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In Memoriam: Blanche Thebom
(1915-2010)

March 24, 2010

Blanche Thebom, one of the great operatic mezzos of the postwar era, died at her home in San Francisco on March 23. Increasingly isolated due to dementia, Miss Thebom, as she was known to most, or “Miss T,” as she was called by many of her students, died a week after contracting pneumonia.

During her career, Thebom was prized equally for the rich maturity of her voice, her face and figure (which also received their due in a number of films, including The Great Caruso), her profound acting ability and innate musical intelligence, and even her long tresses (at one time, her hair descended over 6 feet, far longer than her reach).

Raised in Canton, Ohio, Thebom sang in a church choir as a youngster. After completing business college, she sang occasionally while working as a secretary for seven years in an industrial firm.

In1938, while traveling with her parents by ship to Sweden, she was heard singing in an onboard concert by Kosti Vehanen, accompanist to contralto Marian Anderson. Urged to study opera, Thebom soon found herself studying with famed mezzo-soprano Edyth Walker (1867-1950), who traced her singing technique directly back to Manuel García and Maria Malibran. Thebom later maintained that, due to this lineage, she was one of the few singers who could teach the true bel canto style.

After impresario Sol Hurok heard her sing at her teacher’s studio, Thebom began singing professionally. Her first New York concert appearance, in January 1944, led to her Metropolitan Opera debut as Brangäne in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in Philadelphia on November 28, 1944, and her house debut as Fricka in Wagner’s Die Walküre on December 14. (For a complete list of Met roles and appearances, see here .) Both roles, as well as other leading mezzo parts in Wagner’s Meistersinger, Tannhäuser, and Das Rheingold, became closely associated with her. Over the course of her 22 years with the Met, she sang 356 performances in 28 roles in 27 works.

Thebom’s Atlanta debut preceded her 1947 San Francisco Opera debut as Carmen in a student performance of Bizet’s opera. Over the years, she won renown for her portrayals of Carmen, Octavian (in Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier), Amneris (Verdi’s Aida), Mother Marie (Poulenc’s Dialogue of the Carmelites, which she sang opposite Leontyne Price), Orfeo (Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice), Prince Orlovsky (Strauss’ Die Fledermaus), Laura (La Gioconda), and Dalila (Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila). Among her surviving colleagues are Roberta Peters, Rïse Stevens, and Lucine Amara.

San Francisco Opera Director Lotfi Mansouri, who never directed her, recalls that the closest he got to Thebom was when she stepped into the role of Mother Marie. It was also the role with which she bid her local company farewell in 1963 during a tour to Los Angeles.

Although virtually every biography states that Thebom was born in Monessen, Pennsylvania, in 1918, she confided to Mary Jean Clauss, former president of the San Jose Opera Guild and Thebom’s untitled assistant and manager during the 15-year period that Thebom chaired the Pacific Region Metropolitan Opera National Auditions, that she was born in 1915.

“Somehow word got around that I was born in 1918,” she said, “and I never bothered to correct them.” Anyone who did the math at her 70th birthday celebration would have realized otherwise.

“If someone would ask her about her age,” Clauss explained by phone, “she wouldn’t answer or lie; she’d just look at them.” The story of how Miss T dealt with questions about her birth date is corroborated by mezzo-soprano Andrea Baker, currently preparing for her debut as Venus (in Wagner’s Tannhäuser) in Trieste, who studied with Thebom over an eight-year period.

Listen to the Music Mozart: Così fan tutte
"See here, Dorabella, Guglielmo, my lover!"

Mozart: Così fan tutte
"Ah, how sad and unrelenting..."

Wagner: Tristan and Isolde
"Einsam wachend in der Nacht"

After her retirement, Thebom briefly attempted to run the Southern Regional Opera Company in Atlanta. “It was very hard to break into the good-old-boy male power structure,” says Clauss. “She would have liked to do what Irene Dalis did, and build a company. But that never happened.”

Thebom next moved to San Francisco. In addition to championing the Bay Area Met auditions, she worked with Elizabeth Appling to begin the Opera Arts Training Program of the San Francisco Girls Chorus, circa 1989; it provided an annual three-week program for girls 16 to 18 who had left the chorus and wanted to continue training in opera. Thebom also worked closely with her program administrator, Marilyn Mercur, and stage director Elizabeth Bachman.

“Blanche was quite amazing,” says Mercur. “She was a diva of the old school. There was a certain formality of how you behaved when you with were in the public eye, and she took that very seriously. There was a proper way of comporting yourself, and a way of speaking. Blanche could be very grand. She was a little larger than life, extraordinarily elegant. She could be intimidating, certainly to the young girls in our program, but they loved her when they got over their fear. I think she made a mark in her later years with the training of these young girls.

