Evelyn Lear, one of the outstanding 20th-century interpreters of Lulu and other ‘neurotic modern heroines’ (her own phrase), has died in Sandy Spring, Maryland, USA; she was 86.
She was born Evelyn Shulman in Brooklyn, New York. Music ran deeply in the family: her mother sang opera and concerts professionally and her maternal grandfather had been a Jewish cantor. Wanting to be a singer from the age of 3, Lear (she always kept the surname of her first husband) first studied piano and horn, playing under Leonard Bernstein as a student at Tanglewood.
After divorcing her first husband, she enrolled at the Juilliard School of Music, majoring in voice, and met baritone Thomas Stewart while working on a duet from Porgy and Bess. In 1955 she created the role of Nina in Marc Blitzstein’s Reuben, Reuben and married Stewart. Finding opportunities limited in America, they travelled to Europe to study on Fulbright scholarships at the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin. Here Lear studied with the Austro-Hungarian soprano Maria Ivogün (who had also taught Elisabeth Schwarzkopf) and she and Stewart became members of the Deutsche Oper. Lear made her opera debut as the Composer in Ariadne auf Naxos in 1959 and in the same year sang Strauss's Four Last Songs in London at the Royal Festival Hall with Sir Adrian Boult.
In 1960 Lear took on the role of Lulu at extremely short notice (‘an American never says no’) in a concert performance at the Vienna Festival conducted by Karl Böhm. It launched her international career, and was followed by stage performances and a DG recording with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as Dr Schön. Schwarzkopf called her Lulu 'one of the supreme achievements of the operatic stage anywhere in the world'. She was seen in the role in Britain at Sadler's Wells and for Scottish Opera in Glasgow.
In Germany and America she now went on to create a range of modern opera roles: the title-role in Giselher Klebe's Alkmene (Berlin, 1961); Jeanne in Werner Egk's Die Verlobung in San Domingo (Munich, 1963); Lavinia Mannon (the Electra figure) in Marvin David Levy's Eugene O’Neill-based Mourning Becomes Electra at the Metropolitan in New York (1967 – her debut there); Arkadina in Thomas Pasatieri's The Seagull (Houston, 1974), Magda in Robert Ward's Minutes to Midnight (Miami, 1982) and Ranyevskaya in Rudolf Kelterborn's Kirschgarten (‘The Cherry Orchard’, Zurich, 1984).
In more mainstream repertoire in the 1960s she sang a ‘charmingly adolescent’ Cherubino at Salzburg and Poppea in Hamburg, Donna Elvira at Covent Garden under Rudolf Kempe, and appeared at the Proms as Dido in The Trojans, Anna in The Seven Deadly Sins, in Das klagende Lied and Berg's Seven Early Songs under Pierre Boulez and with her husband in Duke Bluebeard's Castle. She sang all three soprano roles in Der Rosenkavalier and was a noted Marschallin.
But it was not until 1965 in Kansas City that she made her American operatic debut as Cleopatra in Giulio Cesare. 'I love to do Handel, Mozart and Strauss, and I love to do my neurotic modern heroines too,' she told The New York Times in 1967. ‘I am never afraid to make an ugly sound on stage because it is real and reality is never ugly’. She sang with the Met until her retirement in 1985. Her roles there included Octavian, the Composer, Cherubino, Elvira, Alice Ford and, in a final return to the opera Lulu, Countess Geschwitz.
A period of vocal crisis led later to a change to more lyric roles, especially in the Italian repertory. Her husband too – although now a famous Wagnerian and Herbert von Karajan’s favourite Wotan – adjusted his repertoire to enable him to spend more time singing with his wife. (‘We’re the Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman of opera’, she said once.) They sang together in productions of Wolf-Ferrari's Susanna's Secret, Schreker's Die Gezeichneten, Krenek's Jonny spielt auf and recorded Wolf's Goethe and Mörike settings. After retiring from the stage Lear taught at the University of Maryland and gave master classes. Together they founded the Evelyn Lear and Thomas Stewart Emerging Singers Program under the aegis of the Wagner Society of Washington DC (one of their participants was Jay Hunter Morris, the Siegfried in the Metropolitan Opera’s recent new Ring cycle).
Always interested in supporting young artists Lear once told a group of students: ‘on the outside, you need the skin of an elephant; on the inside, the soul of a butterfly’.
Her work is quite extensively represented on disc: the Karl Böhm-led Wozzeck, Lulu and Die Zauberflöte (Lear is Pamina) – all for DG, the Marschallin under de Waart (Philips), the premiere of Egk’s Die Verlobung in San Domingo (Orfeo), a number of recitals on VAI (many jointly with Stewart, including Des Knaben Wunderhorn) and even a DVD of the 1963 Salzburg Figaro under Lorin Maazel.