Blanche Thebom, American mezzo, has died

Gramophone6th Apr 2010
Blanche Thebom, American mezzo (photo: Tully Potter)Blanche Thebom, American mezzo (photo: Tully Potter)

Blanche Thebom died at her home in San Francisco on March 23 a week after contracting pneumonia. She was 94. Thebom performed more than 350 times at the Met from 1944 to 1967 and was especially known for her Wagner performances, including Brangäne and Fricka. She built a second career as a teacher, first at the University of Arkansas, Little Rock, and then in San Francisco.

Thebom was born on September 19, 1915, to Swedish American parents in Monessen, Pennsylvania, and raised in Canton, Ohio. She sang in a church choir as a youngster. After completing business college, she sang occasionally whilst working as a secretary for seven years in an industrial firm. Thebom was discovered while singing in a shipboard lounge as a teenager travelling with her parents to Sweden by an accompanist to Marian Anderson. Urged to take on opera, Thebom studied with Edyth Walker.

After impresario Sol Hurok heard her sing at her teacher’s studio, she began performing professionally. Her first New York concert appearance, in January 1944, led to her Metropolitan Opera debut as Brangäne on tour in Philadelphia in November 1944, and her house debut as Fricka in Die Walküre only weeks later in December. Both roles, as well as Magdalene, Venus, and Fricka in Das Rheingold, became closely associated with her.

At the Met, her other roles included Ortrud, Azucena, Amneris and Carmen. She was also noted as Oktavian, Mother Marie (Poulenc’s Dialogue of the Carmelites, which she sang opposite Leontyne Price), Orfeo (Gluck), Prince Orlovsky, Laura (La Gioconda), and Dalila (which she sang with Beecham in Buenos Aires). Mother Marie was the role with which she bid her local company farewell in 1963 during a tour to Los Angeles. At Covent Garden she was Dido in the house's first The Trojans (the recording of which won last year's Gramophone Award in the Historic Archive category) and she also appeared at Glyndebourne.

In 1957 she made a three-week tour of the Soviet Union and became the first American to sing (Carmen) at the Bolshoi. In Russia, according to the New York Times, she “was surprised to find that her mink coat was a traffic stopper wherever she went.” She also sang in the films Irish Eyes Are Smiling 1944 and The Great Caruso in 1951. In the 1970s, she became director of the opera programme at the University of Arkansas, Little Rock, and in 1989 helped establish a training programme in San Francisco to nurture the operatic talent of young girls. She was divorced and had no immediate survivors.

Thebom’s commercial discography is limited to the Furtwangler/Flagstad Tristan, the 1957 ROH The Trojans conducted by Rafael Kubelík, excerpts from a Glyndebourne Così fan tutte with Sena Jurinac, arias on Preiser, and the English language Met Così with Eleanor Steber, Roberta Peters, and Richard Tucker. A number of “off-the-air” recordings (for example, the Beecham Samson et Dalila and her Met Fricka) have surfaced in recent years and YouTube has a collection of radio appearances from the 1940s.

Mike Ashman

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