“She could be very haughty and austere. There was this formidable personality — she was really, really smart, and did not suffer fools gladly. She also kept up with Wall Street, and could have been a very successful investment person.

“I recall Blanche was once demonstrating to the girls how to wear a hoop skirt. She did this little song-and-dance routine, and she had such style. She could immediately put herself onstage. That was one of the things that she talked about. Your brain is a computer, you plug it in, and you’re ready to go.”

According to Bachman, who says the program lasted for 14 years, Thebom recruited nationally. “Until the program began, nobody took the teenage girl singers seriously, and they had nowhere to go,” she says. “Blanche was the leader and teacher and inspired them. Quite a few of our students are now out there performing.

“Blanche made her way in a difficult career and changed standards. She was one of the first Americans to make a big career in America. The other side of being haughty and elegant was that she was so smart that she couldn’t understand why people couldn’t keep up with her. But she was always the definition of a class act, and she expected the rest of the world to live up to those standards.”

Clauss, who traveled with Thebom on trips to Italy and France, laments that no one succeeded in getting Thebom to write her memoirs. “We tried everything,” she says, “but she couldn’t deal with a computer or talk into a tape recorder. The last time I talked to her about it, she said her recollections had grown too foggy. But she would have us in stitches telling us about her various costars. She even judged the Miss America contest.”

Thebom’s commercial discography is sorely limited. Among the prizes are her famed Brangäne in the indispensible Flagstad/Suthaus/Thebom Tristan, conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler; a recently released 1957 performance of Berlioz’ The Trojans from the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, conducted by Rafael Kubelik; a Glyndebourne Così fan tutte with Jurinac, Lewis, and Kunz; aria excerpts on Preiser; and, if you can find it, an English language, studio-recorded Met Così with Eleanor Steber, Roberta Peters, and Richard Tucker, which balances stylistic anachronism with glorious singing.

Amazon.com.uk and other Web sites based in Canada and Europe offer a number of invaluable live Met broadcasts that help fill in the blanks. And while their sound is hardly ideal, YouTube has a rare collection of live Thebom radio appearances from the 1940s. Her gloriously free high-ending to Dalila’s famous “Mon Coeur s’ouvre a ta voix” helps explain why she made a brief stab at soprano repertoire.

The celebrated soprano Lucine Amarra, 85, who continues to perform, sang Micaëla to Thebom’s Carmen, the Celestial Voice to her Eboli, and Eurydice to her Orfeo.

“She was a great colleague,” Amara said by phone. “She was like a friend in the old house. We were a big old family, and we’d travel together on trains and have parties in the parlor cars. I remember Regina Resnik decorating the car with toilet paper, which was all we had onboard for Nicola Moscona’s birthday. We had wonderful times, but when we went to the new house, and everybody went their own way by plane, it was entirely different.

“She had the grand dame air, and she expected people to treat her that way. She was most fantastic in Così fan tutte. There will never be a cast like that again. It was fantastic. As she got older, her voice got throatier. But it was a glorious, pleasing voice in her prime, and she sang Eboli beautifully. I love dark voices. I always used to admire Victoria de los Angeles, with her dark middle quality; she always wished she had my top notes, and I always wished I had her low voice.”

There was also a lighter side to Thebom. Not only did she once appear at a San Francisco Opera Fol de Rol dressed as Lady Godiva, half clad atop a carousel horse with her hair draped down to whatever, but she also dropped all her airs to duet with Steber, in idiomatic English, in Mame. Singer Bruce Burroughs, whose Web site has a page devoted to his friend Blanche Thebom, shares the following story:

“When Thebom and Steber had their first musical rehearsal for the Met’s historic revival/new production of Così fan tutte in 1951, and sang through the opening duet of Fiordiligi and Dorabella for the first time, it went so well that when they were finished, they turned to each other and simultaneously exclaimed, ‘Sisters!’ Toward the ends of their careers, they did a number of joint recitals, and programmed that duet among others — not least in the category being “Bosom Buddies” from Mame (!), their version of which can be heard on YouTube.”

The penultimate word of what has turned into a massive tribute shall be left to mezzo-soprano Andrea Baker (see her Web site). Now 43, and slated to premiere her first Venus in Trieste on April 7, Baker studied with Thebom from 1994 through 2002. For the first 2½ years, they worked together four times a week. After Baker moved to Europe to build her career, where for a while she was known as the “Colored Fricka,” they continued to work together every summer in San Francisco.

