Joanna Simon, the eldest of the musical Simon sisters, passed away from thyroid cancer October 19, one day before her sister Lucy. Ms. Simon was 85.
Ms. Simon was one of the most known American opera singers of the 20th century, bursting onto the scene in the 1960's with a distinctively smokey mezzo soprano. She made her professional debut in 1962 at the New York City Opera as Cherubino in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro at New York City Opera, and that same year, she won the Marian Anderson Award for promising young singers. Throughout her career, Ms. Simon performed with the New York Philharmonic, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, the National Symphony Orchestra, and the Vienna Philharmonic.
Ms. Simon was the first artist to sing the role of Pantasilea in Bomarzo by the Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera, starring in the 1967 debut at the Opera Society of Washington (today the Washington National Opera). She later reprised the role in New York and Buenos Aires, receiving worldwide acclaim. She was also the first artist to record the role of Irene in Handel's Tamerlano; singing the part for the 1724 opera's first recording in 1970.
She was a frequent guest on television talk shows, and was a particular favorite of Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett. Ms. Simon was a performer on the final telecast of The Ed Sullivan Show, and she was a panelist on the 1968 edition of What's My Line. From 1986 to 1992 Ms. Simon was the arts correspondent with the MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour. In 1991, she received an Emmy Award for her work on a documentary about manic depression and creativity.
In 1972, she performed at Broadway's Imperial Theatre in honor of Richard Rodgers 70th birthday. The benefit concert raised funds for the Museum of the City of New York, and Ms. Simon performed alongside her close friend, Leonard Bernstein. She later returned to the music of Richard Rodgers in 1985, performing in the New York City Opera's 12 hour marathon of Rodgers music. In 1986, she performed in Gary William Friedman's Off-Broadway chamber musical The Him Nobody Knows, and starred in Kurt Weill's Mahagonny-Songspiel at Carnegie Hall.
The eldest of four, Ms. Simon occasionally collaborated with her equally musical sisters; middle sister Lucy was a respected songwriter and composer, and youngest sister Carly is a world renowned singer-songwriter. Ms. Simon sang background vocals on Carly’s album No Secrets (1972) and Lucy’s album Lucy Simon (1975), and Carly accompanied Ms. Simon offstage during her performance on The Mike Douglas Show in 1971. Carly wrote an opera of her own, Romulus Hunt, which was released as an album in 1993; it featured a character named Joanna, coincidentally a mezzo-soprano.
Ms. Simon was predeceased by her brother Peter, her husband Gerald Walker, and her companion Walter Cronkite. She is survived by her sister Carly, her stepson, David Walker, and a step-grandson.