Cover image for Can't help singing : the life of Eileen Farrell
Can't help singing : the life of Eileen Farrell
Farrell, Eileen.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Boston : Northeastern University Press, [1999]

Physical Description:
xii, 255 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
General Note:
Includes index.
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ML420.F275 A3 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Eileen Farrell is blessed with two voices. A classically-trained dramatic soprano who also loves to belt pop songs and torch the blues, she successfully conquered the worlds of opera and popular music over the course of her whirlwind career. Now, Farrell shares reminiscences about her remarkable professional and personal life.

With candor, humor, and affection, she recalls her New England childhood, her overnight success at age twenty as star of her own CBS radio show, her big break dubbing vocals for Eleanor Parker in the MGM movie Interrupted Melody, and her many guest appearances on television shows. Farrell discusses her rise to fame as an opera star, from her highly acclaimed performance in Medea in 1955, to her historic debut at the Metropolitan Opera in Alceste in 1960. She also fondly recollects her marriage of forty years to New York police officer Robert Reagan and her life outside the limelight, including her frustrating tenure as a faculty member at Indiana University.

Farrell speaks frankly about her tumultuous years at the Met, where her head-to-head confrontations with Sir Rudolph Bing brought her promising operatic career to an abrupt close after five seasons. While she loved singing the music of Verdi, Mascagni, and Giordano, Farrell reveals that she never reconciled herself to the life of a diva, preferring the friendliness of show business to the aloofness of the opera world.

Populated with such figures as Leonard Bernstein, Arturo Toscanini, Maria Callas, Ethel Merman, Mabel Mercer, and Carol Burnett, this engaging memoir takes the reader from backstage at the Met to behind-the-scenes of the Ed Sullivan Show, providing a fascinating view of opera and the entertainment industry. Eileen Farrell's legion of fans will delight in her inviting story of a career that was like no other singer's.

Author Notes

Eileen Farrell was born in Willimantic, Connecticut, in 1920. She lives in New Jersey. Brian Kellow is executive editor of Opera News and has contributed to numerous magazines, including BBC Music Magazine, Stagebill, Opera, Stereophile, and Irish America. He lives in New York City and Connecticut.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

One of the most familiar concert singers, Farrell has had a thoughtful career in popular and classical music. For her World War II^-era CBS radio show, she learned to select music appropriate for her voice, and subsequently she never took roles that pushed at her limitations. Later, teaching at Indiana University in Bloomington, she carefully guided her students in singing naturally and with considerable breath control, as she did. Her husband, a New York City policeman, proved astute in business matters and knew which offers she should accept and which to refuse. Farrell sang with the major U.S. orchestras, in many recitals, on TV and radio, and in opera. Marred by stormy relations with Rudolph Bing, her career at the Met was brief, and she regrets never singing in musicals. Featuring many humorous and poignant career and family stories, Farrell's breezy, gossipy memoir also saliently includes her comments on many colleagues and her beliefs on the state of singing in contemporary times. --Alan Hirsch

Library Journal Review

If the test of an autobiography is whether the reader comes to know (and like) the subject, then Farrell succeeds admirably with this frank and charming account of her extraordinary career. She doesn't gloss over mistakes or weaknesses; nor does she quote endlessly from her reviews. In short, she appears genuinely modest while being honest about her abilities and successes. Her singing career was unique, with enormous success both in classical music and jazz. She worked with many famous singers and conductors of her time and doesn't hold back her blunt opinions of them. She explains the brevity of her career at the Metropolitan Opera, her controversial teaching career at Indiana University, and her rewarding experience with the Bach Aria Group. Many of her recordings have recently been reissued on compact disc, making this a perfect time for the first book about her career to appear. Recommended for academic and public library collections.ÄKate McCaffrey, Onondaga Cty. P.L., Syracuse, NY (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