Thebom not only was instrumental in helping Baker through her Met audition, but also gave her a significant portion of her stage jewelry, which she wears in her performances.

“She was an extraordinary giving and supportive woman,” says Baker. “She gave of herself, artistically, completely to her students. She was also exacting. She was old school, and made sure you took care of all the business, not just showing up and singing pretty.

“I was lucky enough to be a dramatic mezzo, and working on much of the same repertoire as she sang. We studied not just technique, but also character development. She really wanted to pass down the technique she learned from Edyth Walker. If the technique is used properly, she felt it applies to every kind of singing there is. She taught and perfected a placement, a way of breathing and keeping the voice moving, that is equally at home in Wagner, Verdi, and Bellini. And “Miss T,” or Blanche, as the child of immigrant parents, did not buy into the rule of color and what you should sing according to how you looked. She always championed first the voice, second the artistry, and third the person.”

As I was about to close out this obituary, soprano Roberta Peters called. Peters treasures the time the two sang and recorded Così.

“To be next to her when we were onstage was marvelous,” she said. “Even when I was offstage, I would stand in the wings and listen to her velvety, velvety voice. She was always charming and warm with her colleagues, and had a great sense of humor. That’s how I knew her. She was very dear, and I’m so sorry she’s gone. I think she was so happy in her teaching. God bless her.”

Jason Victor Serinus is a music critic, professional whistler, and lecturer on classical vocal recordings. His credits includes Seattle Times, Listen, Opera News, Opera Now, American Record Guide, Stereophile, Classical Voice North America, Carnegie Hall Playbill, Gramophone, San Francisco Magazine, Stanford Live, Bay Area Reporter, San Francisco Examiner, AudioStream, and California Magazine.

Comments

Thanks for posting the best tribute to Blanche Thebom that has appeared anywhere. She was deserving of this fine tribute.

I want to wish a goodbye and thank her for being who she was. I knew her brother
well who was my Grandfather. My brother just had a newborn and I will tell her
all about our incredible great aunt who moved the world through her music.
God bless. Love your family.

She was my Fathers sister and I remember as a child waiting for the train with Marian Anderson and my folks for Blanche to come. We went to many operas and one I recall was in Pittsburgh, she was unbelievably accomplished. I have not been in touch with her for many many years but if someone is looking for family members please call me at 706-429-3840. She is survived by my mother,my sister and I as well as grand children and great grand children. She will be missed.

I am so sorry to learn of the death of my teacher and friend. She was an artist of the highest rank. I studied with her when she lived and taught in Little Rock, Arkansas between 1973 and 1980. Her contributions to the residents and students of that state were considerable and are fondly remembered. Because of her devotion to teaching, her knowledge of bel canto style singing continues on beyond her own life to be enjoyed by others in the future. Her favorite phrase was "Just do it!" And so we will, dear Miss T. Thank you for sharing your many gifts.

Thank you very much for this, she would have been greatful.

Thank you for a wonderful article. I was fascinated to learn of her connection to Garcia through the American teacher, Edyth Walker.

I am writing as President of the Wagner Society of New York to apprise you of a New York celebration that this Society had in her honor on December 2, 1994, commemorating the 50th anniversary of her Met debut. The event consisted of a gala dinner followed by a multi-media program and comments from distinguished colleagues, including Licia Albanese, Lucine Amara,Gabor Carelli, Robert Merrill, Patrice Munsel, Delia Rigal, and Theodor Uppman, with Anthony Coggi as master of ceremonies. Ms. Thebom made the final choices of the recorded selections that were played. I will locate the program and send it to you as soon as possible, if you could kindly give me your address.We also had available for purchase a video that was been prepared about her career, of which you may be aware. Ms. Thebom was charming and incisive and we were greatly honored to host this event. She was an honorary member of the Society from that time on.

We also had a reception and interview with her and Inge Borkh when they were in New York at the same time, on October 29, 1999, with slides of both divas from their Met performances; another great occasion.

I met her when I was a child. She was my grandfather's secretary at The Gibbs Mgfr. Company in Canton OH. Her benefactors were my grandparents, Arthur and Mildred Gibbs. They paid for her singing lessons while she worked for the company until she went to New York. She stayed at their home whenever visiting Canton and I would sit on the floor and play with her hair, which was floor-length, like a train behind her. What a magnificent voice.

