Thomas Stewart, an opera king

Music

September 26, 2006|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

A god is dead.

Thomas Stewart, whose eloquent and deeply humanizing interpretation of the head deity Wotan in Wagner's Ring was among his most memorable achievements, died Sunday in Rockville. He was 78.

The eminent, Texas-born baritone was playing golf -- one of his favorite pastimes -- when he collapsed on a course near his home. "He died happy," his wife, the equally eminent soprano Evelyn Lear, said yesterday. "He was doing what he wanted to do, and he was with me."

Getting to know Tom and Evelyn over the years was one of the most unexpected and treasured experiences I've had. Hearing of his death was one of the saddest.

My partner and I had the pleasure of their company for dinner just a couple of weeks ago in Baltimore. We were struck by how hale he seemed, even though the last year had been a rough one, with a heart attack and other ailments taking their toll.

He had lost some weight but was still the same tall, friendly bear of a man we met two decades ago in Florida (where he and Evelyn had long spent part of each year).

Tom still sounded like Tom that night, his speaking voice still carrying the rich ring of Valhalla in it. His laughter was as contagious as ever, his comments on every subject just as sharp.

I never detected a note of condescension or unwarranted ounce of ego in the man. Not that he didn't know his worth, or that of his wife. Neither Tom nor Evelyn would ever mince words about the current state of opera singing. When they said it's not what it used to be, they knew what they were talking about.

For a good idea of what it used to be, check out a marvelous five-CD set recently released by Deutsche Grammophon, Evelyn Lear and Thomas Stewart: A Music Tribute.

This collection celebrates two artists in their peak years, the 1960s. There is an incisive performance on virtually every track, representing a quality of sound and style that you can't easily find today.

A collection of duets by Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Stephen Foster and others in the boxed set offers particular pleasure, not just for the seamless blend of the vocalism and the exceptional sensitivity of the phrasing, but also because it so perfectly reflects the personal bond between these two singers.

They enjoyed one of the best marriages in the business. "Fifty-three years is a long time," Evelyn said yesterday. "We were just such good friends, not only lovers and spouses."

Tom was born in San Saba, Texas, on Aug. 29, 1928. After studies at the Juilliard School in New York and some modest success in this country, he headed to Europe in 1956 with Evelyn, both on Fulbright scholarships. Their careers quickly took off overseas.

The baritone lit up the stages of the best opera houses and was welcomed into the Wagner shrine of Bayreuth, where his Wotan and other Wagnerian roles were much admired. Back in this country, he sang at the Metropolitan Opera from 1966 until the 1990s and appeared with all the best American companies, becoming a particular favorite at the San Francisco Opera (I will always remember the nobility and poignancy of his Wotan there in 1985).

His career included Mozart, Verdi and Offenbach roles, along with notable firsts, such as the title role in the U.S. premiere of Aribert Reimann's Lear and a troubled scientist in the world premiere of Robert Ward's Minutes Till Midnight (Tom and Evelyn both starred in that one, transcending the dreadful material).

And, in 2000, although basically retired, Tom sang the offstage role of Titurel in Wagner's Parsifal at Washington National Opera, a wonderful cameo by a veteran artist.

Tom's legacy isn't confined to the memories of great performances, or the documentation of recordings. There's a living legacy, too, in the young singers he and Evelyn mentored through master classes (including some for the Baltimore Opera Company) and, especially, a venture aimed at ending one of the longest-running droughts in music -- the lack of great Wagnerian voices.

For the past several years, the Evelyn Lear and Thomas Stewart Emerging Singers Program of the Wagner Society of Washington, D.C., has produced a welcome glimmer of hope in a field badly in need of one.

Wagner voices are rarely plentiful. Even if one comes along with the requisite heft, nuance and color are apt to be missing. Tom and Evelyn sought to develop the total package, and those singers who have had the benefit of their collective wisdom can count themselves fortunate. (The next concert by participants in the program is scheduled for Oct. 20 at the German Embassy in Washington.)

Tom's baritone may not have been the biggest around, but it was one of the most beautiful and communicative. It is captured in all of its distinctive warmth on a CD from the VAI label, Thomas Stewart: In Recital.

Here is singing of rare intimacy and depth, each word, each phrase a revelation. To my ears, this live recording demonstrates that he was on par with the greatest interpreters of German art songs.

I'll be returning a lot to that disc as I think back on this extraordinary man, this model artist. I feel lucky to have known Thomas Stewart, and grateful that his voice will always be heard -- a source of insight, instruction and inspiration.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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