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Janet Baker

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Janet Baker
Janet Baker in 1967
Janet Abbott Baker

(1933-08-21) 21 August 1933 (age 90)
OccupationOpera singer (mezzo-soprano)
Years active1950s–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]

Baker is particularly closely associated with baroque and early Italian opera and the works of Benjamin Britten. During her career, which lasted from 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. As a concert performer, Baker 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".[2]

Biography and career[edit]

Early life[edit]

Janet Abbott Baker was born in Hatfield, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, where her father was an engineer as well as a chorister.[3][4] Members of her family worked at Bentley Pit, in Doncaster.[5] She attended York College for Girls and then Wintringham Girls' Grammar School in Grimsby.[6] The death, when she was 10 years old, of her elder brother Peter, from a heart condition, was a formative moment that made her take responsibility for the rest of her life; she revealed this in a BBC Radio 3 Lebrecht Interview in September 2011.[7]

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.[8][9] Knocked down by a bus in 1956, she suffered concussion and a persistently painful back injury.[8] In the same year she came second in the Kathleen Ferrier Memorial Competition at the Wigmore Hall, winning national attention.[8]


In 1956, she made her stage debut with Oxford University's Opera Club as Miss Róza in Smetana's The Secret. That year, she also made her debut at Glyndebourne. In 1959, she sang Eduige in the Handel Opera Society's Rodelinda; other Handel roles included Ariodante (1964), of which she later made a notable recording with Raymond Leppard, and Orlando (1966), which she sang at the Barber Institute, Birmingham.[10]


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 and Dido in Berlioz's The Trojans, as well as Dido in Purcell's Dido and Aeneas,[11] 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, Baker made her debut as Hermia in Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and went on to sing there Berlioz's Dido; Kate in Britten's Owen Wingrave; Mozart's Vitellia (in La clemenza di Tito) and Idamante (in Idomeneo); Cressida in William Walton's Troilus and Cressida; and the title role in Gluck's Alceste (1981). For the English National Opera, she sang the title role in Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea (1971),[12] Charlotte in Massenet's Werther, and the title roles in Donizetti's Maria Stuarda and Handel's Giulio Cesare.

Oratorio and song[edit]

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 with The Bach Choir. 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.[13]

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 and Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder, as well as solo songs from the French, German and English repertoire.


Dame Janet's final operatic appearance was as Orfeo in Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice, on 17 July 1982, at Glyndebourne.[14] In May 1988, she repeated the role in a concert performance with the Oratorio Society of New York (an unannounced farewell to the U.S.). She had continued to perform lieder recitals, retiring for good in 1989 (although she did make a small handful of recordings in January 1990). She published a memoir, Full Circle, in 1982. In 1991, Baker was elected Chancellor of the University of York.[5] She held the position until 2004, when she was succeeded by Greg Dyke.[5] An enthusiastic Patron of the Leeds International Pianoforte Competition, she gave an address at the closing ceremony of the 2009 event.[15]

Honours and awards[edit]

Janet Baker was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1970 and appointed to Dame Commander (DBE) in 1976.[16][17] She was appointed a member of the Order of the Companions of Honour (CH) in 1993.[18] 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.[19] In 1971, the Hamburg-based Alfred Toepfer Foundation awarded her its annual Shakespeare Prize. 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. She has been a vice-president of The Bach Choir since 1983.[20] In 2007, 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.[21][22] This is the highest honour the company can bestow on a fellow musician.[22] She was awarded a Fellowship by the Royal Northern College of Music (FRNCM) in 1978.[23]

She was voted into Gramophone magazine's inaugural Hall of Fame in 2012.[24]

Private life[edit]

She married James Keith Shelley in 1957 in Harrow; he became her manager and accompanied her to engagements. They decided not to have children for the sake of her career.[25] 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 said she had "nothing to do with anyone except close friends".[14] Those friends include the singer Felicity Lott, pianist Imogen Cooper, conductor Jane Glover and actress Patricia Routledge, all of whom appeared in a BBC documentary profile, Janet Baker in her own words, shown in 2019.[26] After her husband suffered a stroke, she cared for him at home.[27] He died in June 2019.[citation needed]