How refreshing to hear from Farrell. Hers was a voice of importance, a rich, warm, dramatic soprano that could beautifully negotiate the demands of that repertoire. She could perform the popular music of her era idiomatically and convincingly, a crossover artist before crossover was invented. She could have been a reigning diva but refused the role, preferring to invest herself as wife and mother and to respect her roots in show business. Farrell's route to international fame will amaze contemporary readers: she had lessons with her mother; went to New York as a teenager and studied with a teacher her mother knew; by the age of 20 had her own radio show in a time when classical music was supported across the radio dial. Her first opera performance came when she was 36; her Met career began at age 40 and lasted a brief five years. When radio ebbed she found a place on television and in recording studios; she came to teaching late in life. As she herself says, "I had a funny career." Conversational and anecdotal, her autobiography is frank, fun, full of stories about her good professional friends, and only occasionally profane! No diva document, this title suits large public and academic music collections. M. S. Roy; Pennsylvania State University, University Park Campus



Excerpt     In Storrs, Connecticut, where I lived when I was a child, our driveway connected with a long road that wound around the corner, and if you followed it for a little while, our house would disappear from sight. One day, when I was about five years old, I was playing outside; my mother and father and brother and sister were all busy inside the house, and no one was paying any attention to me. I was feeling a little restless, I guess, because I decided to go for a walk. I left the yard and wandered down the road.     I wasn't gone for very long, and when I came back, the whole family was out in the yard waiting for me. My parents were furious. My father cut a branch off a nearby bush and switched me across the back of my legs. I couldn't understand why they were so upset. I hadn't tried to run away from home, and I hadn't gotten lost; I'd just wanted to take a little walk. It's one of my earliest memories.     About fifteen years later, I was singing an audition in a studio at CBS Radio in Manhattan. The room was empty except for the pianist and me. On the opposite wall from where I stood, there was a huge window, and on the other side of it was the engineer and the CBS "suits." I sang the only aria I knew, "Vissi d'arte," and I can remember everything about that audition--the way the room smelled, the sound of my voice echoing off the walls, the way my hands shook. I was on my own in New York City, miles from home, and I was scared to death. I'd never really been anywhere, and now my parents had decided I was ready to go out into the world to see if I had what it takes to be a singer. I couldn't for the life of me figure out how I was going to make it, and I don't think I felt much more prepared to handle myself than I had when I took that solo walk down the driveway in Storrs.     But I did make it. Growing up, I didn't know much about life outside the little towns in Connecticut and Rhode Island where my family lived. Suddenly, I was singing on the radio, and then on recordings and eventually onstage. Thousands of strangers were watching me and listening to me. It's strange to think about--in fact, to this day it scares me to think about it too much, because I really don't have the faintest idea how it all happened.     A lot of it was thanks to my mother. I can still see myself singing "Fairy Gardens" or "Sylvia" with the band at my high school in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, and my mother sitting in the audience with her hands in her lap. She wouldn't have applauded me to save her life--she never did, not even twenty years later when I was singing at the Metropolitan Opera. It wasn't that she disapproved of me being onstage, because she was the one who encouraged my singing more than anyone else. She was afraid that people might think she was a little too proud of having a daughter who sang.     My mother, Catherine Felicita Kennedy, was born July 3, 1886, in Danielson, Connecticut. The Kennedys were a solid Irish Catholic family, and music was a big part of my mother's life from the beginning. She sang, played the piano and organ, and was good at all three. When she was still young, her family moved to Woonsocket, where my Grandfather Kennedy owned a woolen mill. Kitty--as the family always called her--was a good student and went on to secretarial school. She also sang in the choir at our parish church, St. Charles Borromeo. Through a mutual friend in the choir, she met a handsome young fellow named Michael John Farrell. They met, fell in love, and on June 30, 1909, were married in that same church in Woonsocket.     