Opera singer Evelyn Lear dies at 86

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WASHINGTON -- American soprano Evelyn Lear, who became an opera star in Europe singing some of the most difficult contemporary roles before returning to the United States, has died. She was 86.

Lear died Sunday at a nursing home in Sandy Spring, Md., according to her longtime friend and collaborator John Edward Niles and her son Jan Stewart. Niles said she had been ailing for months after suffering a mild stroke.

Lear and her late husband Thomas Stewart, the acclaimed bass-baritone, retired in the Maryland suburbs near Washington after singing together for decades around the world. They wanted to be closer to their grandchildren and began working to foster new American voices in opera. Stewart died in 2006.

Overlooked by U.S. opera houses in the 1950s, Lear and Stewart set out for Europe after winning Fulbright fellowships to study in Germany. Lear won fame in Vienna by singing the title character in Alban Berg's "Lulu" in the early 1960s.

"She considered herself to be a singing actress," Niles said. "That's what made her great." He said the couple's struggle breaking through in American opera venues fueled their displeasure that American singers were being passed over for European singers.

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So they set out later in life to nurture American singers performing the work of Richard Wagner, creating a program for young voices with the Wagner Society of Washington. Niles said Lear was a natural teacher.

Evelyn Shulman was born Jan. 8, 1926, in Brooklyn, N.Y., and studied piano in her teens. Her mother was an opera singer but had to give up that passion when she had children. Shulman married Walter Lear, a physician, when she was young and moved to the Washington area. After they divorced, she returned to New York in the 1950s.

She made her debut with New York's Metropolitan Opera in 1967 as Lavinia in the world premiere of Marvin David Levy's "Mourning Becomes Electra" and sang her finale there as the Marschallin in Strauss' "Der Rosenkavalier" in 1985.

Her son Jan Stewart said his parents found vindication after being rejected by U.S. operas early in life.

"They got nowhere in this country, and they became big stars in Europe," he said. "Then all of a sudden the Metropolitan Opera asks them to come and perform. That pretty much sums it up."

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