While opera singers who dabble in popular music are common, those who do so successfully are rare, and those with large dramatic voices who do so are rarer still. Eileen Farrell was as authentic and natural a blues and jazz singer as she was an operatic soprano. She was in fact much more comfortable on the concert stage, on radio, and in the recording studio than in the opera house. She sang relatively few fully-staged performances and was ambivalent about opera and particularly opera house management throughout her entire career (when she taught at Indiana University, she hung a sign outside her office that read, “Help stamp out opera.”) Her voice was huge, but capable of great nuances in volume and expressiveness as well as rapid and accurate coloratura, letting her sing bel canto roles such as Cherubini’s Medea, the spinto-coloratura Leonora in Verdi’s Il trovatore, the verismo Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana, and the great Wagner parts of Isolde and Brünnhilde (in concert).
Her parents were both singers, The Singing O’Farrells, and recognizing her potential, sent her to study voice in New York. She auditioned for various radio shows and was hired by CBS for chorus and ensemble work. In 1941, she got her own program, Eileen Farrell Sings, where she performed songs and lighter classical music. She remained with them until 1947, when she began to explore other venues, including the Bach Aria Group. She also began studying with Eleanor McLellan, who helped her hone her vocal technique, particularly helping her develop a pianissimo. In 1955, she sang for the film dramatization of singer Marjorie Lawrence’s life, Interrupted Melody (Eleanor Parker acted the role), and the music, ranging from folk to Brünnhilde’s immolation scene, showed off her power, rich voice, and versatility. In 1957, she appeared for the first time on the opera stage, as Santuzza in Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana in Tampa, FL, and two years later, sang for the first time in London, in a recital. She made her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1960 in the title role of Gluck’s Alceste, and in 1962, won a Grammy for her recording of Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder and the “Immolation Scene” from Götterdämmerung, conducted by Leonard Bernstein. Her relationship with Met management was an uncomfortable one, partly due to differences of personalities and her finding the repertoire they offered unchallenging, and her contract was allowed to drop in 1965. Towards the end of the decade, her voice was beginning to show signs of wear at the very top, and Farrell moved back into jazz and blues recordings, and taught music at Indiana University. She made her last record in 1993, at the age of 72. Farrell died on March 23, 2002.
Eileen Farrell Reviews:
“one of the finest American sopranos of the 20th century; she had a voice of magnificent proportions which she used with both acumen and artistry in a wide variety of roles.” —The Telegraph