A lyric soprano whose vocal talent blossomed while she was in college, Judith Raskin developed into one of the outstanding musical artists of the twentieth century. Her impeccable musicianship, convincing acting, and striking beauty kept her in constant demand as an opera performer, as a recitalist, and as a teacher, and she was famous for the absence of egocentricity often found in prima donnas.
Judith Raskin was born in Yonkers, New York, on June 21, 1928, the only child of American-born parents. Both were public school teachers and strong labor-movement sympathizers. Her father, Harry A. Raskin, a graduate of City College, was an accomplished pianist and chaired the music department at Evander Childs High School. Her mother, Lillian (Mendelson) Raskin, who graduated from Hunter College, taught at Public School 64 in the Bronx.
As a child, Raskin studied piano and violin. She graduated from Roosevelt High School in Yonkers, where she sang in the glee club. After her junior year at Smith College, she married Raymond A. Raskin, a distant cousin, then a navy doctor and later a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. The ceremony, which took place July 11, 1948, in New York, was performed by the Smith College rabbi, since neither Raskin family was affiliated with a synagogue. Raskin graduated from Smith in 1949. Raymond and Judith Raskin had two children: Jonathan Marvin (b. 1951), a physician in New York, and Lisa Abby (b. 1953), professor of psychology and dean of faculty at Amherst College in Massachusetts.
At Smith, Raskin majored in music (receiving the Harriet Dey Barnum voice scholarship), and studied under Anna Hamlin, with whom she continued to study after graduation. Her first important operatic role was Sister Constance in the December 1957 NBC-TV Opera production of Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites. For her 1957 debut with NBC, she had sung Susanna in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Three other major debuts were also in Mozart roles: in 1959, for the New York City Opera, Raskin sang Despina in Così fan tutte; in 1962, at the Metropolitan Opera, she repeated the role of Susanna; and in 1963, at Glyndebourne, England, she sang Pamina in The Magic Flute.
Baroque opera was another specialty: Raskin appeared in Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea, and in Orfeo (recorded by RCA in Rome in 1965), as well as in Purcell’s The Fairy Queen,and Rameau’s Les Indes galantes [The amorous Indies]. Equally comfortable with twentieth-century opera, she created the role of the bride in the televised 1963 premiere of Gian Carlo Menotti’s Labyrinth, commissioned by NBC-TV Opera, and the title role in Douglas Moore’s The Ballad of Baby Doe in Central City, Colorado, in 1956. She also sang Anna Trulove in Igor Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress (recorded by CBS in London in 1964). In the course of her operatic career, Raskin sang about twenty roles and performed with the Chicago Lyric Opera, the Santa Fe Opera, the Opera Company of Boston, and the Opera Society of Washington.
Raskin also had an important career singing lieder and orchestral works, especially after leaving the Metropolitan (where her final performance was March 16, 1972). On October 9, 1964, she made her New York recital debut as the eighth Ford Foundation soloist. Her program included the New York premiere of Songs of Eve, a thirty-minute song cycle commissioned from Ezra Laderman. She also premiered Hugo Weisgall’s Yiddish song cycle The Golden Peacock and songs by Miriam Gideon. In the 1970s, she recorded works by all three Jewish American composers. She sang with the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the London Symphony, among others. With the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell, she recorded Mahler’s Fourth Symphony.
Her other recordings include a performance of Così fan tutte, made in London for RCA Victor in 1967, and numerous recordings for RCA, Decca, Columbia, London, C.R.I., and Epic Records. In addition to the Ford Foundation grant, she received the Marian Anderson Award in 1952 and 1953, and a London Grammy in 1967. Raskin was awarded honorary degrees by Smith College (1963) and Ithaca College (1979). She published an article entitled “American Bel Canto” in Opera News in 1966.
Beginning in 1975, Raskin taught at the Manhattan School of Music and the 92nd Street Y School of Music in New York, where a master class for opera singers bears her name. The following year, she started teaching at Mannes College of Music. She also taught at City College in New York. From 1972–1976, she cochaired the music panel of the National Endowment for the Arts, and until her death served as a judge for the Metropolitan Opera auditions. Raskin frequently contributed her talent to State of Israel Bonds. From 1962 to 1965, and again in 1968 and 1969, she appeared at the “Chanukah Festival for Israel,” held in Madison Square Garden. She also sang in Miami Beach in 1973, and in Indianapolis in 1973.
Harold C. Schonberg’s New York Times obituary quotes an interview in which Raskin describes her own singing: “I’ve tried to make up in depth what I don’t have in quantity. There is a kind of singer who has a poetic approach to music rather than a purely vocal approach.” Her teaching reflected the same attitude. Singers who studied with her emphasize that she never considered—or referred to—“the voice,” as many teachers do, as an entity separate from the person.
Raskin was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1962, but after a radical mastectomy she returned to full activity. In 1982, she developed ovarian cancer and died Friday, December 21, 1984. That Sunday, more than a thousand people crowded the sanctuary at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York for her funeral. That synagogue, in which she had begun her professional career more than thirty years earlier, singing second soprano in the choir, now hosts a yearly recital endowed in Raskin’s memory by her family.
Source: Jewish Women’s Archive (Paula Eisenstein Baker)