Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Dame Janet Baker - the greatest mezzo soprano of the 20th century

I think everyone who is even remotely interested in classical singing must have heard of Dame Janet Baker. Well, today is Dame Janet's 80th birthday and I am sure the entire musical world from her colleagues, her admirers and her vocal students will want to send their warmest wishes to her on this 'big' birthday.

Dame Janet sponsored me over 35 years ago when I sang in the Kathleen Ferrier Prize, and I was, at the time, so in awe of her that I couldn't believe she would give her recommendation to my entry. It was like a dream come true for a young singer who had grown up totally immersed in her recordings of Calisto, Dido, Schubert Lieder and wonderful Mozart arias such as Parto Parto from La Clemenza di Tito.

I wanted to sing just like her, I wanted to emulate her every intonation and musical nuance. She was indeed my heroine.

One famous occasion I, and my old friend J, went to a recital given by Dame Janet in Darlington. I swooned my way through the whole programme, and felt as though I was drowning in glorious sound and liquid tone quality. At the end of the recital J decided we would go to the stage door and ask for her autograph and I agreed. We walked around the Civic Hall building until we came to the backstage door where Dame Janet's husband Keith was gently herding the queue of ardent admirers, all of whom wished for her autograph as much as we did.

Eventually J and I were at the head of the queue. We had been so excited and amazed at our luck, and we chatted volubly. Keith showed us through to her dressing room and there she was........my idol. Julia went up to the goddess of the tonsils and brightly asked for her autograph and told her how much she had loved the recital, and how much she admired her singing etc etc......J turned to leave a space for me to follow, which I did with slow and somewhat stumbling steps, feeling as if I were walking into a magical dream. I was there, 20 years old and about to speak to my all time heroine. I approached and she smiled her calm and rather shy smile and I handed her the programme to sign. She took it and began to say a few words and asked my name. I looked up at her, I opened my mouth to speak and was totally struck dumb. The person who was constantly told off at school for talking, the girl who was banned from the room next to Middies music room because I laughed too loudly, and the ex Head Girl at school who could give speeches for Yorkshire, was without voice.

I opened my, by then, hideously dry mouth, and tried to form a basic word or two with no luck at all. Even 'Thankyou' was as impossible as a Shakespeare sonnet. It was as if I was frozen in the glow of the Dame ( who was not a Dame then however!) and totally unable to communicate!

J was not very impressed and told me so in the car of a friend on the way home. I missed my first chance of speaking with her. But oh the cloud of dumb happiness as I relived that day for a few years into the future of my career!

Later, of course in my teaching life I met her a number of times and socialised at the odd wedding and concert. My voice returned and we chatted almost like normal folk. I took much pleasure in telling her the story many years on, and she was suitably amused, and very surprised that at that moment in her career there was anyone in the world who felt that way about her !

Listen to as many recordings of her as you can. She is a true marvel, and a delightful lady who inspired me on to whatever heights i managed to reach. Thank you Dame Janet, and have the happiest birthday.


Dame Janet now

The Janet Baker I met


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