02 July 2012

Evelyn Lear, the Opera Mom

Evelyn Lear as the Marschallin:
It was never only about her.

It’s incredibly tough to be a singer, especially at the start of a career. Sure, we in the audience may revel in what we see as the glamour of the art form, but for the people who actually do the work, it’s non-stop, sometimes tedious and discouraging. Lessons and coachings aren’t cheap; gigs may be infrequent and not always exactly what most of us would consider lucrative. Yet you can’t ever stop: you’re constantly in training. Life on the road can be lonely and bewildering, and even at home you may not know where to turn for guidance. Oh — and there are always bitter critics and evil bloggers to contend with, too.

As I travel around Opera World, I’m struck by the support that singers offer one another, and how seldom I find the resentful rivalries we think of when we picture more than one prima donna at a time: the dueling divas of Mozart’s Impresario, Mme. Silverpeal and Mme. Goldentrill, are fictional characters. This is in part what I was thinking of, in the context of the wedding of Steven Bryant and Darren Woods, when I wrote the other day about the community that has formed around them: friends, mentors, protégés, and “the families we choose.” I’ve seen singers who liberally and gladly share personal and technical advice, encouragement of all kinds, and, yes, food and housing, too. On occasion, they’ve shared with me, as well.

One of the very greatest and most supportive artists in Opera World has died. Evelyn Lear was an extraordinarily gifted singer, and you’ll be reminded of that as you read her obituaries in other publications in the coming days. Beyond that, however, she was a generous colleague and unstinting mentor to countless other singers, constantly giving back to the world of music, even after she’d stopped performing. As a teacher and as the force behind the Evelyn Lear and Thomas Stewart Emerging Singers Program (in conjunction with the Wagner Society of Washington, D.C.), she not only ensured that, years from now, you and I would still hear voices worth listening to, she also encouraged young artists in the most difficult moments of their careers — and continued the legacy of her late husband, the bass-baritone Thomas Stewart, who passed away in 2006.

The King and Queen of Opera World:
Thomas Stewart and Evelyn Lear

At Salzburg and Santa Fe and the Met, at the University of Maryland, and virtually anywhere she went, Evelyn Lear embodied the ways in which music brings us together. Darren calls her his “opera mom,” and credits her mentoring with his achievements onstage and in the general director’s office, and it’s telling that, when Darren had a new project underway, Evelyn Lear didn’t merely endorse it, she’d show up for the premiere, too, whenever she could.

Darren’s story is in its way representative of the experiences of other singers I know. To hear him tell it, he was entirely and almost shiny green when he started out, blithely unaware of what he was getting into and yet game to try almost anything music set before him. He might have crashed and burned. Instead, Darren received guidance and encouragement from established artists like Evelyn Lear and Thomas Stewart (and Marilyn Horne and Frederica von Stade, to name two more), who spotted his talent and his zeal, and who recognized the importance of both. Now he’s doing something similar at the Seagle Colony and Fort Worth Opera and just about everywhere he goes: putting into practice what he learned from these artists. This is how it goes, passed from hand to hand and from generation to generation.

In this sense, what Evelyn Lear did after her career ostensibly ended is as valuable as what she did while she was singing on the great stages of the world. It’s the reason I admire her, much as I admire Marilyn Horne, who continues to make music more beautiful through her work with the Marilyn Horne Foundation, with the Music Academy of the West, and with her master classes and advice. Either of these ladies could have retired altogether and been assured of lasting glory, based exclusively on their performing careers. Instead, they have kept on finding new ways to contribute to the art form and to maintain the high standards they themselves once upheld.

Marilyn Horne and Evelyn Lear: Role models for the rest of us.

You may not be a singer, you may not be an artist of any sort. But if you are serious about what you do, and if you encourage those who are coming up behind you — then you may be as beloved in your time as Evelyn Lear has been in hers. Opera World is grieving today, and not merely because she sang so beautifully.

1 comment:

Caroline Whisnant said...

Beautifully said. Thank you.