American singer Eileen Farrell (1920–2002) had an operatic soprano voice that drew people in and made them cheer. "Note for note, Eileen Farrell's voice is perhaps as close to a flawless soprano instrument as exists in the world today," Look magazine raved. And the New York Post said that when her voice in one 1967 performance "sounded that first glowing trumpet tone, it was like a fiery angel Gabriel proclaiming the millennium." Such words of praise were common for young Farrell. She reached the heights of popularity only the top echelon of opera performer's reach.
Came to Singing Early
Eileen Farrell was born on February 13, 1920, in Willimantic, Connecticut. Her family moved when she was still quite young to Woonsocket, Rhode Island, which she always called her hometown. She loved her life there and her upbringing in the small New England town, and often returned later in life to visit. But that was all far in the future for the young girl who grew up alongside a brother, John, and a sister, Leona. Her parents were traveling Irish vaudeville singers, so Farrell and her siblings were exposed to the the life of an entertainer from an early age.
When she was still quite young Farrell began taking singing lessons with Merle Alcock. It was evident right from the start that Farrell had an extraordinary voice, and she, with the help of her trainer, tuned her talent like an expensive instrument. She seemed to flourish at everything she tried in singing and it soon became the largest part of her life. She later studied under Eleanor McLellan. In 1940 Farrell made her radio debut at the Columbia Broadcasting Studios. She did so well that shortly afterwards she was given her own radio show.
Toured the United States
While she was training and performing, Farrell also met and married Robert Reagan in 1946. The two remained married until his death in 1986. They had two children: Robert and Kathleen.
In 1947, shortly after her marriage, Farrell toured the United States as a concert singer, taking her tour to South America in 1949. In 1950 she performed in Wozzeck as Marie, but it was the recital she gave in October of that year that raised Farrell from a popular singer to one of high critical and popular acclaim. As she was becoming better known, she was given better known pieces to perform, and this led to her soloing in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony with Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra. It was a coup for any young artist, and one that helped Farrell soar to the heights of fame. With her success she became, in the 1950s and 1960s, the soprano engaged most often by Leonard Bernstein to sing with the New York Philharmonic. She quickly became a favorite soloist of the famous group, and she herself stated that Bernstein was one of her favorite conductors. She also was a recurrent soloist with major orchestras across the country.
Farrell was a popular performer for many reasons, one of which was that she sang pop, jazz, and blues as well as classical music. This versatility gave her singing a range she otherwise would not have had, because she could call on any number of musical styles to color the others. Because of this adaptability she was invited to sing in New York City in 1950 at Carnegie Hall. She sang there for the entire season and her numbers included the U.S. premiere of Milhaud's Les Choëphores, among others.
Invited to Sing with Opera Companies
Farrell was best known for singing songs and oratorios rather than full-fledged opera, but she eventually became a soloist with the New York Bach Aria Society in 1953. She made her operatic debut in 1956 as Santuzza in the opera of the same name with the San Carlo Opera Company in Tampa, Florida. In 1957 she joined the Lyric Opera of Chicago as a member. In 1958 she took a position with the San Francisco Opera. There she started the company's 1958–59 season in the title role of Luigi Cherubini's Medea. Critics called her performance stunning, and it led to her singing with even more famous and exclusive opera companies.
She recorded several operas, including Berg's Wozzeck and Donizetti's Maria Stuarda. She was known for her recordings of Beethoven and Handel and also sang on compilations of 1940s Radio Hours. Farrell was seen in several films, too, including Great Performances-A Lincoln Center Special: Beverly! Her Farewell Performance (1981) and Interrupted Melody (1955), and was heard on several soundtracks, including the 1955 Motion Picture Theatre Celebration, where she performed the popular song "Over the Rainbow." She also recorded the film score for Interrupted Melody. Eleanor Parker received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress in 1955, lip-synching Farrell's singing.
Concert Made Farrell Pop Singer
In 1959 Farrell took part in the Spoleto Festival in Italy. She sang from her classical repertoire, including a performance of Giuseppe Verdi's Requiem. When another performer, jazz great Louis Armstrong, became ill, the producers asked Farrell if she could possibly fill in, singing some of the popular ballads and blues of the day accompanied by Armstrong's famous band. She jumped at the chance, and audiences, who had witnessed her classical performances just days before, loved her. She was an instant hit as a pop singer. The song "Sunny Side of the Street," in particular, was such a hit that Farrell became known around the globe for her rendition.
