Dame Janet Baker (18 March)

A distinguished end to our 2018-19 season. Dame Janet Baker’s place in Twentieth Century musical life hardly needs re-iterating here. Suffice it to say that this great mezzo-soprano was equally familiar on the concert, lieder and opera stages throughout a career which began with her debut in 1956 in Oxford University’s Opera Club as Miss Rósza in Smetana’s The Secret. Born in Hatfield, South Yorkshire, her father was an engineer and chorister. She attended York College for Girls and then Wintringham Grammar School for Girls in Grimsby. In her early years, she worked in a bank, transferring to London in 1953 where she received lessons from Meriel St Clair and Helen Isepp, and was a prize-winner in the Kathleen Ferrier Memorial Competition.

In a career lasting until 1982, she was a familiar figure at Aldeburgh, the English Opera Group, Covent Garden, English National Opera and Glyndebourne. Among the composers who wrote works for her was Benjamin Britten, whose Phaedra she recorded. Also immortalised on disc is her portrayal of Kate (also written for her) in that composer’s Owen Wingrave. Invidious though it is to single out individual recordings among the hundred or more on which she features, two of music by Elgar (Sea Pictures with Barbirolli and the role of the Angel in The Dream of Gerontius, for both Barbirolli and Rattle) place her particularly high in the public consciousness. Her retirement, with typical clear-sightedness, from the opera stage in 1982, at the peak of her vocal and artistic powers, took the form of farewell appearances at Covent Garden (Alceste), English National Opera (Mary Stuart) and Glyndebourne (Orfeo) although her career on the concert platform continued for another seven years. In 1982 she published a memoir, Full Circle, in which she both reflects on her art and her farewell to the opera stage. This evening she talks to Putney Music’s vice-president Ian Partridge.

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