Brenda Lewis (b. Harrisburg, PA, 2 March 1921), American singing actress of Broadway, light opera, radio, television, and New York’s Metropolitan Opera, is known for the wide range of her performing skills, whether it be in the sultry operatic roles of Carmen or Salome, or in the lighter fare of The Merry Widow and Song of Norway. She is especially noted for undertaking challenging roles in new American opera – Birdie and Regina in Marc Blitzstein’s Regina (1949, 1953, and 1958), and Lizzie in Jack Beeson’s Lizzie Borden (1965) – and printing them indelibly in the memory of her audience.
Lewis grew up in Sunbury, PA, a small city on the east bank of the Susquehanna River. Her father was in the metal business, and she and her two brothers were given a thorough musical education as children. During the summers of her teenage years she attended an arts camp in Maryland called Camp Louise, where she developed a fondness and a facility for the patter songs of Gilbert and Sullivan. All three siblings, including Brenda, intended to go into medicine, and she went through a year of pre-med at Penn State, but the Great Depression had its effect on the family’s finances, and only the boys became doctors.
Luckily Brenda had found an ally in the director of her college Glee Club. He recognized her exceptional talent, gave her voice lessons, and arranged for her to audition for a scholarship at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. She was accepted by Emilio de Gogorza, head of the vocal department, to his studio. When Elizabeth Schumann became department head, he resigned, causing Lewis suddenly to be cut adrift. Supporting herself as a clerk at a five-and-dime and as a baby-sitter was less than inspiring, so she auditioned for the Philadelphia Opera Company. Almost unbelievably, at the age of nineteen she made her operatic debut with the Company in the role of the Marschallin in Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier.
Brenda Lewis attributes her early success to the fact that she was such a quick study. She could absorb music and words (in any language) almost on the spot: to learn the role of Marie in Wozzeck at the NY City Center Opera Company she took only three days, and once in 1945, when a scheduled soprano became indisposed, she learned Marguerite in Faust in twenty-four hours.
In the 1940s many Broadway theatres presented operettas as well as musicals and plays, and Lewis’s first New York appearance was at the Majestic Theatre in The Merry Widow (1944), with the famous Polish tenor Jan Kiepura. Soon after, she sang Suzanne in Wolf-Ferrari’s The Secret of Suzanne at the Alvin for three performances. Right after World War II, performing opportunities were few and far between, so Brenda Lewis supplemented what work she could get at the City Center Opera (The Bartered Bride, Faust, and The Gypsy Baron, all in repertory 1945; a coast-to-coast tour of the Sol Hurok presentation of The Gypsy Baron; Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia 1948) with gigs as a nightclub blues singer and standup comic.
By 1949 Brenda Lewis was the Carmen, the Salome, and the Santuzza (in Cavalleria Rusticana) of choice at the City Opera. One night after a performance of Salome, Marc Blitzstein and Leonard Bernstein came backstage to congratulate her, and Blitzstein mentioned in the course of the conversation that although the title role of Regina in his new opera (based on Lillian Hellman’s play The Little Foxes) was being written for a mezzo-soprano, the soprano role of Birdie was still open. “I felt that it was fated to be mine,” said Lewis later. After all, Lewis’s given name was Birdie, and, just as in the play the name of Birdie’s son is Leo, so is the name of Lewis’s first-born.
“Birdie was among the most rewarding roles of my performing career… a very rich theatrical experience and a role I preferred over almost every other.… We opened in New Haven and the audience response to the big monologue stopped the show cold.” Regina came to the 46th Street Theatre in New York on October 31, 1949, and played to excited and uplifted audiences for 56 performances. Some critics felt that it belonged in an opera house, not on Broadway; others observed that Jane Pickens in the title role (Tallulah Bankhead in the play and Bette Davis in the film were still very fresh in memory), though gorgeous and popular as a radio singer, hadn’t the vocal weight essential to the central character.
Brenda Lewis made her debut with the Metropolitan Opera Company in 1952 in the role of Musetta in La Bohème, and followed it very shortly thereafter with Rosalinde in Die Fledermaus. It was in these roles that she participated in the first two full-scale television broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera on CBS’s Omnibus program in February 1953. (On another Omnibus presentation from the Met in March 1958, Leonard Bernstein offered “A Brief History of Opera”; Brenda Lewis sang examples from Carmen, Faust, and Salome to his piano accompaniment.)
Over the next ten years Lewis appeared at the Met as Rosalinde in Die Fledermaus, Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni, Venus in Tannhäuser, Marie in Wozzeck, Marina in Boris Godunov, Carmen, Salome, and Vanessa. Yet she did not abandon Broadway altogether – for a three-month run in 1954 she performed with French ballet star Zizi Jeanmaire in The Girl in Pink Tights. She continued to sing with City Opera as well, taking on the central role of Regina in the 1953 and 1958 revivals of the Blitzstein opera, when the production was recorded for Columbia.
Lewis traveled extensively in the 1950s: she toured with the Metropolitan Opera to leading American cities coast to coast as Musetta in Bohème and Rosalinde in Die Fledermaus; she scored triumphs with the San Francisco Opera as Salome and in leading roles in Il Tabarro, Der Rosenkavalier, Don Giovanni, and La Bohème; and had comparable successes in her signature roles with regional opera companies in Pittsburgh, Central City, New Orleans, Boston, Montreal, Seattle, San Antonio, Houston, Dallas, and Chicago. Nor was she confined to the shores of North America: she went to Rio de Janeiro to sing Venus in Tannhäuser, Musetta, Santuzza, Marguerite, Marina, and Donna Elvira, and to Cuba to sing Santuzza. There were special concert appearances with symphony orchestras in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Dallas, Havana, and many other cities, and television spots on Kate Smith’s shows and Leonard Bernstein’s Omnibus Lectures viewed nationwide. Roles in light opera took her to St. Louis, Kansas City, Memphis, Birmingham, Chicago, and, in a stunningly extravagant Marine Theatre production of Song of Norway (1959), Jones Beach, Long Island. (This production, with Brenda Lewis as the Countess, was recorded in 1959 and is available on CD.)
But perhaps Brenda Lewis’s most remarkable achievements during this period took place in Vienna, Austria. In 1956 she was engaged at the Volksoper to star in the first gala full-scale European production of a Broadway show, Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate. It was such a sensational success that she was asked to return the following season in Annie Get Your Gun, in the Ethel Merman role. She was subsequently invited to sing both these roles at the Zurich Opera in Switzerland, as well as Carmen and Salome.
In 1963 Lewis began a new career as producer and stage director for the New Haven Opera Company in Connecticut. Over her ten-year career with the Company she produced Fledermaus, Figaro, Cosi fan Tutte, Don Pasquale, Rigoletto, Madame Butterfly, La Bohème, Sister Angelica, Gianni Schicchi, Pelleas, Orfeo, Faust, and other works. She had not stopped performing, however, by any means. In 1965 Jack Beeson’s Lizzie Borden, with Lewis in the title role, had its world premiere at the New York City Opera; it was filmed by WGBH in Boston and broadcast nationally on Public Television.
Then in 1973 she took on yet another role as Professor of Voice and Opera at the Hartt School of Music at the University of Hartford. Inaugurating a new Musical Theater Program at Hartt, she staged The Threepenny Opera in the Marc Blitzstein version, Britten’s Albert Herring, Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte, John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera, and Jacques Ibert’s Angelique, among many other productions. Her Die Fledermaus at the University of Hartford in 1989 was filmed for Connecticut Public TV and won a regional Emmy.
Brenda Lewis has four grandchildren, upon whom she dotes.
– Lucy E. Cross