Yale Bulletin and Calendar

February 25, 2000Volume 28, Number 22

Yale faculty member and contralto Lili Chookasian (left) and noted soprano Eileen Farrell discussed parallels in their careers at a recent master's tea.

Renowned opera diva shares
stories of her career at master's tea

Celebrated opera diva Eileen Farrell was feted last week at a Calhoun College master's tea.

On hand for the occasion were two School of Music faculty members -- renowned contralto Lili Chookasian and baritone Richard Lalli -- as well as Brian Kellow, with whom Farrell wrote her recently published autobiography, "Can't Help Singing."

A dramatic soprano who sang regularly at the Metropolitan Opera, Farrell was also a popular singer and a frequent guest on the long-running television program "The Ed Sullivan Show."

In a career that spanned over 30 years, she performed and recorded a vast repertoire that included the great operas of Wagner, Verdi and Puccini, as well as torch songs, show tunes, Irish ballads, spirituals and Christmas carols.

In addition to a career that entailed world travel, grueling recording and performance schedules, and hours of rehearsal every day, Farrell maintained a have-it-all pace in her daily life. She was a mother, wife and regular church goer, who eschewed a glamorous address in Manhattan for a modest home on Staten Island. In fact, Farrell recalled, she was never away from home for more than two weeks at a time, even when her popularity put her in worldwide demand, and she shared the responsibility for raising her two children with her policeman husband. Her daughter, Kathleen Reagan, a physician and chief of radiology at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital, who was also on hand, testified to her mother's parenting skills.

During the tea, Farrell and Chookasian discussed some of the parallels in their careers. Like Farrell, with whom she sometimes shared the stage, Chookasian had a long stint playing principal roles at the Metropolitan Opera -- in her case in the 1960s and 1970s -- and made guest appearances in operas, concert oratorios and recitals throughout the world. Chookasian is the mother of two, who never compromised her responsibilities as a parent to the demands of her career.

At the tea, Lalli and Kellow, who is also the executive editor of Opera News, shared the role of "straightman"/talk-show host, coaxing anecdotes, opinions and tidbits of gossip from the two performers.

A Connecticut native, Farrell recalled being influenced in her choice of career by her parents, both of whom were singers. Indeed, it was her mother who had the most active say in her vocation.
"When my mother said, 'You do something,' you did it," Farrell recounted.

At the age of 19, Farrell landed her first professional job, singing in the chorus of CBS radio. Within months of joining the chorus, she was singled out by the directors and given her own show. At that time, she says, she only knew one aria, "Vissi d'arte" from Puccini's "Tosca." She soon found herself expanding her opera repertoire at the rate of four or five new pieces a week.

Farrell credited her broad musical repertoire to her early experience hearing her father, an Irish tenor. It was common, she said, for performers in Vaudeville to "cross over" -- that is, switch from popular to operatic mode. Another reason for her eclectic range is her love of words, she said, noting that getting a feeling for the lyrics is necessary for any interpreter of song.

Noting that "a conductor can often make a singer's career," Lalli urged Farrell to talk about some of the great conductors she had worked with. She replied that Thomas Schippers and Erich Leinsdorf were among her favorites, but heaped the most praise and affection on her mentor, Leonard Bernstein. "It started at rehearsal," she said of her early encounters with Bernstein. "He would work with me phrase by phrase until I could sing what he wanted me to." She added that contrary to the complaints of a "nameless soprano," Bernstein was not a mean taskmaster, but was very solicitous of his singers.

Farrell admitted to her own insecurities as a singer, noting that before going on stage, she would dream all night long about not knowing the part.

At the end of the tea, having fielded dozens of questions from the fans and friends gathered around her in the master's living room, Farrell expressed her disappointment that there were no more questions. "But I have lots of answers," she said.

-- By Dorie Baker


Term bill raised by just 2.9%

African-American Studies gains department status

Dean honors music-loving Thai king

Computer hijackers and Napster users are newest Internet threat

Bradley urges support for his 'dream' for the future

Renowned opera diva shares stories of her career at master's tea

Grant supports a collaborative library project on digital books

Law students revive New Haven Cares voucher program

Orchestra readies itself for its 'biggest events'

Staged reading weaves a story about a vilified play

Playwriting festival will showcase new works by drama students

Economic development is focus of conference

Historian John Blassingame, pioneer in study of slavery, dies

Virtuoso oboist and composer Ronald Roseman dies

Educators will gather at Yale-hosted conference on social studies teaching

NASA grants awarded for space research

Concert will feature works by prize-winning composer

Sports Scoreboard

In the News

Bulletin Home|Visiting on Campus| Calendar of Events|Bulletin Board

Classified Ads|Search Archives|Production Schedule|Bulletin Staff

Public Affairs Home|News Releases| E-Mail Us|Yale Home Page