Janet Baker

Janet Baker as Vitellia ('La Clemenza di Tito' by Mozart), Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 1974.

Janet Baker as Vitellia ('La Clemenza di Tito' by Mozart), Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 1974.

Janet Baker (born 1933) is an English mezzo-soprano. In opera, most adulation is given to the tenors and sopranos, for whom the most flamboyant roles are written. Janet Baker was one of the few mezzo-sopranos to inspire a similar adoring public. Yet she refused most international offers, having seen too many singers suffer personally and vocally from the pressures of international jet-set opera stardom.

Born in 1933 in Yorkshire her career was almost an accident. She sang in the choir at York Minster but never considered a professional career. Then the bank where she worked transferred her to London and she started training seriously. Her early career was in Lieder and oratorio. It was Benjamin Britten who encouraged her to branch out into opera in roles like Dido in Berlioz's 'The Trojans'.

During the 1970s she was one of the great operatic divas. She sang at Covent Garden and with Glyndebourne, English National Opera and Scottish Opera. In the summer she gave recitals at the major British music festivals like York, Edinburgh, Aldeburgh and Kings Lynn.

This photograph is of Janet Baker in Mozart’s opera 'La Clemenza di Tito' at Covent Garden in 1974. Her performance as the scheming Roman aristocrat Vitellia caused a sensation. Her skills as an actress and singer were so complete that the critic Stanley Sadie wrote of her performance ‘verbal description falters before the power of Janet Baker’s Vitellia, a performance which compels sympathy for what has been called the nastiest villainess in all opera, so impassioned is theacting, so noble and so delicate the singing’. This was the first Mozart opera to be heard in London, when it was given for Mrs Billington’s benefit performance in 1806.

Her passion was early opera, and audiences came to appreciate anew the works of Monteverdi, Gluck and particularly Handel. She loved acting and immersed herself in each character, concentrating on the way the words were expressed through the music. Her recordings of opera and song won her an admiring world-wide public.

Then in 1982, at the height of her powers, she retired from opera. Until 1989 she developed her career as a recitalist and also wrote the book ‘Full Circle' about her career.

Scene from Peter Hall's Glyndebourne production of Francesco Cavalli’s La Calisto, 1970

Scene from Peter Hall's Glyndebourne production of Francesco Cavalli’s La Calisto, 1970

This photograph shows a scene from Peter Hall's 1970 Glyndebourne production of Francesco Cavalli’s 'La Calisto' ('A little satyr'). First produced in 1561, it is a typical Venetian opera plot of the period where the gods fall in love with humans and come to earth in disguise with all the resulting confusions and identity crises. 16th-century opera was visually extravagant and the stage machinery could achieve extraordinarily elaborate and sophisticated effects. Peter Hall and his designer John Bury wanted to recreate the look and feel of the Baroque stage for 1970s audiences. As this photograph implies, they caught what one critic described as 'the spirit of baroque wonder and extravagance' involving real stage machines and cunning transformations, worked by the age old system of men, ropes and counterweights.

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