A Columbia Records executive heard her sing and approached her about recording a pop album, and she agreed. She eventually recorded several albums, including I've Got a Right To Sing the Blues and Here I Go Again. A lot of opera singers crossing over into pop music sounded too operatic for general audiences, but Farrell, with her background of eclectic singing, seemed to possess the feeling necessary to sing pop music well, and her recordings were quite popular.
Sang at the Met
Farrell was married to a police officer and had a family, and she considered her singing to be more of a hobby than a career. She never regretted the time spent with her own family away from the public eye.
Farrell returned to the East Coast, where she was invited to debut at New York's prestigious Metropolitan Opera House in December of 1960 in Alcestis by Christoph Willibald Gluck. She stayed with the Met until 1966 with a short break in 1965. In 1962 she opened the Met's season in the role of Maddalena in Umberto Giordano's Andrea Chenier, with Robert Merrill. She made her final performance there as Maddalena in March of 1966. During her time at the Met, Farrell was most acclaimed for her portrayals of heroines in Medea, Ariadne auf Naxos, and La Gioconda.
In 1962 Farrell won a Grammy for Best Classical Performance, Vocal Soloist (With or Without Orchestra) for her recording of Wagner's Götterdämerung Brunnhilde's Immolation Scene, which she sang with Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic. And as her fame spread, she was invited to appear and sing on several TV series, including The Carol Burnett Show, Get the Message, The Ed Sullivan Show, The Christophers, and The Colgate Comedy Hour.
After her stint with the Met, Farrell decided to turn her attention to touring. She toured until a knee injury prevented her from keeping up with a heavy touring schedule. In 1971 Farrell decided to try her hand at teaching other young novice singers to follow in her footsteps. She accepted a position with the University School of Music in Bloomington, Indiana, where she was a Distinguished Professor of Music. She moved from there to Maine in 1980 with her husband. There she took a similar position at the University of Maine in Orono in 1983. Her husband died in 1986 and Farrell, upset by his death, said she did not wish to sing anymore.
Returned to Singing
After a short recess, she was prevailed upon to take up her recording career again. "I figured, I still have some voice left," she said.
In 1999 she published her autobiography, Can't Help Singing: The Life of Eileen Farrell, co-writing the book with Brian Kellow. She died on March 23, 2002, at a nursing home in Park Ridge, New Jersey. She left an enormous legacy behind. Her recordings included Eileen Farrell-Opera Arias and Songs; Wagner-Wesendonck-Lieder, with excerpts from Tristan; Verdi Duets, with Richard Tucker; Carols for Christmas Eve; The Christmas Album; and Classics for Children. These recordings have made it possible for later generations to be introduced to the woman whose voice had been likened to a fiery angel Gabriel.
AP Newswire, March 2002.
"Eileen Farrell," Fact Monster, http://www.factmonster.com/ce6/people/A0818295.html (January 2, 2007).
"Eileen Farrell," Internet Movie Database, http://www.imdb.com (January 2, 2007).
"Eileen Farrell," Infoplease, http://www.infoplease.com/ce6/people/A0818295.html (January 2, 2007).
"Eileen Farrell (Soprano)," Bach Cantatas, http://www.bach/cantatas.com/Bio/Farrell/Eileen.htm (January 2, 2007).
Farrell, Eileen, brilliant American soprano; b. Willimantic, Conn., Feb. 13, 1920. Her parents were vaudeville singers. She received her early vocal training with Merle Alcock in N.Y., and later studied with Eleanor McLellan. In 1940 she sang on the radio. In 1947–48 she made a U.S. tour as a concert singer, and then toured South America in 1949. Her song recital in N.Y. on Oct. 24, 1950, was enthusiastically acclaimed and secured for her immediate recognition. She was soloist in Beethoven’s 9th Sym. with Toscanini and the NBC Sym. Orch. She also appeared many times with the N.Y. Phil. She made her operatic debut as Santuzza with the San Carlo Opera in Tampa, Fla., in 1956. In 1958 she joined the San Francisco Opera and in 1957 became a member of the Lyric Opera of Chicago. On Dec. 6, 1960, she made a successful debut with the Metropolitan Opera in N.Y. as Gluck’s Alcestis; she remained on its roster until 1964; then returned in 1965–66. She was a Distinguished Prof, of Music at the Ind. Univ. School of Music in Bloomington from 1971 to 1980, and then held that title at the Univ. of Maine in Orono from 1983 to 1985. With B. Kellow, she publ. the autobiography Can’t Help Singing: The Life of Eileen Farrell (1999).
—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire