Evelyn Lear: Soprano lauded for her ‘supreme’ portrayal of Berg’s Lulu

She sang more lyrical roles after a vocal crisis caused by too many modern, demanding parts

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The American soprano Evelyn Lear was best known for her portrayal of, as she herself put it, "neurotic modern heroines", such as Lulu, in Alban Berg's eponymous opera, and Marie in the same composer's Wozzeck. Such was the excellence of her interpretation that Elisabeth Schwarzkopf called her Lulu "one of the supreme achievements of the operatic stage anywhere in the world".

Lear first took on the role at extremely short notice in 1960 to replace the soprano originally engaged for a concert performance at the Vienna Festival conducted by Karl Böhm. It launched her international career, for she not only sang the notoriously difficult part with apparent ease but, in the stage performance that followed in Vienna two years later – according to the New York Times – "looked the part of the temptress, she acted it, and she had a stage presence". "Spellbinding" was another verdict. In 1966 her interpretation was heard at Sadler's Wells and with Scottish Opera in Glasgow, where she sang it in two languages on successive evenings.

She regarded herself as a "singing actress", and when she created the role of Lavinia Mannon (the Electra figure) in Marvin David Levy's Mourning Becomes Electra at New York's Metropolitan Opera House in 1967 – her debut there – the Washington Post noted that "nowhere … is there a false step, no idle gesture, nor a word or note lost … she is a consummate artist".

Evelyn Shulman was born in Brooklyn. Singing was in the genes: her mother sang professionally and her maternal grandfather had been a Jewish cantor; her father, who had emigrated from Siberia, worked as a lawyer. Evelyn learnt the piano and french horn – playing as a student under Leonard Bernstein at Tanglewood – then, after divorcing her first husband, studied singing at the Juilliard, where she met the baritone Thomas Stewart, whom she soon married. Both won Fulbright fellowships to Germany in 1955. Lear studied with the Hungarian soprano Maria Ivogü*, who also taught Schwarzkopf.

Engaged by the Deutsche Oper, Berlin, Lear made her opera debut as the Composer in Ariadne auf Naxos in 1959 and in the same year sang Strauss's Four Last Songs in London at the Royal Festival Hall with Sir Adrian Boult. "Miss Lear has the voice for them," the critics noted, "rich, true and firm at the top."

In Germany she created the title role of Giselher Klebe's Alkmene (Berlin, 1961) and Jeanne in Werner Egk's Die Verlobung in San Domingo (Munich, 1963); elsewhere Arkadina in Thomas Pasatieri's The Seagull (Houston 1974), Magda in Robert Ward's Minutes to Midnight (Miami, 1982), Ranyevskaya in Rudolf Kelterborn's Kirschgarten (Zurich, 1984). She also sang Cherubino ("charmingly adolescent") at Salzburg and Poppea in Hamburg, both in 1964; Donna Elvira at Covent Garden under Rudolf Kempe in 1965 ("real dramatic perception"). She was Dido in The Trojans at the Royal Albert Hall in 1966 and Anna in The Seven Deadly Sins (Brecht/Weill) at the 1968 Proms, bringing to the latter role '"the right degree of nonchalant sophistication". With Pierre Boulez in 1969 she performed Das klagende Lied and Berg's Seven Early Songs and at the 1971 Proms Duke Bluebeard's Castle with her husband Thomas Stewart, who for Joan Chissell "told the story so clearly that you scarcely needed to read the programme résumé". Lear was "flexibly and appealingly feminine".

Initially better known in Europe, Lear's Cleopatra in Giulio Cesare (Kansas City, 1965) was in fact her belated American début, followed by the Met in 1967. This was a common fate of American singers, the American opera houses preferring more exotic European names.

Shortly after this Lear suffered a vocal crisis, supposedly the consequence of singing so much modern music of a demanding nature. But she insisted that she never lost her voice. "I lost my confidence," she claimed in 1980. "I didn't have the technique to handle the difficulties of contemporary music. It was my lack of technique, not the fault of the music."

With retraining her voice was restored and she resumed her career, concentrating on more lyrical roles, particularly the Italian repertory. Her husband, while continuing to sing Wagner, adjusted his repertoire accordingly, for as he explained in 1972, "we are very anxious to appear together so that we can spend more time with each other."

Their marriage lasted 51 years, until Stewart's death in 2006. They often sang together, particularly in the later years, in opera, concerts, recitals and recordings, including the Count and Countess in Wolf-Ferrari's Susanna's Secret, Tamare and Carlotta in Franz Schreker's Die Gezeichneten, Krenek's "jazz opera" Jonny spielt auf, and recordings of Hugo Wolf's Goethe and Mörike settings.

Lear sang Octavian in Die Rosenkavalier, but her Marschallin will particularly be remembered. A 1973 performance in Brussels was for Kenneth Loveland "a Marschallin of many touching personal qualities, coloured here and there with a Viennese bitter-sweetness, and at the end, soft and feminine in forgiveness."

She did return to Lulu at the Met in 1985, this time as the Countess Geschwitz, "ultimately fragile and vulnerable rather than forceful, in keeping with her reduced vocal abilities … the final scene extremely poignant."

Evelyn Shulman, soprano singer and teacher: born Brooklyn, New York 8 January 1926; married firstly Walter Lear (one son, one daughter), 1955 Thomas Stewart; died Sandy Spring, Maryland 1 July 2012.