Michael John Farrell was "show business" almost from the very beginning. He was born on November 3, 1886, in St. John's, Newfoundland. He was a boy soprano, and when he was ten years old, his parents allowed him to perform in public. He made his professional debut with the Frankie Stock Company, and pretty soon he was appearing quite often in vaudeville shows. Novelty acts were all the rage, and my father worked up a routine as a bird imitator. It was a big hit, and eventually he was billed as the "Irish Songbird." The vaudeville circuit at the turn of the century was pretty rowdy, and some of the roughnecks in one of the companies thought the "Irish Songbird" might sing even better if he was oiled up a little, so they started forcing whiskey down his throat before he went onstage. My mother always felt this was the start of the drinking problem he later developed.     All during his childhood, my father was busy appearing with stock and repertory companies along the East Coast. As he got older, he matured into a high baritone, and he started singing in silent movie theaters. I have a clipping from a 1910 newspaper from Norwich, Connecticut, announcing that week's movie at the Scenic Theatre: "The management has decided to repeat their former feature picture of last Saturday, The Redman's Child , a beautiful story of love, hatred and revenge.... M.J. Farrell will sing `Hoo-Hoo, Ain't You Coming Out Tonight,' with a whistling chorus." And from the same newspaper: "The feature picture is Behind the Scenes , a story of a mother's love for her child. The picture is bound to get the people talking.... M.J. Farrell will sing `When Sweet Marie Was Sweet Sixteen,' a beautiful ballad. Mr. Farrell sang this song three consecutive weeks in their Woonsocket house and made a decided hit at every performance."     After they got married, my parents formed their own vaudeville act. They were known as Farrell and Farrell, or sometimes as the Singing O'Farrells, and they sang everything from Mozart to traditional Irish songs. For a time they had something billed as an "Indian novelty act"--I'd give anything to have seen it, but they quit vaudeville long before I was born. The only remains of their touring days is a pile of tattered, yellowed clippings I have tucked away in a box. They didn't waste any time starting a family; my sister Leona Catherine was born in Woonsocket on May 21, 1910. Then came Gertrude, in 1913, and John Lowry, born in Amesbury, Massachusetts, on July 9, 1915. And on February 13, 1920, in Willimantic, Connecticut, I came along--Eileen Frances.     Kitty Kennedy was always the lady--quiet and hardworking, very disciplined, stoic, even-tempered, always holding her cards close to her chest. My father was the opposite who attracted--you couldn't miss him. Whenever a visitor dropped in, he'd break into a huge smile and call out, "Come on in--sit down and take a load off your hands and face!" It was a game with him to try to make my mother laugh, and all she usually gave him was a tight little smile. Once, when they were attending Mass together, my father's asthma began to bother him. He needed to get some fresh air, so he leaned over to my mother and told her he had to leave. "Hold this for me until after church," he whispered and he pressed something into her hand as he left the pew. She looked down and saw that he'd handed her his false teeth.     My father was very handsome, and always well dressed; I have a picture of him in a tuxedo made out of silk moiré. He was a real romantic, too--I remember how he used to sneak up behind my mother and smooch her, which drove her crazy--any big display of affection embarrassed her. But even though my mother didn't make a show of it, she loved my father deeply, and there were plenty of times when he put her love to the test.     My father was a binge drinker. He could leave liquor alone for three or four years, and then, without warning, off he'd go. Once in a while, I would see him staggering down the street, on his way home from a tavern. Often he didn't come home at night, and the next day at school, I'd hardly be able to concentrate on my studies, worrying that he'd come home drunk and embarrass me in front of my friends.     The worst of it had happened before I was born. My parents had lived for a time in Panama City, Florida, where my father had gotten a temporary job. One night, when he was out at one of his favorite local taverns, he fell into conversation with a bunch of strangers. They were very friendly, buying him round after round. He drank so much he finally passed out. Several hours later he woke up on a steamer and realized he'd been shanghaied--pressed into service on the ship. My mother was frantic. For a long time, she had no idea where he was, but eventually she got word from him. It was several months before he had worked enough to buy his passage back to Florida.     I didn't know about this episode until years later, when I was in junior high school. My father had just taken off on one of his sprees, and I was upset, so I thought I would hand out some advice to my mother.     "Why do you put up with him?" I asked her. "Why don't you leave him?"     "You don't have the slightest idea what you're talking about," she said.     She was right--I didn't have a clue, and it was a long time before I figured it out.     