Variety spices the life of a star soprano

By David Patrick Stearns

(This article was published in The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 19, 2005)

Soprano Julianne Baird also teaches at Rutgers-Camden."It's hard to separate what's work and what's play."

Though she moves in the seemingly civilized, congenial world of baroque music, soprano Julianne Baird has faced vehement booing in Belgium, helped change the history of Bach performance in Boston, and landed behind bars in Maryland. At age 50, this blond, sunny warrior from the front lines of the Handel opera revival discusses these things laughingly.

     "I love the variety of my life," she says with a certain amount of incredulity. "It's hard to separate what's work and what's play."

     Variety is a nice word for incongruity. Baird is a genuine star in the world of historically authentic performance of 18th-century music. But she's also a "distinguished professor" at Rutgers University in Camden.

     Yes, the diva holds office hours, amid walls packed with dissertations, scores and recordings - many being her own. She has recorded 115 discs, including more baroque operas (mostly on independent labels) than most any single soprano. The one concession to luxury is an Oriental carpet on the floor.

     She keeps her admirers on the move, from Wilmington's Brandywine Baroque (where she performed last weekend), to Philadelphia's Philomel (her collaborators on a forthcoming compact disc), the Philadelphia Classical Symphony (with whom she will sing Vivaldi on Friday) and Tempesta di Mare (which will record Handel arias with her for the prestigious English label Chandos).

     Most communities have talented local singers who could have wider careers, but rarely are they of Baird's caliber. She has a springwater-fresh tone. Few singers phrase virtuosic coloratura arias so meaningfully. Almost nobody improvises vocal ornaments as she does.

     "Julianne risks all," said conductor Nicholas McGegan, one of the world's leading figures in Handel opera. "There should be a feeling that things aren't going to come out the same way, that things could crash. Nobody sounds like her. Nobody does ornamentation like her. She's a star. She's tops."

     Baird studied with experts, namely Nikolaus Harnoncourt in Salzburg in 1977. And then she became one. The daughter of academics in her native West Virginia, Baird studied the 18th- century treatises on singing and incorporated those ideas into her voice while earning a doctorate from Stanford University and a master's from the Eastman School of Music.

     Her latest opera recording, Gluck's 1765 La corona, was never performed in the composer's lifetime, and the vocal lines lack a finishing touch. Baird rewrote hers in Gluckian style and created her own orchestral parts to match. If she had to, she could even tune the harpsichord. One common theory of why Baird doesn't work more with European early-music conductors is that she's smarter than they are, and they don't like that.

     "I do have to be careful sometimes," she said conspiratorially. "Once, I sang Messiah with [composer-conductor] Lukas Foss, and he said, 'We will have no ornamentation.' So the oboist and I took up the cry. He played the most ornamented oboe line I've ever heard... . Every night I added more ornaments. There wasn't much he could do!"

     Baird has never been a subservient spirit. Again and again she worked with conductor Joshua Rifkin, who was famously ridiculed at a musicology conference in Boston for his minimalist Bach performances with one singer to a part, even for the mighty Mass in B minor. Now, there's irrefutable proof that Rifkin was right. She also sang the Pergolesi Stabat Mater as choreographed by Mark Morris; the Belgian audience hated it - and howled.

     Then there's the University of Maryland car-park incident: Baird was unloading child-related paraphernalia before a concert and was questioned by an overzealous attendant about her parking permits. After sharp verbal exchanges, she was led off in handcuffs - only to be rescued by the university president by concert time.

     Most often, Baird walks away from less-congenial situations smiling - but with no intention of returning, such as in her recording of Monteverdi's Orfeo with the much-lauded conductor John Eliot Gardiner, who is known for his testiness.

     "He feels that if he insults you enough, you'll come around to his way of doing things," she said. "Musicians will put up with a lot. In training, musicians are never perfect. But he goes over the line."

     Although she worked often in Europe's early-music scene (which is more prominent than that in the United States), she found those well-paying gigs drying up in the late-1980s recession. Baird had settled in Philadelphia in 1978, was in the thick of her first marriage with two young children, and in 1989 she was offered her Rutgers position.

     "I didn't want to die a poor musician," she said. "I didn't want to find myself moving back to the U.S. at age 55, having to reinvent myself. I always saw myself straddling [academia and performance]. And for academia, there's no better place than the U.S."

     However, her brushes with high stardom weren't over. In 1995, the Metropolitan Opera invited her to join its singer roster: "It was almost like a dream. But they said I'd have to move to New York. I turned it down. I thought, 'What do I tell Rutgers? How do I teach my classes?' "

     Now remarried, to Edward Arthur Mauger (author of Philadelphia Then and Now), she lives in Haddonfield with her teenagers and talks about singing as one of many aspects of her life. Her stage opera career is discussed in the past tense.

     "I can come away from a day of teaching, conducting my madrigal group, and editing music feeling pleased," she says. "I love going to the Philly Fringe festival. I love going to the theater, to our opera company... . "

     Then you hear Baird's voice in its current state: It's more lustrous and substantial than ever. She might still be the best Handel soprano out there. Then you remember the fine singers (Elisabeth Soderstrom and Benita Valente) who reignited their stage careers in middle age. The possibilities are considerable.

Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at 215-854-4907 or

Last updated October 24, 2005