Jan DeGaetani, née Janice Ruetz, was born in Massillon, Ohio in July 1933. In addition to her vocal studies at Juilliard with Sergius Kagen, she also credited her weekly music-reading lessons of part-songs and Madrigals from the Renaissance and Baroque eras with Norman Lloyd for expanding her musical range. She retained a fondness all her life for songs, particularly lieder, of the past—she even recorded an album of Cole Porter songs and made them works of art—yet she quickly became noted for her mastery of modern and avant-garde music. Since she didn’t have perfect pitch, she gave new scores a thorough going-over to make sure she had each and every note in place.
After graduating, she worked with such groups as the Waverly Consort, but soon became involved with the Contemporary Chamber Ensemble directed by Arthur Weisberg, and especially with their pianist Gilbert Kalish, and this was the fulcrum by which she had a jump-start into the world of contemporary music. Her breakthrough recital came in 1960 when she performed Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire at Carnegie Recital Hall with Robert Cole and the Gramercy Chamber Ensemble. Although Bethany Beardslee had recorded this work for Columbia (under the direction of Robert Craft), it was DeGaetani who became known for singing this challenging sprechstimme work in public. She made a famous recording of it in 1970, her first album for the Nonesuch label.
Yet it was another Nonesuch recording, of George Crumb’s avant-garde song cycle Ancient Voices of Children, that catapulted DeGaetani into superstardom as a leading singer of the modern idiom. Crumb’s work was scarcely considered musical by many listeners, a masterpiece by others, yet the combination of the generally quiet mood of the piece, the almost shocking “reverb” effects that DeGaetani created with her voice, and the ambience of the recorded sound made the LP a classic. Retail sales astonished both the artists and the record label, and the LP became a sort of underground “hit” in the classical world.
She briefly taught voice at the State College of New York at Purchase and Bennington College before joining the Eastman School of Music in 1973. By the late 1970s she was also teaching voice and giving annual performances at the Aspen summer Music Festivals, and this is where I caught up with her in 1979.
Already a legend for her perfect voice placement, superb phrasing and meticulously detailed performances, I approached her with a degree of reverence that I seldom felt towards “opera singers.” I couldn’t help asking her how on earth she managed to sing such strange music without stretching her voice out of shape. Her answer, though simple on the surface, was enlightening and lit up the light bulb in my head: “The trick is to never sing anything that’s outside your range. As long as all the notes in the score are within your range, you’ll make it somehow. Step outside of your range, and you’re in big trouble.”
I heard her sing a song recital that summer, but the big deal of the festival was the American premiere of Peter Maxwell Davies’ latest opera, The Martyrdom of St. Magnus. I had gone over the score with New York Times and Opera News critic David Hamilton, who also showed me the score of Maxwell Davies’ Eight Songs for a Mad King—without question one of the weirdest scores I’ve ever seen, laid out like a birdcage with music staves all over the place and notes reaching above and below the staff like a bunch of crazy wildflowers. But I had liked Eight Songs for a Mad King (yet another surprising modern-music “hit” for Nonesuch, this one featuring baritone Julius Eastman and the Fires of London ensemble), so I figured I would like Martyrdom. No such luck. The score was just as zany as the Eight Songs but not as concise; nor did it contain tonal or rhythmic “signposts” that the listener could hold on to. In short, it was a load of bull. And the stage production was cutting edge minimalism, with soldiers searching for Magnus suddenly running through the auditorium with flashlights, as if the burgeoning saint were hiding under one of our chairs. The only image that sticks in my mind from the whole performance is that of DeGaetani, as “Blind Mary,” lying flat on her back in the middle of the stage and singing a soliloquy. As much as I admired her, I couldn’t help but find the scene more than a bit ludicrous.
A couple of years later, back in Cincinnati, the music director of the local Chamber Orchestra wanted to perform Benjamin Britten’s wonderful late Phaedra cantata but couldn’t find an adequate local mezzo who could sing it. Out of the blue, I recommended that he ask DeGaetani. He wondered if she had sung it before; I told him probably not, but she was such a good musician that I was sure she could learn it in less than a week. He took a chance and contacted her; much to his relief, she agreed to learn and perform it. Her performance of it was one of the most moving I’ve ever heard after Janet Baker’s great 1976 recording of the work, but unfortunately the performance was neither broadcast nor recorded, so it only exists in my memory.
I followed DeGaetani’s career sporadically over the next several years but, aside from her performances at the Aspen Festival, she seemed to be teaching more than singing. Then, suddenly, it was all over. She died in 1989 of leukemia, a shock to all of us who admired her.
It’s difficult to think of too many other singers of her time who were as important in a number of ways that didn’t relate to conventional opera. She was, like Bethany Beardslee, Cathy Berberian and Dora Orenstein, one of those singers who stamped her art and her personality on everything she sang and, in return, drew a much larger audience into her circle. She was sorely missed and, in many ways, never replaced.
— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley