Brenda Lewis, Versatile American Soprano, Is Dead at 96

Her Broadway credits include “The Girl in Pink Tights” (1954), by Jerome Chodorov, Joseph Fields and Leo Robin to the music of Sigmund Romberg, and “Cafe Crown” (1964), opposite Theodore Bikel and Sam Levene.

Ms. Lewis’s diverse career was made possible partly because she was able to learn a new role in a matter of days. Although she did not begin to take voice lessons until she was in college, she proved so adept that she made her professional debut less than two years later.

But for all her success in the opera house, Ms. Lewis said, it was musical theater she loved best.

“Broadway is what I really bide my time for,” she told The New York Times in 1953. “I love acting just as much as I do singing.”

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Ms. Lewis in a 1967 telecast in the title role of “Lizzie Borden” by Jack Beeson.

Credit
NET Opera, via Photofest

It was on Broadway that she first played Birdie Hubbard, and, as Ms. Lewis liked to say, the role was foreordained: She was originally named Birdie.

The daughter of Jules and Lena Solomon, Birdie Solomon was born in Harrisburg, Pa., on March 2, 1921. (Her given name was the English equivalent of the Hebrew name Tziporah.) Her father was a scrap-metal dealer, her mother a homemaker.

Raised in Sunbury, Pa., she embarked on premedical studies at Pennsylvania State University, where she also sang in the glee club.

But before completing her studies, she took up a scholarship to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. There, she embarked on serious vocal study for the first time, studying with Marion Freschl, who over the years also taught Marian Anderson and Shirley Verrett.

In 1941, while still at Curtis, she landed her first major professional role, with the Philadelphia Opera. Under the stage name Brenda Lewis, she sang the Marschallin in Richard Strauss’s “Der Rosenkavalier.”

She had seen her first grand opera — by coincidence, “Der Rosenkavalier,” with the German soprano Lotte Lehmann as the Marschallin — only two years before.

Reviewing the debut, The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote, “The comely Miss Lewis didn’t look old enough to have to worry about lost youth,” for which the Marschallin pines in her aria “Da Geht Er Hin.”

“However,” the review continued, “her singing more nearly encompassed the role’s requirements.”

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