Soprano was at home in opera houses and on Broadway
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.