Evelyn Lear, the exceptional American soprano whose repertoire ranged from Mozart and Berg to Bernstein and Sondheim, died Sunday at a nursing home in Sandy Spring, Maryland. She was 86.
Her death comes six years after that of her husband of five decades, baritone Thomas Stewart. Each singer enjoyed a remarkable career; as a team, they were even more formidable and delectable, onstage and off.
Although both entered retirement, they never really left the music world. They put a lot of time and effort into the mentoring of young singers, for example, especially those with a potential for tackling the Wagnerian repertoire. The Evelyn Lear and Thomas Stewart Emerging Singers Program, established through the Wagner Society of Washington, was a project that gave both artists considerable pride.
Miss Lear enjoyed getting back onstage long after her Metropolitan Opera farewell in 1995. I'll never forget one of those post-Met performances, when she portrayed ...
Madame Armfeldt in "A Little Night Music" for Houston Grand Opera Evelyn in 1999. That really was wonderful, vocally and dramatically. Every time I saw here in recent years, she spoke of how much she would love another crack at that role.
It was also fun seeing her in London in 1992 as Madame Dilly for a concert version of Bernstein's "On the Town" [please forgive earlier version that messed up this title -- see comments] conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas.
Like a lot of American singers, the New York-born soprano first made her name in Europe, where she triumphed especially as Marie in Berg's "Wozzeck" and in the title role of his "Lulu," mastering the complexities of the musical style and getting deeply into the complex characters.
In this country, she created the role of Lavinia in Marvin David Levy's "Mourning Becomes Electra" in 1967 and had major roles in the premieres of operas by Thomas Pasatieri and Robert Ward. Throughout her career, she enjoyed successes in the standard repertoire as well, especially works by Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Puccini and Strauss -- she was an especially incisive Marschallin in "Der Rosenkavalier."
Miss Lear even had a fling with the movies -- a haunting cameo as an opera singer in Robert Altman's 1976 film "Buffalo Bill and the Indians." Not many sopranos could say they made a movie with Paul Newman, and Miss Lear had some great stories to tell about that experience.
In 2000, just before turning 75, she performed at a Carnegie Hall charity event, "Artists for the Cure," singing Sondheim's "I'm Still Here" -- having survived a double mastectomy, Miss Lear had definitely seen "good times and bum times."
In her later years, Miss Lear (like her husband) had some bittersweet feelings at times about a business that seemed to forget her, or a young generation that was clueless about her.
Once when my partner and I met her in the lobby at the Kennedy Center before a performance, we were talking when a college-level voice student I knew slightly passed by and said hello, so I introduced Miss Lear. The young woman smiled broadly and seemed so darned pleased. The poor dear was barely out of earshot when Miss Lear turned to us and said loudly, "She has absolutely NO idea who I am." We all shared a great laugh over that.
Miss Lear could also be wickedly funny aiming zingers at singers of any age who came up short in her estimation, especially those who added too many showy moves on stage or cheated on technique.
But the overriding message you always got from Miss Lear (as with Mr. Stewart) was a passion for the vocal art. She loved contributing to it, and you could feel that love in every note she sang. She was a great musician, a remarkably beautiful woman, and, as she was the first to admit, a damn good golfer (sometimes, I think she was proudest of the latter). She will be missed.
On a personal level, I treasure the memories of all the social occasions that I got to spend with her and Tom over the decades in Florida, where they were living when we met, and in this area when they relocated to Montgomery County. Knowing them both was a rare privilege.
Here are just a few examples of Evelyn Lear's artistry. I couldn't resist including one one clip of her with Tom in a duet that captures the extraordinary bond they shared for so long:
PHOTO FROM EVELYNLEAR.COM