Eileen Farrell spent five years starring on the Metropolitan Opera stage, but she was too salt-of-the earth to put up with the opera world’s pretensions for long. She hung out with stagehands and liked to tell dirty jokes. And she was married — happily — to a New York cop.
Farrell was an unusually versatile singer who could sing an aria as well as belt out a blues number. Though perhaps that’s what you’d expect from an Irish-Catholic Connecticut girl whose parents once performed in vaudeville.
She was born in Willimantic, Conn., on Feb. 13, 1920, to The Singing O’Farrells, a vaudeville husband-and wife duo. The family moved frequently, to Storrs, Conn., where they taught music at the University of Connecticut, and then to Norwich, Conn.
They then moved to Woonsocket, R.I., where Father Cornelius J. Holland, the pastor at St. Charles Borromeo Church, encouraged Eileen’s singing career.
At 19, Eileen Farrell moved to New York City to see if she could make it as a singer. When she auditioned in 1940 for the CBS Chorus, she sang the only aria she knew, Vissi d’arte. She got the job. The next year, she got her own radio show singing classical and popular music. It was called Eileen Farrell Sings.
She had started to make enough money to buy first-class clothes. A couturier named Herman Patrick Tappe designed several outfits that suited her new celebrity status. One day, someone forged a check in Tappe’s name for $10,000. He called the police and a member of the NYPD forgery squad responded. His name was Robert Reagan.
Two Nice Irish People
Reagan looked at Tappe’s client list and recognized Farrell’s name. “I listen to her on the radio every week,” he said. Tappe replied, “Well, her name is Farrell and yours is Reagan. You’re a nice Irishman, and she’s a nice Irish girl. Why don’t the two of you come out some time and have lunch with me?”
They did. Then he asked her out. On their first date he treated her to two lobsters. After that, they started seeing each other regularly. “I wasn’t used to being treated like an Irish princess,” she wrote. “But I was starting to think that maybe I could learn.”
They married on April 5, 1946, had two children and then lived happily ever after for the next 40 years. The couple had a home on Staten Island and spent vacations at their house in Castine, Maine.
Eileen Farrell Gets a Break
The year after her wedding, Eileen Farrell began touring as a concert soprano in 1947. Her big break came when she dubbed vocals for Eleanor Parker in Interrupted Melody, a 1955 film about an opera star’s comeback.
Farrell launched her opera career in 1956 and sang for five years at the Metropolitan Opera. She made 22 curtain calls the first time she appeared at the Met in the title role of Gluck’s Alceste. One New York Times critic said when she sang at Carnegie Hall you could hear her in Newark.
But she wasn’t impressed with the pretension of opera. The Metropolitan Opera’s haughty general manager, Rudolf Bing, wasn’t impressed with her. “Bing, who was never comfortable with easygoing American personalities, found Ms. Farrell’s irreverence hard to deal with,” wrote the New York Times in her obituary. Their chilly relationship probably shortened her opera career, the Times opined.
During the ‘60s she appeared both as a soloist with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and on television variety shows. She also sang and clowned in sketches with Jonathan Winters and Carol Burnett. She is credited with the first crossover hit, I’ve Got a Right To Sing the Blues, an album recorded in 1960.
You can get a sense of her big personality — and voice — in this clip of her singing a Cole Porter song with Louis Armstrong.
Her success came as a complete surprise to her. “I really don’t have the faintest idea how it all happened,” she wrote in her autobiography, Can’t Help Singing: The Life of Eileen Farrell.
Eileen Farrell died March 23, 2002, at 82. You can listen to her sing, I’ve Got A Right To Sing the Blues here.
This story was updated in 2022.
Images: St. Charles Borromeo By Swampyank – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26730696. Eileen Farrell Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31733911.