Baker, Janet (1933—)

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Baker, Janet (1933—)

British mezzo-soprano and one of the great lieder artists of her day, particularly known for her performances of Benjamin Britten's operas. Name variations: Dame Janet Baker. Born Janet Abbott Baker on August 21, 1933, in York, England; daughter of May Pollard and Robert Abbott Baker (an engineer); studied with Helene Isepp and Meriel St. Clair; studied at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, Austria; attended master classes with Lotte Lehmann; married James Keith Shelly, in 1956.

Sang in church and school choirs; left College for Girls in York at 17 to clerk in a bank in Leeds; transferredto London by the bank manager for better opportunities to study singing; won the Kathleen Ferrier Prize (1956); joined the Glyndebourne Festival chorus (1956); began operatic career (1957); won the Queen's Prize from the Royal College of Music (1959); awarded an Arts Council grant for further study (1960); toured the British Isles, Sweden, France, and the Soviet Union with Benjamin Britten's English Opera Group (early 1960s); made American debut at New York's Town Hall (1966); performed mainly with the English Opera Company, the Glyndebourne Opera, and Covent Garden in London (1970s); awarded an honorary D.Mus. by the University of Birmingham (1968); named a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (1970), Dame Commander (1976); retired from opera (1982); continued to concertize until 1989. Baker's varied operatic roles included the Sorceress in Purcell's Dido and Aeneas; Pippo in Rossini's La Gazza Ladra; Lucretia in Britten's The Rape of Lucretia, and Polly Peachum in Britten's The Beggar's Opera.

Selected discography:

Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream (Angel, 1961); Elgar's 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); Britten's Owen Wingrave (London, 1970); Cavalli's La Calisto (Argo, 1971); Donizetti's Mary Stuart (Angel, 1983); Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice (RCA-Erato, 1983); Mahler's Lieder und Gesänge aus der Jugendzeit (Hyperion, 1985); Elgar's Sea Pictures (Angel-EMI, 1986); Fauré's La Chanson d'Éve (Hyperion, 1990); Berlioz's Les nuits d'été (Virgin Classics, 1991); Brahms' Alto Rhapsody (Virgin Classics, 1991); Mendelssohn's Infelice (concert aria); Psalm 42 for Soprano, Chorus and Orchestra (Virgin Classics, 1991).

Selected videos:

Christmas at Ripon Cathedral (Home Vision, 1987); A Time There Was … : A Profile of Benjamin Britten (Kultur, 1987); Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice (Home Vision, 1988).

Janet Baker's love of music began in churches like York's famous cathedral, where the notes soared round the high arches until they disappeared heavenward. Growing up with the best English church music, she later noted, "the long phrases of the plainsong soaked in." Born in Yorkshire on August 21, 1933, Baker was exposed early to English culture. Her father Robert Abbott Baker was an engineer who loved music. Her mother May Pollard Baker was a theater buff who took her to repertory performances each week. Since the Bakers had limited means, piano and music lessons for their daughter were out of the question. Janet's exposure to music came from performing in school and church choirs, going to local concerts, and listening to the BBC. From the beginning, Baker could distinguish between a good performance and a poor one, a rare ability in a young child.

Until she was 15, Baker sang high soprano, then her voice "broke," she recalled. "It went rocky. I didn't sing for two years. When it came back, I was a mezzo." At age 17, Baker left the College for Girls in York, uncertain about her vocal goals. A father-daughter dialogue in 1952 helped define her course. Wrote Baker:

My father said to me, "You've got to make up your mind whether you want to do this seriously or just mess around." I was working in a York bank and the sympathetic manager got me a transfer to a London branch. There I began studying with Helene Isepp , the mother of Martin Isepp.

She also studied with Meriel St. Clair . At the bank, Baker was assigned to the coin-sorting

machine in a back room so that she could practice while she worked. In addition to singing at weddings and funerals, she began giving recitals in small towns in England and Wales under the sponsorship of the Arts Council. Baker recalled:

I made a pact with myself when I began, that if, by the end of six years, I wasn't doing what I thought I ought to be, or if anything was stopping me, I would go back and live where I always wanted to—in the North of England. Then, in 1956, before the time was up, I won the Daily Mail's Kathleen Ferrier award. It was a big national do and winning was very useful because it gave me a lot of publicity at the right sort of time—the name began to register. But I've always been grateful to my agents for letting me come up the slow, hard way, you know, sending me out to the wilds of Wales for the Arts Council and finding out about audiences and learning my job.

