Former Lansingite Bethany Beardslee’s memoir demonstrates how she took the music world by storm
A love-filled, creative childhood, helpful mentors and carefree teen years; that was the mix that helped inspire Bethany Beardslee’s successful, 46-year career. Her new memoir, “I Sang the Unsingable: My Life in Twentieth-Century Music” looks back on the world-famous soprano and former Lansingite’s life, revealing her rise to fame.
In a phone conversation with Beardslee, 91, from her home in upstate New York, the experimental soprano songstress spoke extensively about her time in Lansing, East Lansing and at the then Michigan State College before her departure to New York.
Glamorous as her future career would be, the singer grew up just east of Lansing’s downtown on St. Joseph Street. Her large, white Greek revival home still stands, though now no longer a residence. Today, it’s an office for Smalley Investment Co.
Even as a young girl, she recalled being free to explore on her own extensively.
“Where I grew up, everybody walked to school — it was different than it was today,” she said. Beardslee said the car was only used for Sunday rides to Okemos and Mason in the family’s Hupmobile.
She credited that freedom with breeding a strong sense of independence. Her childhood is also peppered with strong, sensory memories of the Lansing department store Arbaugh’s, just a few blocks from the family home. This was also her father’s place of work.
“It was the Rolls-Royce of department stores. Shopping at Arbaugh’s was fantastic,” she said. “It was understood our dog, Laddie, could go over to Arbaugh’s and take the elevator to my father’s office where he would sit under his desk.”
Yet the idyllic childhood was interrupted by the onset of the Great Depression.
Her father, like many others at the time, was riding high on stocks when the great fall came. He was forced to sell the family home and uproot the family to East Lansing.
But in that time of struggle, there was a bright spot. When Beardslee began high school — in what is now the East Lansing Hannah Community Center — music and voice became her life’s focus. She recalls being just one of the crowd until she performed the lead in the high school production of “The Count and the Co-ed.”
“It was a momentous discovery that I could sing,” she said.
Minna Zallman Proctor, both goddaughter to Beardslee and co-author of her memoir, said that her first starring role was one of the defining moments for her singing career.
Beardslee would take that love of singing across the street to MSC’s College of Music where she would hone her skills with voice lessons.
In a 1962 interview in The New York Times, Beardslee was quoted as saying “All I knew about music when I walked into the Music Department of Michigan State College was ‘Every Good Boy Does Fine’ and “F-A-C-E.’” Still, Beardslee flourished. While in college, she performed in numerous productions and won many voice competitions. Her popularity progressed to the radio waves early on, too; she had her own weekly radio program on WKAR.
“The simplicity of things in those days was what I remember,” Beardslee said. “I just brought in sheet music and the announcer was very clever and I would sing love songs or songs of tragedy or whatever I wanted.”
Following graduation from MSC, Beardslee would complete a year of graduate studies before being accepted to the prestigious Julliard School.
Reading about Beardslee, her early career seemed traditional enough. She started singing and then mastered the classics; later developing her experience along the way with schooling — wrong. Though she did do those things, Beardslee also had an experimental streak. It began when she met composers such as Pierre Boulez and Milton Babbitt who were exploring the discordant — often cacophonous — sounds of 12-tone music.
Beardslee’s performances were even experimental sometimes. Once, she sang in front of stereo speakers that blasted electronic music — almost unheard of at the time. But Beardslee was never one to please others because it suited mainstream tastes.
Proctor said that in her own way, her godmother was a trailblazer. The memoir was an effort to demonstrate this and particularly to bring light to a woman’s perspective on music of the 20th century.
“I sang what I wanted to sing,” she said.