Chi Lives: Eileen Deneen, still a prima donna | Calendar | Chicago Reader

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Chi Lives: Eileen Deneen, still a prima donna

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It's been quite a career--if not the life of international operatic stardom she coveted--spanning, so far, more than 50 years. Chicago soprano Eileen Deneen began studying voice at 10, was singing professionally at 16, performed in everything from grand opera to supper-club and ladies' luncheon gigs, and still possesses a clear, beautiful voice.

Deneen is sitting in her studio, which is littered with audition notices, on the eighth floor of the Fine Arts building. Its rich, emerald green carpet was bequeathed to her by the space's previous tenants, an Irish performing group. Deneen's high-pitched energy belies her age. Although she wears thick glasses that magnify her deep brown eyes and is stockier than she appears in her younger-days photos in costume--as Madame Butterfly, Violetta, the Merry Widow--she is still addicted to false eyelashes and grand gestures; red-haired and a little vain, Eileen Deneen is the very picture of the veteran prima donna. "I used to be a soubrette," she says with a laugh. Then, in a reference to Wagner's heavily dramatic heldentenors, she adds: "Now my students tell me I'm a heldensoubrette!"

Born Eileen Zimmer, she acquired her pseudo-Irish moniker when an agent booked her under it and forgot to tell her; she learned of the change only when the MC announced, "Ladies and gentlemen--Miss Eileen Deneen!" "I had a huge success with it, so I kept it, and I made a career on it," she recalls.

Deneen toured extensively from the mid-40s to the early 50s, performing Despina in Mozart's Cosi fan tutte with the traveling company of the New York City Opera. In addition, she says, "I was the prima donna with the State Fair show; we went to Milwaukee, Saint Paul, Oklahoma City, Shreveport--all down the middle of the country--and we spent eight weeks at the Hilton in Chicago, which was the Stevens Hotel then. I had my own supper-club act in New York--that was from January to March of 1946; Alan King was the MC. I traveled all over the U.S. with it. I did semiclassical and show tunes, and I ended the act with 'Un bel di' from Madama Butterfly. I'd talk to the audience, step out of my shoes, put on my eye makeup, the wig, my kimono and obi--I had them made for me in Japan--and then I'd do the aria. It always brought the house down."

Deneen married in 1947 and had two children, but never stopped singing. She did all the usual things to make money, like singing in church choirs and performing for women's clubs--but her programs were not so usual. She did "mono-operas," in which she wrote the script, arranged the music, carried her own costumes and props, narrated and sang all the parts; in this way she performed La Boheme, Die Fledermaus, and The Merry Widow. She admits that ensembles gave her problems. She did a "Biblical show," the "Song of Deborah," for churches and temples. In the late 50s and early 60s, Deneen performed on the Arthur Godfrey show, Stars on Parade, and the Treasury of Music Hour, and appeared eight times on the NBC/WGN Artists' Showcase.

She also performed opera, her great love, with the Saint Paul Civic Opera and Chicago Opera Theater, and in 1970 she debuted at Lyric Opera of Chicago as the Millineress in Der Rosenkavalier. She was part of the Flancel Chamber Quartet, composed of flute, cello, piano, and voice, which performed in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's chamber music series. And over the years she gave numerous recitals.

It is as a teacher, however, that she is primarily known today, and in her studio Deneen's portraits share the space with black-and-white glossies of her better-established students. Mementos from grateful students--plaques, snapshots, little Japanese dolls--cover her desk and the tops of score-filled bookcases. "My teacher, Lola Fletcher, died in 1962, and I started teaching on a very small scale then, gradually building it up." By 1980, she was head of the voice department at the American Conservatory of Music. In 1984 she left to work part-time for Roosevelt University and to teach independently. She's now one of the city's best-known--and priciest--voice teachers. Her students, who perform all over the world, have included soprano Sheryl Woods, of New York City Opera and Houston Grand Opera, among other venues; Chicago Opera Theater stalwart Maria Lagios; Joan Gibbons; Donald Kasch; and numerous members of the Lyric Opera and Chicago Symphony choruses.

Deneen's students are noted for their natural, unpushed sound, with a seamless flow of notes from top to bottom. Deneen uses images--she tells her students, for example, to "hook" the sound forward when going to a higher note--to achieve a correct placement, one that doesn't strain the voice. Deneen ends up being part technician, part shrink, and part Jewish mother to her flock, prescribing a nice bowl of hot chicken soup whenever one is struck by the inevitable respiratory ailments that are a singer's lot, and generally urging her students to take care of themselves.

She herself is a great ad for her natural, unforced technique; if her voice has lost some of its youthful bloom and power, her interpretation has gained. Not only in her interpretation but in her technique and production she surpasses many vocalists three decades her junior.

Deneen will present a joint recital with well-known pianist William Browning on Sunday, November 8, at 4 PM in the Unitarian Universalist Church (better known as Unity Temple), Lake and Kenilworth in Oak Park, in a benefit for the organ fund of that church, Frank Lloyd Wright's first public building. The program will include works by J.S. Bach; four songs by Richard Strauss; a French group featuring songs by Erik Satie, Debussy, and Alfred Bachelet; the Johann Strauss-Godowsky Symphonic Metamorphosis on the Waltz "Artist's Life"; and Arnold Schoenberg's "Brettl-Lieder" (cabaret songs). Admission is $10.

"The recital, I think, is interesting," Deneen comments on the selections. "I'm doing a Bach aria, 'Ich habe genug,' to open, which usually is sung by a bass--but Bach originally wrote in the soprano key as a birthday present to his wife, Anna Magdalena. The Satie songs are just marvelous--'Dapheneo' is a conversation between a brother and a sister, and a play on words; 'Le Chapelier' is the Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland, dipping his watch into the tea."

And how often do you get to hear a heldensoubrette?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.

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