Recognition gave Baker the opportunity to study at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, to join the Glyndebourne Festival chorus, and to take a master class with Lotte Lehmann . During that same time, she married James Keith Shelley who eventually became her business manager. Wrote Baker:

My husband is an executive in the national driving school and he can't tour with me. … When I get back and say, "Look, they probably want me to go back in January," he'll not complain about it, but say, "How marvelous," because that's the kind of man he is. When we got married 10 years ago my father told him, "You're going to have to give a great deal more than you take," and he has with a very good grace.

Bowing to the demands of a singing profession, the couple chose not to have children.

Because her natural talents had been carefully nurtured, Baker's career continued to advance. But it was her recorded performance as Dido in Purcell's Dido and Aeneas that put her on the map. She noted:

Anthony Lewis, who is a professor at Birmingham, out of the blue, asked me to sing Dido. Of course, I was shocked to the core, knowing I'd been the Sorceress and a Witch in "Dido" and had done about everything else in it in my time—I'd been in the Glyndebourne chorus since 1956—but this was entirely new. I told him, "If you think I can do it, I'll have a go." It opened up a completely new world.

In 1962, Baker made her debut with the English Opera Group at Aldeburgh, an environment dominated by the English composer Benjamin Britten and his companion Peter Pears. They both had a great influence on Baker. "The debt I owe those two wonderful men is incalculable," she wrote:

Most performers who went through the experience of Aldeburgh must have known this feeling of being burned at the sacred fire. We survived the ordeal or we did not; but if we did, we were always changed, and I feel I was changed for the better. Ben and Peter gave us standards which turned us from national to international performers, and the alteration in status which British performers are now accorded, the respect we are unreservedly given all over the world, is due in large measure to them.

The Aldeburgh association was important not only because her standards were raised, but also because she became increasingly known for her performance of Britten's operas. Some felt when Britten composed The Rape of Lucretia in 1946, he had a voice exactly like Baker's in mind. A critic described her performance in the title role: "Few singers have managed to suggest a Lucretia whose internal temperature is drastically higher than her cool exterior. Though she came on looking as wholesome as an English garden, Baker did just that. She seemed aquiver with passion, then overwhelmed with shame at her own suddenly revealed sexuality."

Well established as a singer of oratorios and lieder, Baker began to take the opera world by storm. Whether she portrayed the compliant Dorabella in Mozart's Cosi fan tutte or Polly in Britten's realistic The Beggar's Opera, her enormous talent impressed opera lovers. When she made her American debut in 1966, critics and audiences were ecstatic. Howard Klein wrote in The New York Times, "She can do just about anything vocally and dramatically in a variety of contexts, and she does it all with a communicative radiance and personal warmth that borders on magic."

At this point in her career, her parents' contribution to her stardom was clearly visible. Her father's love of music revealed itself in her impeccable musicianship. Her enunciation, the subtlety and acuity of her phrasing, and her ability to "color sound" made Janet Baker an exceptional singer. Wrote J.B. Steane: "Her art is insistent: … to take the song to her heart and communicate it to her never-forgotten listeners." But opera is the most demanding of the arts and more than musicianship is required. It must be coupled with theatrical aptitude. Years of watching theatrical performances with her mother played a critical role in Baker's stage manner. "I'm not projecting a picture of the 'Junge Nonne' or Gretchen or Dido," wrote

Baker, "I am her. I am her totally. Every fiber of my body is this person. I don't think, 'I am the young nun.' It's not like that at all." Her pure mezzo-soprano, musical interpretation, and acting ability made Janet Baker an international opera star.

In 1967, Baker made her first appearance in London's Covent Garden as Hermia in Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Then, under difficult circumstances, Baker was asked to replace Josephine Veasey as Dido in the Berlioz opera Les Troyens when Veasey fell ill. Although Baker knew the role, she had sung it only in English at the Scottish Opera. So while the rest of the cast sang Les Troyens in the original French, Baker sang her part in English, a difficult task which earned rave reviews.

In the 1970s, Baker reached a new level of stardom performing with three companies: Glyndebourne, Covent Garden, and the English National Opera. In 1971, she performed Calisto, Damnation de Faust, and L'Incoronazione di Poppea. That same year, she appeared in a six-week tour of the United States in solo concerts and in a joint recital with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, accompanied by Daniel Barenboim directing the New York Philharmonic. During this decade, she recorded 30 disks, including Berlioz's Les Nuits d'été, Vaughan Williams' Hodie, A Christmas Cantata, Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius, and Ravel's Shéhérazade, and gave a televised appearance in Britten's opera Owen Wingrave. Baker also proved to be one of the century's great lieder artists, excelling in Schubert and Schumann.

