Opera Scotland

Janet Baker

Dame Janet Baker

Born York, 21 August 1933.

English mezzo-soprano.

Janet Baker had one of the most distinguished international careers of any British singer in the second half of the twentieth century. She performed with equal distinction in recital and concert work. She also became a sensitive and dramatic actress in a notable operatic career, as adept at stylish comedy as in high tragedy.

Studying with Helene Isepp in London, she took second prize in the 1956 Kathleen Ferrier competition. Her debut that year was with the Oxford University Opera Club as Roza in The Secret (Smetana). Other early appearances included the Wexford Festival (Pippo in La gazza ladra) as well as under Sir Anthony Lewis at the Barber Institute in Birmingham (including Dido and Aeneas) and the Handel Opera Society in London. Notable Handel roles, at a time when his operas were only beginning to achieve revival, included Eduige in Rodelinda, Irene in Tamerlano, Ariodante and Orlando.

She developed a close working relationship with Benjamin Britten and the English Opera Group, singing Polly Peachum, Nancy, Lucretia and Dido. Britten composed the role of Kate Julian in Owen Wingrave for her, and she created the part in both the TV premiere of 1971 and the first stage production, at Covent Garden in 1973.

She first worked with Scottish Opera in 1967, revealing a great gift for comedy as Dorabella. Dido in The Trojans followed in 1969 and Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier in 1971. As a regular guest with the company, she also sang the Composer, Purcell's Dido, Savitri and Gluck's Orfeo.

Her Covent Garden debut in 1966 was as Hermia. Later roles with the Royal Opera included Vitellia in La clemenza di Tito, Idamante in Idomeneo, and the title role in Alceste. Walton revised Troilus and Cressida for her in 1976. She also performed Berlioz's Dido there.

Appearances at the Coliseum began with Poppea, then Marguerite in The Damnation of Faust. In 1973 she appeared as Mary in Donizetti's Maria Stuarda, later as Charlotte in Werther and the title role in Handel's Julius Caesar. She also worked regularly at Glyndebourne, where her collaborations with conductor Raymond Leppard and director Peter Hall were particularly successful - as Diana in Cavalli's Calisto, Penelope in Il ritorno d'Ulisse, and, in 1982, her operatic farewell as Gluck's Orfeo.

She only sang staged opera abroad on two occasions, when she joined British companies on tour - as Vitellia with the Royal Opera at La Scala, and Purcell's Dido with Scottish Opera at Aix-en-Ptovence. Several years earlier, she appeared at New York's Carnegie Hall as Smeton in a concert performance of Donizetti's Anna Bolena.

Her operatic recordings include The Rape of Lucretia and Owen Wingrave conducted by Britten. With Colin Davis she appeared in Così fan tutte and Béatrice et Bénédict. Recordings from ENO have been made available of Coronation of Poppea (with Leppard) and Mary Stuart, Werther and Julius Caesar (all with Mackerras). Additional live recordings include the Royal Opera interpretations of Cressida and Alceste and the Scottish Opera versions of Dorabella, Octavian and the Composer. A recording of The Damnation of Faust was made in Paris. With Sir Anthony Lewis she recorded Dido and Aeneas and Rameau's Hippolyte et Aricie, and with Alexander Gibson the final two scenes from The Trojans. Romeo in Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi is, like Berlioz's Béatrice, a part she recorded but never sang live.

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