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Janet Baker’s father, an engineer, was a keen amateur singer who introduced his daughter and her elder brother Peter to the North Country traditions of choral music and brass bands. She was only ten when Peter’s death came as a major shock for the whole family. After education in York and Grimsby Baker joined a bank, which in 1953 transferred her to London so that she could continue her vocal studies with Helene Isepp and later with Meriel St Clair. She made her stage début in 1956 with the Oxford University Opera Club as Miss Roza in Smetana’s The Kiss, while during the summers of 1956 and 1957 she was a chorus member and understudy at the Glyndebourne Festival Opera. Baker appeared as Gluck’s Orfeo for the first time in 1958 at Morley College and during the following year took the part of the Sorceress in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, also singing the first of many Handel rôles as Eduige in Rodelinda with the Handel Opera Group. Later Handel operas in which she appeared included Ariodante (1964) and Orlando (1966), the latter with Anthony Lewis at the Barber Institute, Birmingham: she went on to record the title rôle in Dido and Aeneas with Lewis in 1961. The following year saw Baker’s first appearance with the English Opera Group at the Aldeburgh Festival. Her rôles with this company included Purcell’s Dido, Polly/The Beggar’s Opera, Nancy/Albert Herring, and Lucretia/The Rape of Lucretia. This was also the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship with Benjamin Britten, who created the part of Kate for her in Owen Wingrave as well as the cantata Phaedra.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Baker’s career on the operatic stage developed a steady momentum, being focused predominantly within the British Isles. With Scottish Opera she sang the Composer/Ariadne auf Naxos, Dido/Les Troyens, Dorabella/Così fan tutte and Octavian/Der Rosenkavalier; with the English National Opera she took the title parts in Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea, Donizetti’s Mary Stuart and Handel’s Julius Caesar, and sang Charlotte/Werther; and at Glyndebourne she appeared as Dido/Dido and Aeneas, Diana/Jupiter in Cavalli’s La Calisto, Penelope in Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria and as Gluck’s Orfeo. She made her début at Covent Garden in 1966 as Hermia in Britten’s A Midummer Night’s Dream, and later appeared as Kate, Dido/Les Troyens, Vitellia/La Clemenza di Tito, Idamante/Idomeneo, Cressida in Walton’s Troilus and Cressida (for which the composer adapted the vocal part for her) and Gluck’s Alceste. She retired from the operatic stage in 1982, writing about this final year and her career in general in the book Full Circle. She subsequently scaled back her professional singing significantly, and retired completely in 1989.

In addition to her busy opera schedule, Baker was active as a concert singer in oratorio and recital. During her career she sang with most of the leading conductors, including Bernstein, Colin Davis, Giulini, Kempe, Klemperer, Kubelík, Mackerras, Previn and Solti, establishing particularly close relationships with Sir John Barbirolli and Raymond Leppard. In recital her programs broadened throughout her career and demonstrated a versatility given to few singers: she was equally convincing in Bach, Britten and English song as in Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Mahler and Fauré.

Baker had a unique voice which, together with her great musicality and unfailing professionalism, placed her in a direct line with her distinguished predecessor Kathleen Ferrier. She had the ability to convey through her singing a degree of heightened emotion which had an immediate impact upon audiences throughout the world. Her recorded legacy is extensive and includes, either officially or unofficially, most of her major operatic rôles as well as a broad range of song. Her collaborations with Benjamin Britten are especially memorable. She has received international awards, including the Hamburg Shakespeare Prize (1971), and was made a Dame of the British Empire in 1976 and a Companion of Honour in 1993.

© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers, Naxos 8.558097-100).

Role: Classical Artist 
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