One may well ask if any man-made instrument can pierce the heart so directly as the human voice … as Janet's does.

—Gerard Moore

Never a prima donna, Baker had a clear vision of her role as a performer. "In singing a song," she said, "one must be willing to stand aside all the time and not use the song as a vehicle for the personality, which is a dangerous temptation. It is a vehicle, but it must be for the right reason." Gerald Moore, a close friend who frequently accompanied the singer when she concertized, concurred: "She has the capacity to thoroughly understand and hear her own voice, a faculty that is surprisingly uncommon among singers." He went on to describe his friend:

There is generosity of nature, her love for her neighbour, her ardent wish to be of service to others, there is her directness and honesty. She is not frivolous, her conviviality and humour are not manifested to all and sundry for she is a serious person and takes herself seriously. I would choose wisdom as her outstanding characteristic, wisdom in her exact assessment of her own powers as a singer, wisdom in her attitude toward life.

Moore, who accompanied many of the 20th century's most celebrated singers, said in a 1970 interview: "My idea of a great singer is one who can do everything: baroque, modern, Italian, German, opera, oratorio. Janet can do all that with absolute ease and conviction. She and baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau are two of the greatest singers in the world today." As Baker's international fame grew, honors followed. She was awarded an honorary D.Mus. by the University of Birmingham in 1968. In 1970, she was named a Commander of the Order of the British Empire and a Dame Commander in 1976. As the honors accumulated, she continued to make highly acclaimed recordings.

In 1982, Dame Janet Baker decided to retire from the operatic stage, though she continued to concertize until 1989. She knew of too many divas whose performances were painful to witness in their waning years. That June, she gave her last performance as Euridice in Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice at Glyndebourne where she had begun her career in the chorus.

Throughout the years, Baker's Yorkshire sensibility never left her. "There's always somebody as good as you and better," she once said, "I try not to bother myself about it. I know I'll never satisfy the masses the way Sutherland does or Callas did. I could never do that sort of thing." But Baker had a clear notion of what her gift meant personally:

Whether we do it with the written word or with the spoken word … we're all desperately trying to talk to each other. We all feel so totally alone, so isolated, and we've got to get through to each other in some way, and music is one of these. … Fame and for tune and all the lovely things that happen if you make a name—they're terrific, marvelous, and to have a successful career is a wonderfully fulfilling life. But it's a by-product of the fact that one is doing what one was born to do. I wish everybody could have something so certain.


Baker, Janet. Full Circle: An Autobiographical Journal. London: Julia MacRae, 1982.

Blyth, Alan. Janet Baker. London: Ian Allen, 1973.

Carpenter, Humphrey. Benjamin Britten: A Biography. London: Faber and Faber, 1992.

Freed, Richard, "Dame Janet Baker's Operatic Farewells," in Stereo Review. Vol. 48, no. 6. June 1983, pp. 116–117.

Graeme, Roland. "Janet Baker Sings Berlioz," in Opera Quarterly. Vol. 7, no. 1. Spring 1990, pp. 225–227.

Klein, Howard. "If You Think I Can Do It, I'll Have a Go," in The New York Times. December 18, 1966, pp. D 19, D 28.

LaRue, C. Steven, ed. International Dictionary of Opera. 2 vols. London: St. James Press, 1993.

Moore, Gerald. Furthermoore: Interludes in an Accompanist's Life. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1983.

Mordden, Ethan. Demented: The World of the Opera Diva. NY: Simon & Schuster, 1990.

——. Opera Anecdotes. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.

"Passion and Purity," in Time. Vol. 96, no. 12. September 21, 1970, pp. 68, 73.

Reiner, Joseph. "Janet Baker," in Contemporary Musicians. Vol. 14, pp. 12–14.

Reinthaler, Joan. "Janet Baker's Classic Elegance," in Washington Post. May 12, 1989, p. D3.

Rosenthal, Harold. "Glyndebourne—Contrasted Pleasures," in Opera. Vol. 33, Festival Issue. Autumn 1982, pp. 26–30.

Steane, J.B. The Grand Tradition: Seventy Years of Singing on Record. 2nd ed. Portland, OR: Amadeus Press, 1993.

Wadsworth, Stephen. "Sense and Sensibility. Janet Baker, Dame Commander of the British Empire" (cover story), in Opera News. Vol. 42, no. 1. July 1977, pp. 8–13.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia