Theodor Uppman

Creator of the title role in Britten's 'Billy Budd'
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The Independent Online

The American baritone Theodor Uppman is forever enshrined in British operatic history as the singer of the title role of Benjamin Britten's Billy Budd in the premiere of the opera at Covent Garden in 1951.

Theodor Uppman, opera and concert singer: born San Jose, California 12 January 1920; married 1943 Jean Seward (one son, one daughter); died New York 17 March 2005.

The American baritone Theodor Uppman is forever enshrined in British operatic history as the singer of the title role of Benjamin Britten's Billy Budd in the premiere of the opera at Covent Garden in 1951.

He was 31 when he first sang Billy, but his youthful good looks and light, high baritone were perfect for the role in every way. Nineteen years later, aged 50, Uppman sang Billy in the first US stage performance of the opera in Chicago. His voice and appearance were still convincing as the young seaman. During his long career, Uppman also sang in a number of premieres by American composers.

Born in San Jose, California, Uppman studied at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, at Stanford University and the University of Southern California. He made his concert début in 1947 in a performance of Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande given by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Pierre Monteux. As Mélisande was sung by the legendary soprano Maggie Teyte, the event roused enormous interest and Uppman received a great deal of praise. The following year he made his operatic début at the New York City Opera, again as Pélleas, which was evidently a particularly good role for him at that point in his career.

The premiere of Billy Budd at Covent Garden took place on 1 December 1951. Peter Pears sang Captain Vere and Frederick Dahlberg the sadistic Master-at-Arms, Claggart. Britten himself conducted the first performance, which was a great success. Uppman was generally thought to have sung and acted extremely well. There were 12 performances and during the season the American baritone also sang two performances of Papageno in The Magic Flute and two of Marcello in La Bohème. The following year he made a television film of Billy Budd, which was the only performance of the opera seen in the US until 1970.

Uppman made his Metropolitan Opera début in 1953, once again singing Pelléas. During his quarter of a century at the Met, his most popular roles were Mozart's Papageno, Giuglielmo in Cosí fan tutte and Masetto in Don Giovanni. He also sang many comic roles such as Taddeo in L'italiana in Algerí, Piquillo in Offenbach's La Périchole, Eisenstein in Die Fledermaus and Harlequin in Ariadne auf Naxos with great success. In 1956 Uppman renewed his connection with Britten, when he sang Mountjoy in a concert performance of Gloriana in Cincinnati that was the opera's US premiere.

Back at New York City Opera, in 1962 Uppman created the title role of Carlisle Floyd's The Passion of Jonathan Wade. In 1970 came the US stage premiere of Billy Budd in Chicago, with a mainly British cast. In 1972 he sang Juan in the first performance of Thomas Pasatieri's The Black Widow in Seattle. After creating Bill in Leonard Bernstein's A Quiet Place at Houston in 1983, the following year he sang the same role at La Scala, Milan.

Elizabeth Forbes



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