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Evelyn Lear’s (Recorded) Legacy

Evelyn Lear, apart from her international career, was also a local celebrity. Many singers in and around Washington will remember her generosity with advice and support, especially those she helped through the Emerging Singers Program she ran with her husband and the Wagner Society of Washington, D.C. Jim Holman, who founded the Wagner Society in 1998, created the Evelyn Lear & Thomas Stewart Emerging Singers Program over lunch in 2000, forging a deal in which the famous couple living in Rockville would provide the expertise and artistic directorship (pro bono, no less, at least for as long as Tom Stewart was alive), and the Wagner Society the money.

Evelyn Lear was always eager, and genuinely happy to support younger singers. Her enthusiasm and kindness in that regard were often boundless; sometimes to the point of uncritical hyperbole. As Holman, whose branch of the Wagner Society greatly benefited from this association, remembers, Evelyn Lear nourished an “awe-inspiring”, ever-supportive love for the singers she helped, making them feel welcome and cared for.

Tim Page, a friend of Tom Stewart and Evelyn Lear, covered her last Met performance for the New York Times—a Marschallin in 1985. He remembers a song recital with her at Alice Tully Hall in 1977: “She reached for a top note in a song and it just wasn't there—nothing at all came out. She began the song over again, nailed the passage perfectly, and the house went wild. When it was all over, she grinned at the audience and said ‘I was as surprised as you were!’ She was delightful.”

When Charles went looking for stories about Evelyn Lear, several singers offered anecdotes, of which we share one that doesn’t contain salty language: Tad Czyzewski first met Evelyn—“she did not want to be referred to any other way,” remembers the baritone—in 2008. Lear was taking another singer friend to a recital at the Kennedy Center and had an extra ticket. “Evelyn took my arm and declared I was going to be her escort for the evening. She asked me about my repertoire and, even though she had yet to hear me sing, immediately started giving me advice on what I should change.” Lear found the designated seats too close to the stage. “Looking around, she saw three seats in the dead center of the house and decided these were supposed to be ours,” and she insisted on being helped back up the stairs to claim them. “As soon as we had settled in, the actual patron of the seats, someone who was on the board of the concert organizer, arrived. Seeing who had taken his seats, he became very deferential and found somewhere else to sit. Evelyn turned to me and said, ‘Always maintain confidence in the face of adversity’.”

Evelyn Lear, Charles points out, “had a grande dame kind of presence wherever she went, a diva in the old style”. That didn’t always rub everyone the right way. As I tried to collect a few of Evelyn Lear remembrances, it wasn’t just warm and fuzzy memories that were forthcoming. The airs she occasionally put on could make it difficult for acquaintances and associates to get along with her, especially after Tom Stewart died. After retiring from singing in 1985, she displayed at least as much talent for aggravating people around her than she did for turning them into friends and admirers. Then again that makes her not less extraordinary, only more human. (Aside, sopranos do have a stereotype to maintain.) Fortunately for us, her public record of extraordinariness is acceptably well persevered on several recordings, a selection of the most telling and touching I’ve put together below.

available at AmazonMusorgksy, Boris Godunov (N.RR.),
E.Lear, B.Christoff et al.
Cluytens / Paris Conservatoire Orchestra

Marina isn’t a very important role in Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, but Evelyn Lear endows her with uncommon grace on a recording that remains a classic thanks to Boris Christoff, who took on three roles (Pimen and Varlaam, apart from Boris) for this 1962 studio recording.
available at AmazonDvořák, Glagolitic Mass,
E.Lear et al.
Kubelik / BRSO

Evelyn Lear was part of a “grand old recording of this marvelous work” (Charles), Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass under Rafael Kubelik with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. It’s an unapologetic reading that doesn’t shy from pushing even the uncomfortable, prickly aspects of the work. With Hilde Roessel-Majdan, Franz Crass, and especially Ernst Haefliger, Lear was surrounded by a cast that stands the test of time.
available at AmazonR.Strauss, Der Rosenkavalier,
E.Lear, Frederica von Stade et al.
Edo de Waart / Rotterdam PO
Philips / Decca

If you listen to operas as dramatic performances, not just absolute music, than a Marshallin who is slightly (or even considerably) past her prime is actually perfect. Or maybe not perfect, but sensical. Evelyn Lear isn’t her freshest in this 1976 Rosenkavalier, but she is certainly extraordinarily touching. The uncut, unhurried performance is conducted by Edo de Waart and champions Frederica von Stade’s Octavian as the other main attraction. (Just re-released by Decca; previously on Philips and Brilliant Classics.)
available at AmazonG.Mahler, Das Klagende Lied,
E.Lear, E.Söderström, E.Haefliger...
P.Boulez / LSO

When Pierre Boulez recorded Mahler's "Das Klagende Lied" (the official and then-extant parts two and three; he added part one a couple years later, after its discovery), it was hot, daring, novel stuff - and Evelyn Lear of course in the midst of it. (Much like she was one of the early recordings of the Second String Quartet by Schoenberg.) Extraordinarily detailed and well sung, the recording still holds up very nicely against the increasingly sophisticated competition.
available at AmazonA.Berg, Lulu & Wozzeck,
E.Lear, "DFD", Wunderlich, et al.
K.Böhm / Deutsche Oper Berlin Orchestra

The classic Lear-recording with two roles - Marie in Wozzeck and Lulu - that jump-started her career in Europe. Wozzeck is the key here, with Dieskau, Lear, and Wunderlich the roles are superbly cast, even for those who think Dieskau is too clever as Wozzeck, and Lear not lush enough for Marie. The third act for Lulu had still been blocked by Berg's widow at the time - so Böhm could only conduct the abridged two-act version. Neither are references any more, but both staples of every self-respecting Berg (and of course Lear-) collection.
available at AmazonJ.S.Bach, St.John Passion,
E.Lear, H.Prey, E.Haefliger, H.Töpper et al.
Karl Richter / Munich Bach Orchestra & Choir
DG / Archiv

Karl Richter’s first recording of the St. John has been given a budget-CD re-release by DG and is, in its sumptuous, slightly romantic (but never dripping or overwrought) way something to behold. His soloists in Ernst Haefliger (Evangelist), Hermann Prey (Jesus), Evelyn Lear et al. need not hide from any other cast... and the innate musicality of Richter in Bach ensures that even after leaps and bounds have been made in Bach scholarship and performance, this is still very much worth your shelf- or hard-drive-space.
available at AmazonA Musical Tribute,
Evelyn Lear & Thomas Stewart

A DG hodge-podge to Lear and Stewart of select bits, arias, duets from Schumann to Brahms to Wolf to "Jeannie with the light brown hair", and piano-accompanied Strauss songs. Includes excerpts of the above mentioned Wozzeck, Lulu, St.John Passion and her radiant Pamina which is, apart from Wunderlich's Tamino, the best part about Böhm's Magic Flute.