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Janet Baker

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Title: Janet Baker  
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Subject: Das Lied von der Erde, Benjamin Britten, Troilus and Cressida (opera), Alto Rhapsody, La Calisto
Collection: 1933 Births, Benjamin Britten, Chancellors of the University of York, Dames Commander of the Order of the British Empire, Edward Elgar, English Mezzo-Sopranos, English Opera Singers, Fellows of the Royal Society of Arts, Female Fellows of the Royal Society of Arts, Grammy Award Winners, Honorary Members of the Royal Philharmonic Society, Living People, Members of the Order of the Companions of Honour, Operatic Mezzo-Sopranos, People from Doncaster, Rca Victor Artists, Recipients of the Léonie Sonning Music Prize, Royal Philharmonic Society Gold Medallists, Shakespeare Prize Recipients, Singers Awarded Knighthoods
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

Janet Baker

Janet Baker
Janet Baker in 1967
Born Janet Abbott Baker
(1933-08-21) 21 August 1933
Hatfield, West Riding of Yorkshire, England
Occupation Opera singer (mezzo-soprano)
Years active 1950s–1980s

Dame Janet Abbott Baker, CH, DBE, FRSA (born 21 August 1933) is an English mezzo-soprano best known as an opera, concert, and lieder singer.[1]

She was particularly closely associated with baroque and early Italian opera and the works of Benjamin Britten. During her career, which spanned the 1950s to the 1980s, she was considered an outstanding singing actress and widely admired for her dramatic intensity, perhaps best represented in her famous portrayal as Dido, the tragic heroine of Berlioz's magnum opus, Les Troyens.[2] As a concert performer, Dame Janet was noted for her interpretations of the music of Gustav Mahler and Edward Elgar. David Gutman, writing in Gramophone, described her performance of Mahler's Kindertotenlieder as "intimate, almost self-communing."[3]


  • Biography and career 1
    • Early life 1.1
    • Debut 1.2
    • Opera 1.3
    • Oratorio and song 1.4
    • Retirement 1.5
  • Honours and awards 2
  • Private life 3
  • Recordings 4
  • References 5
  • External links 6

Biography and career

Early life

Janet Abbott Baker was born in Hatfield, South Yorkshire, where her father was an engineer as well as a chorister. Members of her family worked at Bentley Pit, in Doncaster, South Yorkshire. She attended York College for Girls and then Wintringham Girls' Grammar School in Grimsby. The death of her elder brother, Peter, when she was 10 years old, from a heart condition, was a formative moment that made her take responsibility for the rest of her life, she revealed in a BBC Radio 3 Lebrecht Interview in September 2011.

In her early years Baker worked in a bank, transferring to London in 1953 where she trained with Meriel St Clair and Helene Isepp, whose son Martin became her regular accompanist. Knocked down by a bus in 1956, she suffered concussion and a persistently painful back injury. That same year, she came second in the Kathleen Ferrier Memorial Competition at the Wigmore Hall, winning national attention.


In 1956, she made her stage debut with Handel roles included Ariodante (1964), of which she later made an outstanding recording with Raymond Leppard, and Orlando (1966), which she sang at the Barber Institute, Birmingham.


With the English Opera Group at Aldeburgh, Baker sang Purcell's Dido and Aeneas in 1962, Polly (in Benjamin Britten's version of The Beggar's Opera) and Lucretia (in Britten's The Rape of Lucretia). At Glyndebourne she appeared again as Dido (1966) and as Diana/Jupiter in Francesco Cavalli's La Calisto, and Penelope in Monteverdi's Il ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria. For Scottish Opera she sang Dorabella in Mozart's Così fan tutte, Dido in Berlioz's The Trojans as well as Dido in Purcell's Dido and Aeneas,[4] Octavian in Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier, the Composer in Ariadne auf Naxos and the role of Orfeo in Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice. The latter was considered her signature role; she sang it in many productions and a videotaped performance from Glyndebourne is available (see below).

In 1966, Janet Baker made her debut as Hermia in Britten's Midsummer Night's Dream at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and went on to sing Berlioz's Dido, Kate in Britten's Owen Wingrave, Mozart's Vitellia and Idamante, Cressida in William Walton's Troilus and Cressida and the title role in Gluck's Alceste (1981) there. For the English National Opera, she sang the title role in Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea (1971),[5] Charlotte in Massenet's Werther, and the title roles in Donizetti's Maria Stuarda and Handel's Giulio Cesare.