Ms. Thebom came as part of an artist series tour to the small town of Devils Lake, N.D., when I was in junior high school there. She sang in the junior/senior high school gymnasium, which was also the auditorium and had lousy acoustics. The gym's bleachers and floor were crammed with culture-starved people who had come from miles around. A red runner carpet was laid on the stage for her entry in a gorgeous, decollete ball gown. She was breathtaking. And she sang and sang and sang -- many encores included -- because the crowd wouldn't let her go. I sat on the floor in the front row, tears running down my cheeks throughout the performance. It was the most beautiful night of my young life, and I've been forever after an avid opera fan. Thank you, Blanche Thebom.

Jussians,
we noted with sadness recently that Blanche Thebom had died, and I just wanted to note that -- judging from the book JUSSI -- she was an enthusiastic admirer of our tenor: on p. 173 she notes her own connections to Sweden, including having been awarded the Royal Order of Vasa by Sweden's queen.
Another connection is that she and JB both were chosen to participate in the highly prestigious "Festival of Music" TV concert on Jan. 30, 1956 -- JB did the scene from Bohème with Tebaldi, and Thebom did the Barcarolle from Tales of Hoffmann with Mildred Miller.

Thebom was a lovely lady, often on radio concerts during the 1940s and '50s like The Voice of Firestone; and she certainly was generous in her appraisals of Jussi, in correspondence with Andrew Farkas: just read what she writes on pp. 317-18 of JUSSI:
"...there has absolutely never been such a unique [vocal] quality ... his high C retained the same beauty as the rest of his voice, and his vocal technique and sophisticated musicianship was a marvel....there was a heartrending pathos in that sound ..."

One of my very first recordings when I was a teen, in an earlier century, was Thebom's 78 of two Wagner excerpts: a Fricka scene from Walküre that I especially loved, and also a chunk of Brangäne's music from Tristan. In fact her Met debut was as Fricka, in 1944 (she was born in 1918). Roles she might have sung with Jussi included Azucena and Eboli, that could be checked via the Met's database.
-Dan

[Forwarded by Jason Victor Serinus after I was Cc'd on this message]

Thank you Jason, for your thorough and well written tribute to mezzo soprano, Blanche Thebom. I was Blanche's studio pianist from 1981-1987 and a personal friend of hers for many years. Your tribute is quite accurate and gives a good glimpse to the professional and intelligent person that she was. She did not suffer fools gladly, indeed! Blanche expected the best from everyone around her, as she had always demanded of herself. One of her "pet" phrases was: "don't let others limit what you can do". Once, during a soprano's lesson, Blanche demonstrated a true pianissimo at the age of 75, as she sang "Ach, ich fuhls", floating all the high B flats! Blanche was fiercely independent and championed individuality. Geo Gaile and I had the pleasure of treating her to dinner at Boulevard, on the occasion of her 85th birthday. She was a great artist and a beautifully poised and elegant lady. She will be greatly missed.
Charles Worth

When I was a young girl growing up in New Brunswick, Canada, we had a summer cottage near Fredericton - on the shores of Grand Lake. I remember that Blanche Thebom had a summer home nearby. My grandmother would recount stories of this international singing sensation - and it all sounded so exotic and exciting...to imagine that she lived just a mile or so away from us in July and August. I remember the story of her Lady Godiva..it all sounded so romantic.
I think her cottage was called The Pines or The Pine Grove - or something similar.
Does anyone else have remembrances of Ms. Thebom's time in eastern Canada?
My family still summers on the shores of Grand Lake - in the same log cottage where I first heard the tales of Ms. Thebom.
Cathie Evans Weldon
[email protected]

I should like to inquire of Mis Thebom's many fans if sthe great lady ever sang with Dame Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. Was there an event in Canada that brought these two together in performance? It is nagging my memory. Can anyone clear this up? Thanks for any help whatsoever. Michael

I first heard Blanche Thebom in May, 1950 (I was twelve!) in a Met tour performance of _Lohengrin_. She impressed me very much with her dramatic presence. I was too young then to appreciate her singing, but that soon changed. I mostly heard her in Wagner: _Tannhäuser_ in San Antonio (1959) (Venus) and _Tristan und Isolde_ in Philadelphia (1967) (Brangäne), this last on the stage of the Academy of Music where she had made her Met debut on Nov. 28, 1944. I'm very happy that she was chosen to sing this role in the now-classic recording of the opera with Flagstad, cond. Furtwängler. I also heard her sing Mahler's Wayfarer Songs sometime during the 1950's with the Austin SO, cond. Ezra Rachlin.

(Regarding that Houston _Lohengrin_: In conversation with her some years later, I asked her whether she recalled that performance, and she replied: "Yes, with shudders!" The date was May 2, 1950 and the structure had no air conditioning. The chorus, wearing the heavy robes of the old Joseph Urban production, were sweating through their costumes before the end of Act 1. The orchestra removed their jackets after the first intermission.