While my mother was alone in Panama City, wondering what had become of her husband, Gertrude contracted whooping cough. My mother had hired a local woman to help her around the house, and the woman spent hours transferring Gertrude between two tubs of water--one icy cold, the other steaming hot. This was what people did to treat typhoid and all kinds of diseases when they couldn't think of anything better. It didn't work for poor Gertrude any better than it worked for anyone else, and she died before her second birthday. My mother didn't tell me about Gertrude until years later, and I never heard my father mention her, ever. I cant imagine how guilty he must have felt over not being there to help my mother through such a terrible time.     My family moved around Connecticut quite a bit during my early years. Although I was born in Willimantic, at 101 North Street, the first house I can remember was in Storrs, just a few miles away. It belonged to Storrs Agriculture College (now the University of Connecticut), where both my parents were employed. My father taught dramatics, and my mother was director of the girls' glee club. She also played piano in local silent-movie houses. When I was five years old, we returned to Willimantic, where I attended first grade. Then my mother got a job as organist for St. Mary's Church in Norwich, and we moved again. Finally we stayed in one place for a little while; Norwich was home until my sophomore year in high school. By this time, my father, who was a talented artist, was making his living as a painter. He painted houses for the income but he developed a reputation for painting theaters. These were the days of the big old movie palaces, and my father decorated them in some very clever and complicated color schemes; he could also paint simulated wood grain on doors. Eventually, he became known for his work with gold leaf, and Warner Brothers hired him to paint many of the big theaters they owned. He was especially proud of the gold leaf design in New York's Paramount Theater on Broadway.     My mother's parents, Grandpa and Grandma Kennedy, were a big part of my life. My grandfather and I were particularly close. He was a quiet man with a big white handlebar moustache and a head so big he had to have his caps custom made. He had sold his woolen mill by the time I came along, and he and my grandmother had moved to Woonsocket. They lived at 239 Manville Road, in a big house on a hill that was the gathering place for the entire family, and would remain so for many years. A few yards away from the house, my grandfather built a little store, cut right into the side of the hill, where he sold cigars and cigarettes, canned goods, and penny candy. He also had a beautiful marble ice cream fountain, and on hot days, all the local kids poured in and out of his store. He was the king of Manville Road.     My grandparents had seven children--Aunt Etta, my mother, Aunt Leona, Uncle Harold, Uncle Charlie, Aunt Helen, and Uncle Ray. I'm still especially close to one of Uncle Ray's daughters, Kathan. My Auntie Leona unexpectedly left home when she was very young to enter the convent, where she became Sister Frances Cecilia and spent a long and rewarding life in the Order of Notre Dame de Namur. My Aunt Helen never married; she became a popular English teacher at Woonsocket Junior High School, where she worked for many years.     As a child, I was terribly shy, but the one person I could open up to was Grandpa Kennedy. We would sit for hours, just the two of us, on the glassed-in porch of his house in Woonsocket. I would tell him everything that was on my mind while he sat puffing on one of his cigars. He made me feel like the most important person in the world. The family claimed that Grandpa Kennedy had a sixth sense, and once he had an actual vision. When his daughter Leona decided to become a nun, she packed her bag and left the house early one morning without saying a word to anyone. My grandfather was devastated. He couldn't believe that his daughter would leave for the convent without telling him. He brooded over it for months. Then something happened to change his mind. As he told it, one morning he got up and was getting dressed when he happened to look out the bedroom window and see the Blessed Mother. He said she had a serene, gentle smile on her face. "I was so stunned" he told me years later, "that I instantly knew it was wrong for me to be angry with my little girl."     My father's parents had died long before I was born, but we did see quite a bit of my father's two sisters, Aunt Mary and Aunt Anna. Aunt Mary was an old-fashioned, very tightly wrapped Irish spinster who attended daily Mass. She made her living as head of the linen department at Shepard's, a large department store in Providence, Rhode Island, and she was simply made for the linen department--everything always had to be just so--neat as a pin.     Aunt Anna was more my speed. Almost everything she did or said came out wrong, but she kept blundering along, never giving a damn. Once she needed to have all her teeth pulled. Her dentist told her that in order for her gums to toughen and her mouth to heal more quickly, she would have to exercise it by chewing gum. Try as she might, she couldn't get the gum worked up, so she would give it to me. I would get it going, then give it back to Aunt Anna! Later, Aunt Anna met her match when she married my Uncle Irving. He had the strangest occupation I ever heard of: he manufactured satin linings for coffins! (Continues...) Copyright © 1999 Eileen Farrell and Brian Kellow. All rights reserved.