Evelyn Lear was born Evelyn Shulman into a Russian Jewish family. Her grandfather was a cantor and her mother a coloratura soprano, while her father was a lawyer. She studied music at Hunter College, New York University and after graduating married Walter Lear, a doctor, and moved to Washington State. When the marriage collapsed during the early 1950s, she returned to New York and enrolled to study voice, piano, French horn and composition at the Juilliard School of Music. Here she was a voice pupil of Sergius Kagen and met her future second husband, the baritone Thomas Stewart, while working on a duet from Porgy and Bess. Immediately after graduating, Lear created the role of Nina in Marc Blitzstein’s Reuben, Reuben and married Stewart, both in 1955.
During the following year they moved to Berlin, having gained Fulbright scholarships to study at the Berlin High School for Music. Here Lear was a pupil of Maria Ivogün and in 1959 made her European debut as the Composer / Ariadne auf Naxos at Berlin’s Städtische Oper (of which she was a member from 1959 to1964). She made her British debut also in 1959, singing Richard Strauss’s Vier letzte Lieder under Boult with the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall.
Shortly afterwards, in 1960, Lear was asked to substitute at three weeks’ notice for a sick colleague in the title role of Berg’s Lulu, in a concert performance in Vienna. This was so successful that she was invited to repeat the part in a staged production in Vienna in 1962 and 1964; the conductor was Karl Böhm, with whom she was also a distinguished Marie / Wozzeck. By now Lear was appearing as a guest at both the Bavarian and Vienna State Operas, and made her debut at the Salzburg Festival in 1962 as Cherubino / Le nozze di Figaro. She returned in this role in 1963 and 1964 and sang Fiordiligi / Così fan tutte at the 1965 Festival. At the same time Lear was singing a great deal of contemporary music, creating the title role of Klebe’s Alkmene in Berlin (1961) and the role of Jeanne in Egk’s Die Verlobung in San Domingo at the reopening of Munich’s National Theatre (1963).
During 1965 Lear first appeared at the Royal Opera House, London as Donna Elvira / Don Giovanni and returned to America to sing Handel’s Cleopatra / Giulio Cesare at Kansas City and Lulu at San Francisco. She made her debut with the Lyric Opera of Chicago as Poppea / L’incoronazione di Poppea in 1966. Following several approaches from its general manager Rudolf Bing, she first appeared at the Metropolitan Opera, New York in 1967, creating the part of Lavinia in Marvin David Levy’s Mourning Becomes Electra.
Not long after this Lear began to experience vocal problems, which she later attributed to technical weaknesses. With the help of the voice teacher Daniel Ferro, she reconstructed her technique; and although she continued to sing contemporary music, including Arkadina in Thomas Pasatieri’s The Seagull (Houston, 1974), Magda in Robert Ward’s Minutes till Midnight (Miami, 1982) and Ranyevskaya in Rudolf Kelterborn’s Der Kirschgarten (Zürich, 1984), she also tackled a variety of traditional roles, including Countess Almaviva / Le nozze di Figaro, Marina / Boris Godunov and the title role in Giordano’s Fedora.
Lear also migrated with considerable success to the more mature roles of the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier (having previously sung both Sophie and Octavian successfully), which she sang at the Met and La Scala, Milan as well as in Brussels and Buenos Aires, and Countess Geschwitz / Lulu. With her husband Thomas Stewart, to whom she was happily married for over fifty years, she sang in Eugene Onegin and Duke Bluebeard’s Castle as well as in concerts and lieder recitals.
In Robert Altman’s film Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1976) Lear appeared as Nina Cavallini and she starred as Elizabeth in the musical Elizabeth and Essex in New York (1984). Her farewell appearance at the Met was as the Marschallin in 1985, but she continued to appear in character parts up to 1992.
With her husband, Lear established the Evelyn Lear and Thomas Stewart Emerging Singers Programme with the Wagner Society of Washington, giving numerous master-classes and becoming an important mentor for younger singers.
She possessed a glamorous stage presence throughout her career, as well as a rich and flexible voice.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers, Naxos 8.558097-100).
Role: Classical Artist