Joanna Simon, Opera Singer from Famously Musical Family, Dies at 85

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Joanna Simon, a smoky-voiced mezzo-soprano who grew up in a family loaded with musical talent, including her younger sisters Carly and Lucy, before forging an acclaimed career as an opera and concert singer, died on Wednesday in Manhattan. She was 85.

Mary Ascheim, a first cousin of Ms. Simon’s, said the cause was thyroid cancer. Ms. Simon died in a hospital a day before Lucy Simon’s death at 82 at her home in Piermont, N.Y.

Ms. Simon was one of the best-known American opera singers to emerge in the 1960s, a time when arts funding was flush, audiences were full and gleaming new music palaces were opening, chief among them the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center in New York.

She made her professional debut in 1962 as Cherubino in Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” at New York City Opera. The same year, she won the Marian Anderson Award, an annual prize given to a promising young singer.

She stood out for her range of material, mastery of foreign languages and willingness to take risks on contemporary composers. She was the first to sing the role of Pantasilea, a courtesan in 16th-century Italy, in “Bomarzo,” by the Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera, when it made its debut in 1967 at the Opera Society of Washington (today the Washington National Opera). That performance won her worldwide acclaim, and she reprised it in New York and Buenos Aires.

She was equally regarded as a concert singer, performing classical and contemporary songs, including “Over the Rainbow.”

A few days before one recital in New York, in 1975, she tripped on a rug in her apartment and broke her leg. Rather than call off the show, she mounted the stage on 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.

Her easy grace and glamorous good looks made her a popular guest on television talk shows. She sang and sat for interviews on “The Tonight Show” and “The Dick Cavett Show,” and she was a featured performer on the last original telecast of “The Ed Sullivan Show” before it went off the air in 1971.

In her embrace of popular culture, Ms. Simon was not too far removed from her singer-songwriter sisters. Carly Simon achieved lasting fame in the early 1970s with pop hits like “Anticipation” and “You’re So Vain.” Lucy Simon sang with Carly early on — they were billed as the Simon Sisters — and later found success as a composer. She received a Tony nomination in 1991 for best original score, for the musical “The Secret Garden.”

The sisters occasionally crossed paths. Joanna sang backup 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 her own opera, “Romulus Hunt,” released as an album in 1993; it featured a character named Joanna, a mezzo-soprano.

The sisters grew up singing and playing music together and remained close as adults, avoiding the petty jealousies that often ensnare siblings engaged in similar careers.

“When Lucy was 16, I envied her hourglass figure,” Joanna Simon told The Toronto Star in 1985. “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 Oct. 20, 1936, in Manhattan, 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, later, the Fieldston neighborhood of the Bronx.

The Simon children took to music early; Joanna could play piano at 6 years old. In high school she thought she would become an actress, though by college, at Sarah Lawrence (which Carly also later attended), she had switched to musical comedy. Then a voice coach encouraged her to consider opera.

Upon graduating in 1958 with a degree in literature, she continued her opera training in Vienna, then returned to New York to start her career.

Ms. Simon, who lived in Manhattan, married Gerald Walker, a novelist and editor at The New York Times Magazine, in 1976. He died in 2004. She dated Walter Cronkite until his death in 2009.

In addition to her sister Carly, she is survived by her stepson, David Walker, and a step-grandson. Her brother, Peter, a photojournalist, died in 2018.

Ms. Simon continued to sing professionally through the early 1980s, then gradually pulled back before retiring in 1986 to join “The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour” on PBS as a cultural correspondent. She won an Emmy Award in 1991 for a documentary on creativity and manic depression.

Funding for arts programming at “MacNeil/Lehrer” eventually dried up, and her position was cut. Casting about for a new career, she became a real-estate broker. Within six months, she told The Times in 1997, she had sold $6 million in property. She later became a vice president of her company, Fox Residential Group.

While her musical background wasn’t the key to her newfound success, she said it sometimes came in handy.

“When I take customers into potential apartments, I go into the next apartment and vocalize,” she said. “If they can hear me, it’s no deal.”


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