I can never see or hear the name Evelyn Lear without flashing back to a night in 1967 when I humiliated my mother at a recital by the soprano and her husband, the late baritone Thomas Stewart.
So when I first saw Lear’s death, at the age of 86, reported this weekend, I was immediately transported back 45 years to a front-row seat in the auditorium of a Bergen County, New Jersey, vocational high school, the unlikely home of a local classical music series. That was the venue for a recital with piano (John Wustman, the go-to accompanist of the time) by the then-recent Metropolitan Opera sensation — she had debuted earlier that year at the “new” Met as Lavinia in “Mourning Becomes Electra” — and her husband, soon to star in a highly touted new production of Wagner’s “Ring.” (Sound familiar?)
By this time, despite my youth, I was a veteran of two years of opera-going, and this was my second vocal recital. So it’s not like I didn’t know how to behave at these things. But I was still, after all, a kid.
The opening set of the recital’s second half consisted of four songs sung by Lear, the fourth being Villa-Lobos’ “Canção do carreiro (Song of the Ox-Cart Driver).” The refrain includes a funny little high-pitched shriek that instantly struck me as hilarious. As it repeated, with Lear making a “cute” face each time, well, I totally lost it.As I felt persistent jabs at my left arm from my mortified mom, I shook harder and harder, sank lower and lower in my seat, and turned redder and redder as tears streamed down my face — all as I vainly tried to suppress my attack of the giggles. And all the while there was Lear, standing onstage maybe 20 feet directly in front of me and staring straight at me as she sang, looking, well, ready to run me over with her very own ox cart.
And at the end of the song, what did I do but stand straight up and applaud as my mother tried to hide her face with her hands. “Sit down! She was looking right at you!” Mom said over and over again, trying to pull me back into my seat. But that to me meant, “Cool! Evelyn Lear looked at me, wow!” But she wasn’t looking “right at” me as I stood and clapped. I recovered from my laugh attack, and the recital continued, concluding with two encores: “Bess, you is my woman now” and “La ci darem la mano,” which ended with them leaving the stage together. We got it, time to call it a night.
Of course I insisted on going backstage to see them in what passed for a green room. My mother was horrified at the very idea (“She was looking right at you!”) and refused to go with me. But: I. Would. Not. Be. Stopped. There was more of a group crush than a line per se to see them, and it puzzled me that Lear, who was more the center of attention than Stewart, seemed to be urging everyone in my general direction over to her one by one but me — and noticeably avoiding my eager glance. Was I just too short for her to see among the grown-ups? (Hm, don’t think that was it …) As the crowd thinned and I became unavoidable, she kind of looked through me as she greeted me, icily, and half-smiled, wearily, while I told her how wonderful she was, etc. Thank goodness for Stewart.
I’m not sure who he was rescuing more, his wife or me, but suddenly this big (huge, to me at the time), dashing international opera star pulled me over to his corner of the room and, after hearing me out about how much I enjoyed the recital, spent many uninterrupted minutes with me, asking who I was, how old I was, why I was there, how long I had been listening to opera, etc. He treated me with patience and kindness, but did see to have a genuine curiosity about how the youngest member (clearly) of the audience had come to be there — to, among other things, laugh at his wife. I left smitten — by both of them.
Of course I later saw Lear and Stewart sing many, many times at the Met. But to this day, whenever I come across either of their names, I’m right backstage at that vocational high school, full of wide-eyed, youthful enthusiasm for this pair of remarkable and much-loved artists. And Mom’s hiding out in the car.
This is the first time I am hosting a guest blogger on here, so please show some love and follow him on Twitter: @Mirto_P . Evelyn Lear passed away on 2 July 2012, have a read at the obituary published by The Washington Post