At the Dorchester Hotel today, Dame Janet Baker will receive The Gramophone’s Lifetime Achievement Award. The Telegraph‘s Rupert Christiansen talked with the great mezzo – here are her words:
“I have worked with a few people on technique, mainly to ensure that the roots of what I was saying were useful and correct, but it’s not something I would want to do again. I also did some masterclasses at the Royal Academy of Music when I first retired. But how far can you get with vulnerable and inexperienced young singers in 20-minute sessions? And for me there seems little value in conducting those sessions in public.
“What engages me is detailed one-to-one work on interpretation, with someone who has mastered technique and who knows the text and music inside out. Then it gets interesting: you can spend an hour on the three lines of recitative which preface a Handel aria, for example, and reach the point where every syllable is deeply understood by mind, body and heart. I find that deeply satisfying.”
On her beginnings
“I wasn’t from a wealthy or cultured background, and it was difficult finding out how the world worked. But I was lucky to meet the right people at the right time. When I was 20, I sang in a concert in York with the soprano Ilse Wolf, who had told me that, if I ever went to London, I should go to her teacher, Helene Isepp.
“I decided to take this big step. I was a green and raw northern girl, and I didn’t have any idea that I could have got into music college. So I studied with Ilse and Mrs Isepp privately, and fortunately Barclays Bank, where I had a part-time job, gave me a transfer.
“My parents were helping me to pay for lessons, but I felt very poor and alone, and I didn’t know what my chances of making a success of it were. But I also remember walking the streets on air with a tremendous sense of excitement and possibility, and slowly the pieces fell into place.
“Being taught outside the conventional academic system meant that I got a lot of personal attention from my teachers and never developed any bad habits.
“Then I joined the Glyndebourne chorus, where I began to learn stagecraft, and came into contact with a marvellous generation of wartime Austrian exiles such as Paul Hamburger and Hans Keller, as well as scholar-conductors like Anthony Lewis and Raymond Leppard. By osmosis from them, I imbibed the education I had never had.
“Something I found more painful was the realisation that the finest musicians weren’t, as I had naively assumed, always the nicest or easiest people to work with. I had to learn how to find those with whom you could collaborate and who would inspire you to your best.”
On her agent Emmie Tillett
“Although she always let me make my own decisions, Emmie was a stickler for ethics. Once you had signed a contract, she insisted you stuck with it – even if it was Karajan who wanted me for Salzburg. He never asked for me again after he was told that I was already engaged elsewhere. I’m only sorry he couldn’t see where that refusal was coming from.”
“I don’t think people always realise what hard physical work singing is. I found it absolutely exhausting”
“Don’t confuse your God-given talent with your self. Talent is something you’re entrusted with: respect it. And don’t believe your own publicity!”