Among my recent "discoveries" were her recordings of the music of Bach, notably one for RCA Victor of the St. John Passion with the Robert Shaw Chorale. (Not on CD, alas, nor reissued in any other form...) She was also to be heard in a Shaw recording of that same composer's Magnificat on five ten-inch 78's. This one seems never to have been reissued, even on LP.

I hope that Sirius XM will honor her with replays of her Met broadcasts. --E.A.C.

As a little girl, I always remember my mom speaking of Blanche Thebom as a friend in high school in Canton, Ohio. My mom is a very accomplished pianist and at one time was her accompanist. My mom is 91 today, April 1st and I just spoke to her on the phone and told her that Ms. Thebom had passed.
She was very moved and recalled her as a beautiful person with gorgeous long hair. Since she does not have a computer, I am printing articles about Ms Thebom's life to send to her.... She will enjoy reminiscing.....

I had the honor of studying with Miss T. in the mid to late 80's.

I treasure the time I spent in her studio learning her amazing technique for singing and for living. Many performers are so critical of themselves. I remember being hyper critical of myself and when people would pay me compliments after a performance, I would apologize for not feeling that I was that good or had done my best. She told me to never ruin someones experience of you. She said to just smile and say Thank-you. To her it was the journey of singing. She said that once you think your there and that you have it figured out..your through..theres no where to go. She taught me that you never stop learning.

Once in awhile she would share stories from her amazing career. She confirmed that Elisabeth Schwarzkopf was indeed snuck into the recording studio to cover the great Flagstad's high notes in the famous recording of Tristan and Isolde. She told me of the controversial return of Flagstad after the war when she had been lambasted in the press especially Walter Winchell who falsely accused her of being a Nazi sympathizer. Her first appearance was at the SF Opera in Tristan and Isolde. The Opera company had received several bomb threats and the whole cast was on edge. As Blanche walked onto the stage she suddenly realized that she was going to be the one standing and the possible first target for any crackpot inn the audience. She said that she could remember vividly her heart pounding and the sound of the curtain slowly opening and a rush of cold air from the house and complete silence then there was the start of applause that grew and grew to a thunderous roar as people rose from their seats and continued for at least 10 minutes before they could start.

What an amazing and inspiring woman! Thank-you for teaching me to fly! (her students will know what I mean)

I remember the day that Blanche and John Paul moved into a house a few doors down from me in the Potrero district of San Francisco. The entire neighborhood was abuzz with the news. Many of the folks didn't really know who Blanche was, but they sure knew she was a famous singer. But I knew who she was--when I was a child growing up her voice was one of my favorites on the Saturday broadcasts of the Met. Through the months that followed, I became increasingly friendly with this delightful woman. She didn't have a piano in her home, and I had a rickety old out-of-tune monster in my basement. So she would bring her students up the few doors and away they would go. Later on, we joined forces to try to force the Municipal Railway to reverse their poor decision on the bus grinding its way up the hill past our houses. We went to a hearing together, and she presented a wilted bunch of geraniums to the officials: have you ever tried to kill a geranium? she asked. It's almost impossible, but your bus managed it. Later I suggested she mount the battlements of her house and give them a Valkyrian shout and try to demolish the bus by sheer volume. She laughed and told me that the voice was just a strong then as it always had been. As time went on, we both moved away--she to a house a few blocks away and me to Diamond Heights. But we still kept in touch, and when she started that astonishing program for young girls, every year I would get a call from her: you must come this weekend. There are some beautiful voices for you to hear. Well, Blanche, you were so right about that! I heard a fourteen year old girl with a voice that was clearly of international stature. And the acting and demeanor of those girls was wonderful to behold. So, my dear, you have enriched my life over many decades, and I am very thankful to have known you in both a public and a private way. God bless you, and give you peace.

I will greatly miss this wonderful teacher of mine. She taught oh so much about singing and also about life. I owe so much to her. I studied with her for four years before moving to Europe to sing professionally. She always told me that if she ever heard I acted unprofessionally or sang poorly she would "yank" her name from mine. Thank heavens I never did! Her way of performing was exactly like the way she was in real life--be prepared--always be prepared and study everything. There is no excuse for "not knowing"! I'll never forget how she would dance around the room as I sang from Don Giovanni or Cosi fan tutti--she was lovely to watch and difficult to concentrate as she danced! How I loved that about her. God Bless you Miss T. I love you.
Cathryn

Thanks for the great article and thanks especailly for the vocal excerpts. What a beautiful voice Ms. Thebom had and you performed a great service including those excerpts.

You are still missed in Atlanta.