Throughout Eileen Farrell’s remarkable life, she always possessed two attributes- a big, irreverent attitude and an even bigger voice.
When the first threatened to hold her back, the latter always rescued her – guaranteeing her success in the competitive world of professional singing. Primarily an opera singer, she was always uneasy with what she perceived as the pretentiousness and stuffiness of the opera world. Yet, whenever she stepped onto the stage, she wowed the crowd.
“She possessed one of the largest and most radiant operatic voices of the 20th Century,” according to NPR Listener’s Encyclopedia of Classical Music by Ted Libbey.
According to The Daily Telegraph, 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 … she is to singers what Niagara is to waterfalls.”
Farrell’s career spanned almost 60 years. While plenty of singers possess versatility, Farrell’s was remarkable. She was as comfortable singing jazz and blues as she was singing opera.
What’s more, she also had a sense of humor. When Farrell taught a class at Indiana University, she hung a sign outside her office that read “help stamp out opera.”
Farrell was born in Wilmington, Connecticut in 1920. She was the youngest of three children. Her parents were vaudeville singers and had performed together, calling themselves “The Singing O’Farrells,” before they had children.
The family moved around New England frequently, taking various jobs teaching singing before landing in Woonsocket, Rhode Island in 1936. Farrell graduated from Woonsocket High School in 1939. It was in Woonsocket that she received great encouragement from her local pastor, Father Cornelius J. Holland, of St. Charles Borremeo Church, to pursue a career in singing. She listened.
In 1940, one year after graduating Woonsocket High School, Farrell began her career as a professional singer. She landed a spot on the CBS Chorus. It didn’t take long for her to stand out.
Just three months into her tenure on the CBS Chorus she was offered her own 30-minute radio show named “Eileen Farrell Sings.” There, she would perform classical and popular music. The show gave her the opportunity to perform with the popular singers of the day, including Frank Sinatra. In 1944, Farrell made a special Christmas recording for American soldiers stationed abroad in which Shirley Temple served as the mistress of ceremonies.
By the late forties Farrell toured the U.S. as a concert singer, which furthered her acclaim. By the fifties, Farrell made her way into the world of film. She appeared in the 1955 film Interrupted Melody in which her singing was featured prominently.
In the mid-fifties Farrell began her career on the opera stage. She appeared in popular productions ranging from Tampa, Florida to San Francisco, California.
The highlight of Farrell’s career occurred when she performed five seasons at The Metropolitan Opera- from 1960 until 196?, which is widely considered the major leagues of opera. Yet her relationship with the Met’s management was contentious, at best. Farrell would be the first to admit that she had a big personality. But Met management also played a part in the difficult relationship. Farrell also said that she found the assignments unchallenging and unbecoming of her considerable talent. By 1966 she was dropped from the Met.
Yet as that decade ended, Farrell’s vocal range began to lose some of its world-renowned range. For the remainder of her singing career, Farrell transitioned back into jazz and blues recordings as well as pop music recordings. Yet, Farrell at 80 percent of her range was more effective than the average professional at 100 percent. Naturally, she continued to succeed at everywhere she went and every time she sang.
She began her teaching career at Indiana University in 1971, where she taught music. In 1983, she took another job teaching music at the University of Maine. In 1999, she released her memoir “Can’t Stop Singing.”
She was inducted into the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 1967.
Farrell died in 2002, at aged 82.
Here’s how The Telegraph described her when she died.
“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.”