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Farrell, Eileen (13 February 1920-23 March 2002)

Soprano from Willimantic, Connecticut, whose parents (The Singing O’Farrells) realized early on they had something special on their hands, and sent her to study in New York City.  It was a good move, as Eileen soon landed a gig at CBS singing with a children’s chorus.  Everything was live and the children’s chorus frequently shuffled from studio to studio.

Eventually, Eileen wound up singing solos on Songs of the Centuries, and had her own show by the time she was twenty-one, the creatively titled Eileen Farrell Sings.  Her repertoire was a mixture of classical and pop, a fine line she would tread with ease throughout her illustrious career.

In 1947, Eileen branched out with projects such as the Bach Aria Group and a recording with Leopold Stokowski of Wesendonck Lieder by Richard Wagner, a composer with which she would have a long-running affiliation.  She performed a Wagner program with Bernard Herrmann and the CBS Orchestra that netted her some raves, and then was hand-picked by Dimitri Mitropolous to sing the part of Marie in a concert performance of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, in tandem with the New York Philharmonic .  (A recording is now available on CD.)

In 1955, Eileen made her film debut; in a way; dubbing Eleanor Parker’s vocals in the Marjorie Lawrence biopic, Interrupted Melody, and performed the title role of Medea in a concert at Town Hall.  Other concert appearances followed, but her first opera stage credit seems to be as Santuzza in a production of Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana in Tampa, Florida, of all places.

In 1960, she was finally invited to sing at the Met, at the tender age of forty, in a production of Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Alceste.  It was a bittersweet debut in which the production was booed but Eileen was rewarded with multiple curtain calls.  Eileen would sing in forty-four performances with the Met over the next five years, eventually leaving over creative differences.

She had always been a singer with one foot in the classical world and one foot in the world of jazz and popular music, however.  Around the same time she debuted with the Met, she recorded the aptly titled I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues.  It was met; pun intended; with much trepidation by opera fans, but eventually audiences and critics seemed to come to a consensus that Eileen was just as good at singing jazz and blues as she was at singing opera, a rare combination.  Case in point:  She won a Grammy award for another recording of Wagner’s Wesendock Lieder, this time in tandem with Leonard Bernstein.

Her discography is massive, and far too long to list in its entirety here.  In addition to the aforementioned recordings, Eileen would go on to appear on such eclectic albums as Frank Sinatra’s Trilogy, Rod McKuen’sSpeaking of Love, and The Boston Pops Orchestra’s Classics for Children.  She eventually went on to teach music at Indiana University.

In the early 1980s, Eileen teamed up with blues/jazz singer Mabel Mercer, who had appeared on her NPR program, and the pair made their debut at Alice Tully Hall in New York under the umbrella of the Kool Jazz Festival.  After her husband passed away, she stopped performing in public, with the exception of an AIDS-benefit concert at Carnegie Hall, put together by her frequent collaborator and admirer, Leonard Bernstein.  She did, however, continue to record, and in the late ’80s, teamed up with pianist Loonis McGlohon on a series of cabaret-style albums, covering the songbooks of composers such as Johnny Mercer, Alec Wilder, and Rodgers & Hart.  The two of them also collaborated on Christmas Memory and We Wish You A Merry Christmas, two of the many Yuletide albums on which Eileen appears.  Some others include Carols for Christmas Eve, The Great Songs of Chirstmas, The Masterworks Heritage Christmas, and Sleep in Heavenly Peace:  The Glory of Christmas.  She is also featured on a 1985 recording of Handel’s Messiah, along with The Mormon Tabernacle Choir and The Philadelphia Orchestra, led by Eugene Ormandy .  Eileen continued to record until the mid-’90s:  Her last recording seems to be 1995’s Love is Letting Go.

Seven years later, she passed away.  It did not take long for a retrospective to be released:  Eileen Farrell: In Memorium:  The Legendary Verdi Recordings came out in 2002.  Fortunately for her fans and other interested parties, many of her earlier recordings are now available on CD.  Her catalogue affords the musically curious an opportunity to explore the genres of blues, classical, and jazz, and even tiptoe into the world of opera.  For more information about this unique artist, check out her book of memoirs, entitled Can’t Help Singing.

Here she is singing “Mild und Leise” from Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.