Mrs. Lear built a repertoire that spanned centuries — from the classical purity of Mozart to the technical fireworks of 20th-century composers such as Alban Berg. Her signature role, and the one that catapulted her to fame in the early 1960s, was the title character of Berg’s “Lulu.”
Based on two plays by the late 19th and early 20th century German dramatist Frank Wedekind, “Lulu” tells the story of a reckless vamp ultimately killed by Jack the Ripper. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, another celebrated soprano, once called Mrs. Lear’s portrayal of the femme fatale “one of the supreme achievements of the operatic stage anywhere in the world.”
Mrs. Lear had learned the punishingly difficult part in only a few weeks after agreeing to step in for another soprano at the Vienna Festival in 1960. She “nearly fainted,” she once said, when she for the first time saw the score’s wild melodic leaps.
At the time, Mrs. Lear and Stewart were singing principally in Germany, where both had traveled on Fulbright fellowships after floundering for years in the United States. Like many opera singers of their generation, they were overlooked at home as American opera houses pursued the glamor of European artists.
The Vienna Festival provided what Mrs. Lear called her “break.” At that concert performance of “Lulu,” under the baton of Karl Boehm, she stunned the notoriously exacting crowd. Two years later, she returned to Vienna for the Austrian stage premiere of Berg’s opera.
“The seeing was almost as important as the hearing, for she not only sang the incredibly difficult part with apparent ease, she looked the part of the temptress, she acted it, and she had a stage presence,” music critic Edward Downes wrote in the New York Times.
By all accounts, Mrs. Lear possessed the prized operatic combination of superior singing and acting abilities. She considered herself, in fact, a “singing actress.” When she tried out for trouser roles — the stage term for a male character played by a woman — she actually showed up for the audition in pants.
Traditionalists tend not to take well to the wild chromatics and atonality that characterizes much of modern opera. But Mrs. Lear sang such music so beautifully, Peter Russell, the general director of Vocal Arts DC, said in an interview, that she forced the skeptics to reconsider.
Patrons of the Kennedy Center, he added, would stay to hear Mrs. Lear perform in operas that otherwise might have sent them running and “screaming down Virginia Avenue.”