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July 2, 2012

Exceptional American soprano Evelyn Lear dies at 86

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:



Posted by Tim Smith at 10:41 AM | | Comments (8)
Categories: Clef Notes


What a lovely tribute to a great lady! One point, however: Mme Dilly is a character in Bernstein's 'On the Town,' not 'Our Town.'

I do know the difference between the two, honest I do. Just one of my increasingly odd Freudian slips, I'm afraid. Thanks. TIM

I was Evelyn and Tom's assistant for 11 years. I ran the Emerging Singers program for them and I can say without hesitation that my time with those two artists was one of the highlights of my life. I will miss her. I was in her home at least twice or three times a week even up to the end. She was
a great lady, sometimes a bit of a pain, but I still loved her. Leb wohl, geliebter Freundin und Kollegin

Thanks so much for sharing this. TIM

My wife Kimberly and I were just starting out in NYC and our friend, the late Cantor Paul Kwartin -- a cousin of Evelyn Lear -- interceded with her to get Kimberly an audition with the great voice teacher Dan Ferro. Lear facilitated this and Kimberly went on to study with Ferro for the years we were in NYC. That and her duet album with Stewart are iconic memories for us. A great artist!

Thanks for sharing this. TIM

As the author of "Blitzstein Strikes Back", about the composer I came across a very poor sounding complete live tape of the very first professional engagement she had, starring in "Reuben Reuben", just after Juilliard. She was one of many MB either discovered or cast very early; Bernstein another of his discoveries. I taught myself sound restoration over time and remixed and cleaned that tape. Here is a link to her very first song in her first show :

Howard Pollack's new biography of MB will be issued in August, I'm sure he'll cover this productions thoroughly. I also put up a ballad she sang later in the show.
- John Ellis

What a great souvenir. Thanks. TIM

You're welcome. Here's the ballad, sung to Eddie Albert (the show also included Kaye Ballard, George Gaynes and Ezio Stuarti in the cast).


I feel so fortunate to have know both Tom and Evelyn...we had so much fun and memories which occurred at the Santa Fe Opera...last summer I shared some very happy moments with Evelyn...time marches on...I am grateful for the precious memories..she and Tom were really something...incredible couple on and off stage...bless you to you David for you friendship...she could not have managed without you in the later years...cheers

I became a close friend of Evelyn's when Ev sang the title role in Thomas Pasatieri's "The Seagull" in Houston in 1974. We remained friends throughout the years. I so admired her great artistry, Evelyn deserved her mantle as a great Diva and played the part so willingly.Evelyn will be forever missed by those who loved and admired her.
Carol Sue

It gave me great pleasure to have reviewed Evelyn and Thomas in a concert performance of Fidelio with the Florida Philharmonic.

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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