Mezzo-soprano Joanna Simon, who had a smoky voice and grew up in a musical family that included her younger sisters Carly and Lucy, died on Wednesday in Manhattan. She had a successful career as an opera and concert singer. She was 85.
Mary Ascheim, Ms. Simon’s first cousin, said it was due to thyroid cancer. Ms. Simon died in a hospital a day before Lucy Simon, who lived in Pierpont, N.Y., and was 82 years old, died at home.
Ms. Simon was one of the most well-known American opera singers of the 1960s. This was a time when funding for the arts was good, audiences were big, and new music palaces like the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center in New York were being built.
In 1962, she made her professional debut at the New York City Opera as Cherubino in Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro.” In the same year, she won the Marian Anderson Award, which is given every year to a young singer who shows promise.
She stood out because of the variety of music she played, her skill with foreign languages, and her willingness to take risks on new music. Ms. Simon was the first person to sing the role of Pantasilea, a 16th-century Italian courtesan, in “Bomarzo,” which was written by the Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera and first performed at the Opera Society of Washington in 1967.
Sad news of the death of the American mezzo Joanna Simon, aged 85. She is seen here as Pantasilea in Ginastera’s Bomarzo at NYCO, a role she had created earlier in Washington. She died the day before her theatre-composer sister Lucy, and leaves her youngest sister, Carly Simon. pic.twitter.com/N0H0ZLCiPG
— Opera magazine (@operamagazine) October 22, 2022
She was praised all over the world for that show, and she did it again in New York and Buenos Aires. She was known for both classical and modern songs, like “Over the Rainbow,” when she sang at concerts.
In 1975, a few days before a recital in New York, she broke her leg when she tripped on a rug in her apartment. Instead of canceling the show, she got up on the stage with crutches.
“As soon as I was sure that my voice hadn’t been affected, I knew I would go on,” she told The New York Times. She was a popular guest on TV talk shows because of her easy grace and beautiful looks.
She sang and did interviews on “The Tonight Show” and “The Dick Cavett Show,” and she was the main act on “The Ed Sullivan Show’s” last original broadcast before it went off the air in 1971.
Ms. Simon was not too different from her singer-songwriter sisters in the way she liked pop culture. In the early 1970s, Carly Simon had pop hits like “Anticipation” and “You’re So Vain” that made her a star for life.
Early on, Lucy Simon sang with Carly as the Simon Sisters. Later, she had success as a composer. She was nominated for a Tony Award in 1991 for the musical “The Secret Garden,” for which she wrote the score.
Sincere condolences to @CarlySimonHQ on the nearly simultaneous deaths of her two sisters, Lucy Simon (Broadway composer, “The Secret Garden”), and opera singer Joanna Simon. All three the daughters of Dick Simon, cofounder of Simon & Schuster. Cancer in both cases. pic.twitter.com/bDz4NfQwDG
— Edward J. Renehan Jr (@Ed_Renehan) October 22, 2022
The sisters sometimes ran into each other. Joanna sang backup vocals on Carly’s album “No Secrets” (1972) and Lucy’s album “Lucy Simon” (1975), and Carly played guitar offstage during Joanna’s performance on “The Mike Douglas Show” in 1971. Carly wrote an opera called “Romulus Hunt,” which was released as an album in 1993. It was about a mezzo-soprano named Joanna.
The sisters sang and played music together when they were kids, and they stayed close as adults, avoiding the small jealousies that often happen between siblings who work in the same field.
In 1985, Joanna Simon told The Toronto Star, “When Lucy was 16, I wished I had her hourglass figure.” “When Carly first became successful, I envied her first $200,000 check. But those feelings lasted for 20 minutes, and I didn’t dwell on them. I knew it was a given in the operatic world that very few achieved that kind of success. I never expected it, so I wasn’t disappointed.”
Joanna Elizabeth Simon was born on October 20, 1936, in Manhattan. She was the oldest child of Richard L. Simon, a publisher and founder of Simon & Schuster, and Andrea (Heinemann) Simon, a singer and homemaker. The family lived in Manhattan and then moved to the Bronx to live in the Fieldston neighborhood.
The Simon children liked music from a young age. By the time she was six, Joanna could play the piano. She thought she would be an actress when she was in high school, but by the time she went to college at Sarah Lawrence (where Carly later went as well), she had switched to musical comedy. Then, a voice teacher told her to think about opera.
After getting her degree in literature in 1958, she went to Vienna to continue her opera training. When she was ready to start her career, she moved back to New York. Ms. Simon, who lived in Manhattan, married The New York Times Magazine editor and novelist Gerald Walker in 1976. He died in 2004.
Walter Cronkite was her boyfriend until he died in 2009. She is survived by her sister Carly, her stepson David Walker, and a step-grandson. Peter, her photographer brother, died in 2018.
Ms. Simon kept singing professionally until the early 1980s when she started to slow down. She finally stopped in 1986, when she became a cultural correspondent for “The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour” on PBS. In 1991, she won an Emmy Award for a documentary about creativity and bipolar disorder.
When money for arts programming at “MacNeil/Lehrer” ran out, her job was eliminated. She was looking for a new job and decided to become a real estate agent. In 1997, she told The Times that she had sold $6 million worth of property in just six months. She later moved up in her company, Fox Residential Group, to become vice president.
Even though her musical background wasn’t the reason for her newfound success, she said it helped her sometimes. “When I take customers into potential apartments, I go into the next apartment and vocalise,” she said. “If they can hear me, it’s no deal.”
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