Mezzo-soprano Janet Baker’s early interest in music was so keen that before she received her first piano as a young teenager, she often listened to the radio and “played” a large Victorian sideboard in her parents’ house. Thus the English singing sensation Dame Janet Baker—she was named commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1970 and dame commander six years later—began her training.
Prior to her retirement in 1982, Baker was an acclaimed master of both opera and lieder (nineteenth-century German art songs for vocals and piano) for more than 30 years. Her singing talent was first recognized back in the early 1950s, when she was barely 20 years old. She won various local competitions in northern England, and her choral singing was praised in the Yorkshire press. The daughter of an engineer, she enjoyed a middle-class upbringing and a supportive family circle. When she quit her full-time London bank job to pursue her training—not knowing what the result would be—her family helped her out financially.
Baker began singing at weddings and funerals while working part-time as a receptionist. She auditioned for the BBC in 1955 and was soon singing on the radio. English citizens wrote fan letters comparing her to British singing star Kathleen Ferrier. Indeed, Baker took second place at the Kathleen Ferrier Prize competition the following year, at age 23. According to Alan Blyth in Janet Baker, one of the judges, Lord Harewood, recalled Baker’s voice as “very well contained, very beautiful … the timbre it is now in embryo, cool and collected.” Lord Harewood looked back on the decision not to award her first place with regret, although he noted it did not seem to have hurt her subsequent career, an understatement to say the least.
In 1957 Baker made an operatic appearance as Roza in the Bedrich Smetana composition The Secret. An Opera magazine reviewer called her work “outstanding,” and the London Times and Guardian were similarly impressed. Nonetheless, Baker was still an apprentice. She took master classes in London with the well-known Lotte Lehmann and studied English and French songs with Meriel St. Clair. “Meriel used to say that however hard I was trying I was looking like a lump of pudding,” Baker recalled in Alan Blyth’s 1973 biography Janet Baker. She found that making the move from a “student and an executant into a performer” was quite difficult. “The real step is taken by something psychological inside yourself,” Baker concluded.
Around the time of her appearance in The Secret, Baker married James Keith Shelley, who eventually became her business manager. The couple decided against
Born Janet Abbott Baker, August 21, 1933, in Hatfield, Yorkshire, England; daughter of Robert Abbott and May (Pollard) Baker; married James Keith Shelley, December, 1956. Education: Studied under Helene Isepp, Meriel St. Clair, and Lotte Lehmann, early to mid-1950s.
Classical and operatic singer. Worked as a clerk in a bank in Leeds and London, England, c. 1950; began professional career in the mid-1950s; sang frequently on the BBC; appeared as Roza in Smetana’s opera The Secret, 1957; made U.S. debut in 1966; subsequent opera work limited to three main companies in Great Britain: the English Opera Company, the Scottish Opera, and Cov-ent Garden; retired in 1982. Principal appearances included roles in Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens, Gaetano Donizetti’s Mary Stuart, and Christoph Gluck’s Orfeo.
Awards: Honorary doctorate from University of Birmingham, 1968; named commander of the Order of the British Empire, 1970, and dame commander, 1976.
having children because of the travel involved in Baker’s career. She began a recital tour of England while singing frequently on the BBC and developing a stellar reputation for her interpretation of the works of eighteenth-century German composer Johann Sebastian Bach. Winning the Queen’s Prize in 1959, Baker also sang in a London performance of Bach’s 1727 composition St. Matthew Passion.
An incredible professional experience came the year after Baker’s 1962 debut with the English Opera Group in Suffolk. Looking back in her 1982 memoir Full Circle, Baker wrote about her work with Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears—the two men who she feels ended England’s long-standing reputation as “an unmusical nation.” She explained that in performing roles like Polly in Britten’s Beggar’s Opera —under the intense gaze of both Britten and Pears—a singer underwent a “sacred fire” and emerged changed, in her case achieving the rank of an internationally renowned star.
In the mid-1960s, Lord Harewood, the erring judge who had awarded Baker second place in the Ferrier Prize competition, became a devoted admirer and noted that Baker’s singing style had freed up. Her emotional investment—she became known for her impressive handling of dramatic roles such as that of Dido in French composer Hector Berlioz’s opera Les Troyens —now included what he considered an even rarer ability: that of communicating serenity and repose.
Baker made her debut in the United States in 1966, performing on both coasts and dazzling New York critics as Smeton in Anna Bolena at Carnegie Hall. Towards the end of the decade, in 1968, she recorded an album titled A Tribute to Gerald Moore; over the years, pianist Moore had accompanied Baker on various recordings and in recital.
During the 1970s, Baker worked primarily with three opera companies: the English Opera Company, the Scottish Opera (Glyndebourne), and London’s prestigious Covent Garden. In 1982 she published ajournai of her professional life recorded during the previous season, a book called Full Circle. Invited by Covent Garden to perform the title role in Alceste—an important part early in her career—she also reprised several other key roles that season, performing in Italian composer Gaetano Donizetti’s Mary Sfuarf with the English Opera Company and at the Glyndebourne Festival in a staging of Christoph Gluck’s Orfeo. With this, the singer felt a “full circle” had been reached. She announced her retirement from stage work in 1982.
Baker’s memoir closes with a touching description of her final stage opera performance on a summer’s evening that year: The chorus of Orfeo presented her with an engraved lyre, a reference to the golden lyre that accompanied her character in the opera on a trip to the underworld. Baker regarded the gift as a symbol of her leaving the stage to younger singers. The cycle of music would continue, but the memento lyre would remain with her as a reminder of the music world and its abiding affection for her.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Angel, 1961.
Elgar:The Dream of Gerontius, Angel, 1964.
Lieder Recital, Saga, 1965.
A Pageant of English Song, Angel, 1967.
A Tribute to Gerald Moore, Angel, 1968.
A Schubert Evening, His Master’s Voice, 1970.
Owen Wingrave, London, 1970.
La Calisto, Argo, 1971.
Donizetti:Mary Stuart, Angel, 1983.
Gluck:Orfeo (a recording of her final stage appearance), RCA, 1983.
Mahler’s Songs of Youth, RCA, 1985.
Berlioz:Les nuits d’ete, Virgin Classics, 1991.
A video recording of Baker in concert, Christmas at Ripon Cathedral, was released by Home Vision in 1987.
Baker, Janet, Full Circle, MacRae, 1982.
Blyth, Alan, Janet Baker, Drake, 1973.
International Dictionary of Opera, Gale, 1993.
New York Times, December 18, 1966, p. 19.
Opera News, July 1977.
Rolling Stone, November 16, 1978.
Stereo Review, June 1983.
Time, September 21, 1970, p. 68.
—Joseph M. Reiner