Frozen in a moment

Nicholas Wroe interviewed Dame Janet Baker for The Guardian on 13.7.12:

“…a reissued DVD/CD collection of Baker’s work featuring a 1982 behind the scenes documentary, Full Circle, as well as the Glyndebourne Orfeo and an ENO production of another of her signature roles, Donizetti’s Mary Stuart. “I used to be frightened of music frozen in a moment,” she says now. “It was always so different to a live performance. But for someone in my age group, it is a relatively rare thing to be able to gather yourself together and this collection now represents a lifetime. I’m at a stage where most people have not seen me at work and so this feels like a very intimate and relevant thing to do.”

Baker has recently been spending a lot of time looking back. “The lifetime award from Gramophone last year provoked the same emotions. And now, at last, I think I can listen objectively to my recordings and, for the most part, the span of my work has been a pleasant surprise. I’m much kinder about myself than I used to be.”…

…Baker was born in Yorkshire in 1933. Although taken to both the theatre and ballet, there was little music in the house. “I shouldn’t laugh,” she laughs, “but my father was in the police choir and I used to go with him to concerts, all the time squirming in my seat as I knew this wasn’t quite the music I wanted to listen to. I’ve got more sense now and have quite a soft spot for male voice choirs. But at age 10 I knew it wasn’t good enough in the same way that I knew that singing a Bach chorale in church was. I must have been born with some sort of inbuilt quality control because there was no sense of that at home.”

Although obviously a talented singer who won local competitions, there was little prospect of Baker going to music college and instead she got a job in a bank after leaving school and sang in the evenings. Then, after a performance of Haydn’s “Nelson” Mass at York Minster in 1953 with the Leeds Philharmonic choir, in which Baker was given a small solo role alongside a professional soprano, Ilse Wolf, Wolf gave Baker the number of her teacher in London.

“On the train going home, our conductor, very ill advisedly, said I should definitely take it up as a career. That was all I needed and I told my parents I was going to London. The conductor actually came round to our house to apologise to my mother because he felt responsible for me making this rash decision. But despite them knowing nothing about a career in music, my parents let me go. That was extremely brave of them.”…

…After ending her stage career at Glyndebourne, Baker continued to perform as a recitalist. “The mezzo roles in the opera house are wonderful in many ways, but on their own they are just not musically satisfying. Opera made up about a third of my life and so did recording, but I couldn’t have lived without the concert repertoire as well.”

She explains that there is “one less layer” between the singer and audience in a recital. “You are responsible for everything. You are the guide and whether the audience follows is solely down to you. The music emerges from a place in your gut that is completely your idea of how to serve the composer and the poet so there is no hiding place. You hold something very precious in your hands for two hours and God help you if you drop it.”

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