Oratorio and song

The album cover is dominated by a photograph of Janet Baker with slightly downcast eyes and introspective facial expression.
Album cover for Janet Baker's recording of Mahler's Kindertotenlieder on EMI ASD 2338 (1968)

During this same period she made an equally strong impact on audiences in the concert hall, both in oratorio roles and solo recitals. Among her most notable achievements are her recordings of the Angel in Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius, made with Sir John Barbirolli in December 1964 and Sir Simon Rattle over twenty years later; her 1965 performances of Elgar's Sea Pictures and Mahler's Rückert Lieder, also recorded with Barbirolli; and, also from 1965, the first commercial recording of Ralph Vaughan Williams's Christmas oratorio Hodie under Sir David Willcocks. In 1963, she sang the contralto part in the first performance at the BBC Promenade Concerts of Mahler's Resurrection Symphony under the direction of Leopold Stokowski, then making his Proms debut appearances. She performed in 1971 for the Peabody Mason Concert series in Boston.[6]

In 1976 she premiered the solo cantata Phaedra, written for her by Britten; and Dominick Argento's Pulitzer Prize-winning song cycle From the Diary of Virginia Woolf, also written with her voice in mind. She has also been highly praised for her insightful performances of Brahms's Alto Rhapsody, Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder as well as solo songs from the French, German and English repertoire.


Dame Janet Baker's final operatic appearance was as Orfeo in Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice, on 17 July 1982, at Glyndebourne.[7] She continued to perform lieder recitals for another seven years, retiring for good in 1989. She published a memoir, Full Circle, in 1982. In 1991, Baker was elected Chancellor of the University of York. She held the position until 2004, when she was succeeded by Greg Dyke. An enthusiastic Patron of the Leeds International Pianoforte Competition, she gave an address at the closing ceremony of the 2009 event.[8]

Honours and awards

Janet Baker was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1970 and appointed to Dame Commander (DBE) in 1976. She was appointed a member of the Order of the Companions of Honour (CH) in 1993. In 1968, she was initiated as an Honorary Member of Sigma Alpha Iota International Music Fraternity by the Alpha Omicron Chapter at Occidental College, California, United States.[9] She received the Léonie Sonning Music Prize of Denmark in 1979. She is the recipient of both Honorary Membership (1987) and the Gold Medal (1990) of the Royal Philharmonic Society. In 2008, she received the Distinguished Musician Award from the Incorporated Society of Musicians and in 2011 she was installed as an Honorary Freeman of the Worshipful Company of Musicians at a ceremony in the City of London. This is the highest honour the Company can bestow on a fellow musician.

She was voted into Gramophone magazine's inaugural Hall of Fame in 2012.[10]

Private life

She married James Keith Shelley in 1957 in Harrow. Following her retirement as a singer she did perform and record some spoken roles, for example the role of the Narrator in Britten's incidental music for The Rescue of Penelope; in later years, apart from occasional public appearances such as the 2009 Leeds event, she now has "nothing to do with anyone except close friends".[7]



  1. ^ Blyth, Alan, "Baker, Dame Janet (Abbott)" in Sadie, Stanley, ed.; John Tyrell; exec. ed. (2001). New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd ed. London: Macmillan; ISBN 978-1-56159-239-5 (hardcover) OCLC 419285866 (eBook).
  2. ^ Janet Baker Biography at, retrieved 12 December 2010. "In the mid 1960s ... she became known for her impressive handling of dramatic roles such as that of Dido in French composer Hector Berlioz's opera Les Troyens".
  3. ^ David S. Gutman in , April 1995, p. 60Gramophone; retrieved 30 November 2009.
  4. ^ Janet Baker on Opera Scotland
  5. ^ Retrieved 30 November 2009.
  6. ^ Louis Snyder, "Janet Baker recital cheered at Sanders", Christian Science Monitor, 12 February 1971.
  7. ^ a b Limelight, April 2009, p. 52
  8. ^ Yorkshire Post"Female winner makes history at Leeds Pianoforte Competition", , 14 September 2009. Retrieved 31 March 2013
  9. ^
  10. ^
  11. ^ a b c d e The LSO Discography by Philip Stuart accessed 9 June 2014.
  12. ^ World Cat list 47925396

External links

  • Janet Baker at AllMusic
  • IMDb
  • An interview with Janet Baker recorded in 1994 - a British Library sound recording

Academic offices
Preceded by
Michael Swann
Chancellor of the University of York
Succeeded by
Greg Dyke
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