Blog: Dame Janet Baker, Destiny’s Child

Dame Janet Baker’s affection for Wigmore Hall emerged in a frank and inspiring public interview with actor Simon Callow about her life and work.

Destiny made a singer of Dame Janet Baker. Its force, she told Simon Callow and a packed Wigmore Hall audience, took hold long before she made her professional debut. It propelled her to become one of the post-war world’s greatest artists, equally at home in opera, oratorio and song. ‘The way music affected me,’ she observed, ‘probably encouraged this idea: this hasn’t to be messed about with – it’s nothing to do with me really; it’s something that is implanted within me … like a present. I was aware that I had been given something that should be treated with respect. It wasn’t a light thing.’

Wigmore Hall played a decisive part in launching Dame Janet’s career. Second prize at the Kathleen Ferrier Awards and an acclaimed opera debut at the Oxford Playhouse prepared Dame Janet for her first outing at the Hall in September 1957. She came for a week of masterclasses with the venerable Lotte Lehmann, and was invited to sing Schumann’s Frauen-Lieben und Leben in full on the final day.

Simon Callow wondered if Lehmann said anything insightful. Dame Janet recalled that the legendary singer, who created three roles for Richard Strauss, belonged to an older generation’s tail end. ‘They would appear in hats and gloves and look askance if one did not have a hat on oneself,’ she recalled. ‘It didn’t occur to my generation that hats and gloves were necessary at that point!’ Lehmann, she continued, was ‘not intimidating…but formidable.’

As her Wigmore week unfolded, Dame Janet became more uncertain about what Lehmann expected of her. ‘I didn’t find it easy, because her approach to the genre was studied, and dignified, and very accomplished – in its way,’ she explained. ‘The way was that you make a gesture on a certain word or raise the head on another word, or did something as the poem went on. The trick was, as you repeated it, you had to remember to do exactly the same thing again! I found that frightfully inhibiting – I couldn’t remember it myself. It seemed to me lacking in spontaneity. Being Yorkshire, I didn’t argue with her; I tried my best to do it, but it wasn’t obviously coming off very well.’

Lehmann’s method proved too limiting for a singer who always responded to the emotional life of words and poetic phrases in the moment of performance. ‘I was very worried because I felt somehow trapped in trying to do what she wanted. At some point she said, “You’re a very stubborn girl.” Very true! It was not because I didn’t want to please her; I just was not able to function and perform and sing as [she] thought I should in that particular way. So we were having a tug of war.’

The contest between student and teacher did little damage to the young singer’s approach. Her personal interpretation of Schumann’s song cycle was warmly received, not least by Emmie Tillett, doyenne of London concert agents, who signed the young singer from Yorkshire on the strength of her Wigmore performance. ‘That was absolutely terrifying,’ Dame Janet recalled. ‘Here was this great lady who could make or break you in that moment.’ Destiny, it
appears, was also present in the auditorium that evening, there to calm troubled nerves and encourage the performer to disregard Lotte Lehmann’s prescriptions. ‘I’m not ashamed to say, but afraid to say that I did
it in my own way.

With the Lehmann masterclasses neatly filed under experience, Dame Janet returned to Wigmore Hall on 28 April 1960 for a concert of works by contemporary British women composers, Elizabeth Maconchy and Ruth Gipps among them. She gave her solo recital debut at the Hall on 22 April 1965, to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Kathleen Ferrier Memorial Scholarship. Other notable appearances include a memorial concert for Emmie Tillett in November 1982, at which she sang works by Vaughan Williams and Finzi, and the 70th birthday tribute concert to George Malcolm, her final performance at Wigmore Hall on 28 February 1987.

Dame Janet’s reflections on her career, delivered five weeks after her 85th birthday, streamed live online and now available on the Hall’s website, proved deeply moving, almost unbearably so when she touched on the sense of bereavement that followed her decision to call time on her career. They also inspired laughter and joy. And gratitude, above all gratitude, for a performer whose artistry in concert and on record has touched so many lives.

This event was streamed live from Wigmore Hall on Sunday 30 September 2018 and is available to view below