often as one grows older. I just must have time for living.’ Not for her the jet-set routine of singing one night in New York and the next in Paris.

Donizetti’s Mary Stuart, Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust (Marguerite), Handel’s Julius Caesar, Mozart’s Idomeneo (Idamante) and La clemenza di Tito (Vitellia), Massenet’s Werther (Charlotte) and Walton’s Cressida — these indicate the extent and variety of her range. Add to them the recordings of Lieder by Schubert, Schumann, Strauss and Wolf. If her Strauss had a Yorkshire reticence rather than erotic longing, she sang his Lieder with touching sensitivity. She seemed to be tireless. So the music world was shocked when she announced that her last appearance in opera would be in Gluck’s Orfeo at Glyndebourne on 17 July 1982, a month before her 49th birthday.

She was still singing as well as ever, but her work was a strain and she wanted that ‘time for living’. She has always suffered from stage fright and she is glad to have left it behind. As you would expect, her ‘retirement’ has been anything but a long rest. She was Chancellor of York University for 13 years until 2004 and for many years president of the Elgar Foundation. To whatever she undertakes, from chairing a committee to giving a prize, from a radio interview to an adjudication, she brings a special distinction (and there is still a trace of Yorkshire in her accent). Today she looks after Keith and enjoys gardening if her back is not reminding her of the 1956 accident. She does not teach but is happy to coach younger singers such as Alice Coote in their roles. She enjoys seeing friends and visiting favourite places. If she misses her life before retirement, she conceals it very well. Happy Birthday, Janet. And thank you.

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