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We remember Eileen Farrell on the centenary of her birth as one of a triad (with Lillian Nordica [1857-1914)] and Helen Traubel [1899-1972]) of the greatest of American-born dramatic sopranos. To that distinction we add that Farrell was arguably the most versatile of singers. For decades, she defined “crossover,” moving comfortably from jazz to pop music and operetta to opera. She sang professionally for six decades. In this post we focus on the all-too-brief ten-year span she devoted to the lyric stage.
Farrell’s idiosyncratic career began in the early 1940s when, after a few months as a member of the CBS Chorus, she was handed a half-hour weekly program of her own, Eileen Farrell Sings. It had a five-season run. Radio listeners were accustomed to hearing classically trained singers such as Farrell in an eclectic repertoire that embraced Berlin ballads, Kern show music, Schubert lieder, and Verdi arias. The quality and size of Farrell’s voice soon won her invitations to perform with major symphony orchestras. Dimitri Mitropoulos chose her for the role of Marie in his 1951 New York Philharmonic concert performance and recording of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck; the following year Arturo Toscanini tapped her for Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis with his NBC Symphony Orchestra.
It was not until 1956 in Tampa, Florida, as Santuzza in Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, that Farrell finally ventured onto the opera stage. Four years later she was at the Metropolitan in a new production of Gluck’s Alceste. Her career on 39th Street spanned no more than five seasons and her subsequent roles adhered exclusively to the predictable standard Italian dramatic soprano repertoire, Santuzza, Leonora in La Forza del Destino, Maddalena in Andrea Chénier, and the title heroine of La Gioconda. Her affinity for Gioconda, the lovelorn Italian street singer, is evident in her sumptuous “Suicidio,” with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Leonard Bernstein (1960).
Multiple recordings and concert appearances signaled again and again that Eileen Farrell was uniquely suited to Wagner’s most arduous roles. Through YouTube we have access to many of her broadcasts and live performances. Extended excerpts of Tristan und Isolde, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung are testimony to the ease with which her powerful voice swelled above Wagner’s most massive orchestrations.
But, alas, she never sang a staged performance of a Wagner opera. Rumor had it that it was she who refused the opportunity, that she was reluctant to memorize the long roles. There is, however, evidence in the Met archives that, at one point, she declared her willingness to sing Isolde on 39th Street. Her strained relationship with general manager Rudolf Bing may well have quashed that prospect. For an inkling of what Met audiences missed, here is her 1951 “Liebestod” with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Victor De Sabata.
We end this tribute with a track from a 1958 operatic recital, Thomas Schippers conducting London’s Philharmonia. Farrell’s “Ernani, Involami” is a brilliant demonstration of her astonishing technique. She executes the embellishments of Verdi’s aria, the rapid runs, the trill, with the grace of a light lyric coloratura in total command of these inherently bel canto gestures.