Eileen Farrell (February 13, 1920 – March 23, 2002) was an American soprano who had a nearly 60-year-long career performing both classical and popular music in concerts, theatres, on radio and television, and on disc. NPR noted, “She possessed one of the largest and most radiant operatic voices of the 20th century.” While she was active as an opera singer, her concert engagements far outnumbered her theatrical appearances. Her career was mainly based in the United States, although she did perform internationally. The Daily Telegraph stated that she “was one of the finest American sopranos of the 20th century; she had a voice of magnificent proportions which she used with both acumen and artistry in a wide variety of roles.” And described as having a voice “like some unparalleled phenomenon of nature. She is to singers what Niagara is to waterfalls.”
Farrell began her career in 1940 as a member of the CBS Chorus on CBS Radio. In 1941, CBS Radio offered Farrell her own program, Eileen Farrell Sings, on which she performed both classical and popular music for 5 years. In 1947, she launched her career as a concert soprano, and nine years later began performing on the opera stage. The pinnacle of her opera career was five seasons performing at the Metropolitan Opera from 1960–1966. She continued to perform and record both classical and popular music throughout her career, and is credited for releasing the first successful crossover album: “I’ve Got a Right to Sing the Blues” (1960). After announcing her retirement from performance in 1986, she still continued to perform and record music periodically up into the late 1990s. She was also active as a voice teacher, both privately and for nine years at Indiana University.
Farrell was born in Willimantic, Connecticut, the youngest of three children born to Irish-American parents, Michael Farrell and Catherine Farrell (née Kennedy). Her parents were vaudeville singers who had performed under the name ‘The Singing O’Farrells’ prior to having children. The family moved quite frequently during Farrell’s childhood to various towns in Connecticut. Farrell’s first clear memories were of her family’s home in Storrs, Connecticut, which was where her parents were working as music and drama teachers at Storrs Agricultural College (now the University of Connecticut).
Farrell received her early vocal training from her parents during her childhood. Her mother, a talented coloratura soprano, was her primary teacher, but her father, a baritone, also occasionally taught her. Farrell’s early singing career was greatly encouraged by her local pastor, Father Cornelius J. Holland, at St. Charles Borromeo Church in Woonsocket, Rhode Island. After graduating from high school, she moved to New York City in August 1939 to study with retired Metropolitan Opera contralto Merle Alcock. While studying singing with Alcock, she received language coaching from Charlie Baker, who was the music director of Rutgers Presbyterian Church. After working with him for a few months, he hired her as a paid singer at Rutgers. When her radio career took off, Baker became Farrell’s vocal coach and helped her prepare most of her music. In her autobiography, Can’t help singing: the life of Eileen Farrell (1999), she credits Baker with helping her succeed during the early years of her career on radio. Farrell later was a student of vocal and opera coach Eleanor McLellan, whom she credited for giving her a solid technique.
Concert and opera career
During 1947–1948, she toured the US as a concert singer, and in 1949 she toured South America. Farrell’s song recital in New York in October 1950 was enthusiastically acclaimed and gained her immediate recognition. That year, she also appeared in a concert performance of Berg’s Wozzeck as Marie. In 1952, she was engaged by Arturo Toscanini for his first and only studio recording of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, with the NBC Symphony Orchestra.
In 1956, she made her stage debut as Santuzza in Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana with the San Carlo Opera in Tampa, Florida. In 1957, she debuted with the Lyric Opera of Chicago; in 1958, with the San Francisco Opera. She made her Metropolitan Opera debut on December 6, 1960, singing the title role in Gluck’s Alceste. She opened the 1962–63 Met season as Maddalena in Giordano’s Andrea Chénier, opposite Franco Corelli. She remained on the Met roster through the 1963–64 season, singing forty-four performances in six roles, then returned in March 1966 for two final performances as Maddalena. Her other roles at the Met included the title role in Ponchielli’s La Gioconda, Leonora in Verdi’s La forza del Destino, Isabella in de Falla’s Atlàntida, and Santuzza.
Throughout the 1960s, she was a frequent soloist with the New York Philharmonic under the direction of Leonard Bernstein; she was also a favorite of Thomas Schippers. She was a featured soloist in an abridged recording of Handel’s Messiah, with Eugene Ormandy, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
From 1971 to 1980, Farrell was professor of music at the Indiana University School of Music in Bloomington. From 1983 to 1985, she was professor of music at the University of Maine in Orono.
Farrell was married to a New York Police Department officer, Robert Reagan, with whom she maintained homes in the Grymes Hill and Emerson Hill areas of Staten Island, New York. They had a son and daughter. The son died in 1986. Farrell died at a nursing home in Park Ridge, New Jersey, on March 23, 2002, aged 82.