EDITOR’S NOTE: Here is link to Gardner’s obituary, which ran in the Winston-Salem (N.C.) Journal: https://tinyurl.com/4s2y39nx.
By Barb Van Atta
Tri-Cities Opera favorite Jake Gardner died Tuesday evening (Nov. 2) at his home in Kennerville, N.C., at the age of 73. The bass-baritone suffered a heart attack after a six-month battle with stage 4 glioblastoma multiforme.
“Jake was so valiant in this fight, and we were so hopeful, but alas …,” his wife, soprano Jill Bowen Gardner, wrote on Facebook yesterday (Nov. 4).
“Even as my heart breaks and I am lost without my North Star, I am also so blessed to have had the honor to care for Jake and to love him deeply to the end. He was my Prince and the LOVE of my life.”
Gardner chose to keep his fight against the brain tumor extremely private. Thus, the responses to Jill Gardner’s post, which number in the hundreds, express shock as well as sorrow. They also overflow with respect and admiration.
Guido LeBron, who followed in Gardner’s vocal footsteps at TCO, wrote: “Jake Gardner was larger than life. A wonderfully elegant human being and the most exciting performer I ever saw. … Jake had the most beautiful baritone voice I ever heard, live or recorded. It was reddish velvet; like a fine, expensive French Bordeaux. The kind of sound and pathos that made you cry.”
“The world lost a giant this week,” wrote mezzo soprano Erika Person Werner. “Jake Gardner was a bright and brilliant teacher, artist, actor, director, coach, colleague, mentor, soul and friend. … I never saw Jake do anything halfway; he did everything with such integrity and commitment and energy and passion. And his love for the work was extraordinary.”
Gardner, a graduate of Johnson City High School who studied at SUNY Potsdam’s Crane School of Music, debuted many of his signature roles – Sharpless (Madama Butterfly), Germond (La Traviata), Figaro (The Barber of Seville), Scarpia (Tosca) – during the 1970s at his hometown opera company, Tri-Cities Opera. Many years later (2011), he made his full-stage directing debut at TCO, guiding his wife as Butterfly and again singing Sharpless.
Gardner had a full career with major opera companies and orchestras around the world, transitioning in recent years to character roles but remaining, until his illness, a highly sought-after singing actor.
His globetrotting resume included a decade in Germany as principal baritone with Oper Köln and performances with such notable companies as Wiener Volksopera, Dresden’s Semper Oper, Glyndebourne Festival, De Nederlandse Opera, Edinburgh Festival, Lyric Opera of Chicago, San Francisco Opera, Los Angeles Opera, Houston Grand Opera, Washington National Opera, New York City Opera and Florida Grand Opera as week as a host of American regional companies.
Career highlights included a world tour and film of Peter Brook’s Le Tragédie de Carmen and the world premiere of William Bolcom’s A Wedding, directed by Robert Altman, to commemorate Lyric Opera of Chicago’s 50th anniversary season.
He also had lengthy credits in operetta and musical theater including productions of Annie Get Your Gun (Buffalo Bill) and The Music Man (Mayor Shin) with the Glimmerglass Festival, Merry Widow (Baron Zeta) with Los Angeles Opera, A Little Night Music (Frederic) with Hawai’i Opera Theater and a critically-acclaimed portrayal of Judge Turpin (Sweeney Todd), all with Virginia Opera.
His most recent hometown appearance was with Jill at a March 2019 Binghamton Philharmonic concert titled Wagner’s Ring Cycle in One Night.