Yorkshire's opera legend Dame Janet Baker on war memories, singing and knowing when to stop

Dame Janet Baker is one of our most famous opera singers. She talked to Phil Penfold about her wartime memories, her love of singing and knowing when to bow out.

Opera singer, Janet Baker, prepares for the charity appearance in 1971.
Opera singer, Janet Baker, prepares for the charity appearance in 1971.

One of her earliest memories, remembers Dame Janet Baker, is of walking to school in York one morning with her brother Peter only to find it had been hit by the Luftwaffe.

“A bomb had dropped smack in the middle of the building during an air raid the night before. We stood and stared at the shattered school,” she says. She remembers “the stench, the sight of the rubble, the pall over the city”.

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It’s a poignant memory as tragedy struck her family when her brother died of a heart condition, aged only ten.

Dame Janet Baker poses during the International Opera Awards at the Hilton Hotel, London, in 2013. Picture: Anthony Devlin/PA/

Baker herself has lived a long and remarkable life, she is now 88, having established herself as one of the best mezzo-sopranos of the last century. Today, she still has a mind that sparkles, a razor-sharp memory and is warm, witty and fizzing with energy.

Though she no longer calls the county ‘home’ she remains a Yorkshire lass to the marrow of her bones, and acknowledges the debt she owes to the place where she was born, and where she spent her formative years.

Her hometown is Hatfield, which sits between Doncaster and Selby, before the family moved to York. And that is where she had her first experiences of the stage. “Looking back, I think that we went to just about everything that the Theatre Royal put on,” she says.

“In those days they had a very well-established drama repertory company, with very high expectations of the actors and there was a new production for us to enjoy every week.”

Dame Janet Baker on the stage at the London Coliseum during rehearsals for the English National Opera production of Julius Caesar in 1979.

There were frequent visits to Leeds, too. “I was always impressed by the exacting high standards of the choirs. I was utterly transformed, and transported,” she says. “In those days the radio played a far greater part in the lives of ordinary people than it did today, and I can remember one Promenade concert from London, conducted by Sir Malcolm Sergeant, which was a total experience and where I was simply overwhelmed by the sound.”

Her father was an engineer by trade and also a keen chorister. Baker, though, was more interested in words than music initially. “The moment that the marks on the paper made sense to me was a revelatory one, full of wonder and of joy. Respect for words, spoken and sung, has been total because I knew how far-reaching their power can be.”

In September, Baker received the prestigious award from the UK’s Critics Circle for “Services to the Arts”. For although she has now been long retired from performing she is still an influential figure behind the scenes. “When I was starting out”, she chuckles, “I was told that under no circumstances should I ever allow myself to be friends with a critic. Such a relationship would not be useful!”

In the event, she has sustained long and enduring friendships with critics, audiences and fellow artistes alike.

When I met her – she was wearing a long string of pearls with earrings to match, a dress that seemed to float around her, and her grey hair was stylishly arranged – she looked a picture of serenity. However, she says that a singer’s life “is dominated by a sense of terror, and in my experience, nerves are lifelong. All sorts of things go through your mind. Surgeons have steady hands – I wish that were the same for us... but we are pretty big people and we are strong.”

She says her husband was a big support to her throughout her career. “He would drive me around from engagement to engagement, and my head was always in the score of what I was about to sing. I have had fantastic support and backing all my life”.

It is now more than 30 years since Baker decided to retire. She was only in her middle fifties having made her professional stage debut in 1956. She did not disappear, however, for she was a memorable Chancellor of the University of York for nearly 15 years and admired by students and academics alike.

Baker is also one of the most respected patrons of the Leeds International Piano Competition. She was made a CBE in 1970 and elevated to be a Dame Commander six years later. She has gold medals, citations, fellowships and awards galore.

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Which is why she feels she left performing at the right time. “When I decided to retire I was called a ‘traitor’ by some, but I felt I’d done more than my fair share, and the last thing that I wanted to hear, after a concert or opera somewhere was someone whispering ‘Ah, but you should have heard her five years ago.’

“I have always wanted to do my job to my own satisfaction – not that of someone else. Singers and dancers use their bodies in a physical way that is not required in any other walk of life, and the thing that we have in common is that, for most of us, we know when to bow out. It is instinct. You don’t wander about asking ‘Can you give me some advice on when I should retire?’”

There is an old showbiz expression that a wise performer should “Leave ‘em wanting more” and Baker certainly did that.

She has often quoted the story of the great northern naturalist and wildlife painter Charles Tunnicliffe who, aged nearly 80, (with failing eyesight and a vast body of work behind him), one day laid down his brushes and said: “Ah’ve done me whack!” Did she feel like that? “Exactly!”

It was then, she says, that she took off the blinkers of just singing, and did a little teaching.

“Today, I am a listener and a member of the audience in a way that I have never been before, and I am affected, and inspired. I am aware of the past, and I look at all the things around me, but I don’t, and never have, taken things for granted. I enjoy the day that I am in now”.

She has always delivered very honest performances both in the opera house, on the concert platform and in her many acclaimed recordings.

She is not a great admirer of what she calls “vocal gymnastics”, but does love honest opinions, and recalls a comment made by Sir Peter Hall. “He was a truly great director, both of opera and straight plays,” she says, “and he told me one day: ‘Janet, you know, if you’d really set your mind to it, you could have been a very good actress!’.

“How could I have been offended, for I have always recognized the importance of the word, when allied to the music.”

She looks back on her career with gratitude. “I’ve been extremely lucky to have been able to use what I think I’m good at for so long. I shall always be a singer, because I was born one, and I shall die one, but there is a lot of new joy, because my responsibilities aren’t over…”