Recordings [edit]



  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. ^ David S. Gutman in Gramophone, April 1995, p. 60; retrieved 30 November 2009.
  3. ^ Griffiths, Paul (2004). "Baker, Janet (Abbot)". The Penguin Companion to Classical Music. London: Penguin Books. ISBN 9780141909769. Retrieved 25 December 2017.
  4. ^ Patmore, David. "Janet Baker". Naxos Records. Retrieved 25 December 2017.
  5. ^ a b c "People (Janet Baker)". University of York. Retrieved 25 December 2017.
  6. ^ Sleeman, Elizabeth (2001). The International Who's Who of Women 2002 (3rd ed.). London: Europa Publications. p. 38. ISBN 9781857431223. Retrieved 27 December 2017.
  7. ^ "Janet Baker". The Lebrecht Interview. 5 September 2011. Event occurs at 8:30. BBC. Radio 3. Retrieved 25 December 2017.
  8. ^ a b c Kennedy, Michael (17 August 2013). "Happy 80th birthday, Dame Janet Baker". The Spectator. Retrieved 25 December 2017.
  9. ^ Shenton, Kenneth (17 January 2012). "Martin Isepp: Acclaimed accompanist". The Independent. Retrieved 25 December 2017.
  10. ^ "Recordings by Janet Baker | Now available to stream and purchase at Naxos". www.naxos.com. Retrieved 19 June 2024.
  11. ^ Janet Baker on Opera Scotland
  12. ^ ArkivMusic.com Archived 3 March 2012 at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved 30 November 2009.
  13. ^ Louis Snyder, "Janet Baker recital cheered at Sanders", Christian Science Monitor, 12 February 1971.
  14. ^ a b Limelight, April 2009, p. 52
  15. ^ "Female winner makes history at Leeds Pianoforte Competition", Yorkshire Post, 14 September 2009. Retrieved 31 March 2013
  16. ^ "No. 45117". The London Gazette (Supplement). 13 June 1970. p. 6372.
  17. ^ "No. 46777". The London Gazette (Supplement). 1 January 1976. p. 8.
  18. ^ "No. 53527". The London Gazette. 31 December 1993. p. 27.
  19. ^ Sigma Alpha Iota. "International Music Fraternity". Honorary Members. Archived from the original on 11 January 2011. Retrieved 25 February 2011.
  20. ^ "Vice-Presidents". The Bach Choir. Retrieved 27 December 2017.
  21. ^ "ISM Distinguished Musician Award". Incorporated Society of Musicians. Archived from the original on 28 April 2017. Retrieved 25 December 2017.
  22. ^ a b "The Honorary Freedom of The Company". The Musicians' Company's Archive. Worshipful Company of Musicians. Archived from the original on 25 December 2017. Retrieved 25 December 2017.
  23. ^ "Fellows and Honorary Members – Royal Northern College of Music".
  24. ^ "Dame Janet Baker (mezzo-soprano)". Gramophone. Retrieved 11 April 2012.
  25. ^ Nicholas Wroe (13 July 2012). "Janet Baker: A life in music". The Guardian. Retrieved 22 April 2019.
  26. ^ Fiona Maddocks (14 April 2019). "Home listening: Rachmaninov big and small, and a night in with Janet Baker". The Guardian. Retrieved 22 April 2019.
  27. ^ Ivan Hewett (19 August 2013). "Janet Baker: a dame but not a diva". The Telegraph. Retrieved 22 April 2019.
  28. ^ a b c d e The LSO Discography by Philip Stuart accessed 9 June 2014.
  29. ^ World Cat list 47925396

External links[edit]

Academic offices
Preceded by Chancellor of the University of York
Succeeded by