So­prano was at home in opera houses and on Broad­way

Honolulu Star-Advertiser - - IN MEMORY - By Mar­galit Fox

Brenda Lewis, an Amer­i­can so­prano whose mas­tery of a vast range of vo­cal styles car­ried her to the world’s fore­most opera houses and the Broad­way stage, died Saturday at her home in West­port, Conn. She was 96.

Her son Michael Asen con­firmed her death. Lewis, who sang for a decade with the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera and for two decades with the New York City Opera, was known for in­ter­pret­ing the mu­sic of liv­ing Amer­i­can com­posers. She orig­i­nated two sig­nal roles in con­tem­po­rary opera: the al­co­holic Birdie Hub­bard in “Regina,” Marc Bl­itzstein’s adap­ta­tion of Lil­lian Hell­man’s drama “The Lit­tle Foxes,” and the ti­tle role in “Lizzie Bor­den,” by Jack Bee­son.

At the Met, Lewis sang in 38 reg­u­lar per­for­mances from 1952 to 1965.

At City Opera, where she ap­peared from 1945 on­ward, she sang parts in­clud­ing San­tuzza in Mascagni’s “Caval­le­ria Rus­ti­cana” and the ti­tle roles in Bizet’s “Car­men” and Richard Strauss’ “Salome.” Her Broad­way cred­its in­clude “The Girl in Pink Tights” (1954), by Jerome Chodorov, Joseph Fields and Leo Robin to the mu­sic of Sig­mund Romberg, and “Cafe Crown” (1964), op­po­site Theodore Bikel. Lewis’ di­verse ca­reer was made pos­si­ble partly be­cause she was able to learn a new role in a mat­ter of days. Al­though she did not be­gin to take voice lessons un­til she was in col­lege, she proved so adept that she made her pro­fes­sional de­but less than two years later. But for all her suc­cess in the opera house, Lewis said, it was mu­si­cal the­ater she loved best. “Broad­way is what I re­ally bide my time for,” she told The New York Times in 1953. “I love act­ing just as much as I do singing.” It was on Broad­way that she first played Birdie Hub­bard, and, as Lewis liked to say, the role was fore­or­dained: She was orig­i­nally named Birdie.

The daugh­ter of Jules and Lena Solomon, Birdie Solomon was born in Har­ris­burg, Pa., on March 2, 1921. (Her given name was the English equiv­a­lent of the He­brew name Tzi­po­rah.) Raised in Sun­bury, Pa., she em­barked on pre­med­i­cal stud­ies at Penn­syl­va­nia State Univer­sity, where she also sang in the glee club. But be­fore com­plet­ing her stud­ies, she took up a schol­ar­ship to the Cur­tis In­sti­tute of Mu­sic in Philadel­phia. There, she em­barked on se­ri­ous vo­cal study for the first time, study­ing with Mar­ion Freschl, who over the years also taught Mar­ian An­der­son and Shirley Ver­rett. In 1941, while still at Cur­tis, she landed her first ma­jor pro­fes­sional role, with the Philadel­phia Opera. Un­der the stage name Brenda Lewis, she sang the Marschallin in Richard Strauss’ “Der Rosenkava­lier.”

She had seen her first grand opera — by co­in­ci­dence, “Der Rosenkava­lier” — only two years be­fore. Lewis made her de­but with the City Cen­ter Opera Com­pany, as the New York City Opera was then known, in April 1945.

Be­fore join­ing the Met, Lewis was a mem­ber of its na­tional tour­ing com­pany, singing Ros­alinde in Jo­hann Strauss’ “Die Fle­d­er­maus” eight times a week. She made her Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera House de­but in 1952 as Musetta in La Bo­hème. In 1965, Lewis re­turned to City Opera to sing Lizzie Bor­den in the world pre­miere of Bee­son’s work. She sang as a guest artist with the San Fran­cisco Opera, the Hous­ton Grand Opera, the Vi­enna Volk­soper, the Zurich Opera and others. In an in­ter­view with Opera News in 1999, Lewis re­called her Met de­but, an oc­ca­sion so aus­pi­cious that for the first time in her ca­reer she chose — briefly — to take the stage wear­ing her con­tact lenses. “I didn’t want to just walk into some­thing,” she ex­plained, though it was a de­ci­sion she soon came to re­gret.

“At the end of the first act, I re­al­ized I couldn’t stand it,” Lewis con­tin­ued. “I was pet­ri­fied when I walked out there and saw that hall — and those lights, and that orches­tra, The play­bill from one of so­prano Brenda Lewis’ most no­table roles, “Lizzie Bor­den.”

and that son of a b---- with the ba­ton! I knew I could not get through the rest of the night with my con­tacts in.”

She re­moved them the mo­ment she came off­stage and never wore them in per­for­mance again.

COUR­TESY PHOTO

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