NATURE has a nasty trick of putting beautiful and heroic tenor voices into the short and puny or large and portly bodies of singers. Not so with Jess Thomas: well over 6ft tall, with dark curly hair and an athletic build, the American tenor looked as well as sounded the beau ideal of the operatic hero. He was the perfect embodiment of Lohengrin, Tristan, Parsifal, the Emperor in Die Frau ohne Schatten and the youthful Bacchus in Ariadne auf Naxos, but, despite the heaviness of this repertory, his voice kept its lyrical quality. He was an extremely intelligent man, and studied the background of the characters he sang with great care. Although he did not begin his career as a singer until he was 30, Thomas rapidly became well-known in Munich, Bayreuth, Berlin, Vienna, New York, Salzburg, Milan and other operatic centres in the Sixties. Having made his Covent Garden debut in 1969 as Walther von Stolzing in Die Meistersinger, he returned to sing Tristan in Peter Hall's production of Tristan und Isolde in 1971.
Thomas was born and brought up in Hot Springs, South Dakota. His father was of Welsh descent and all the family sang. Thomas studied psychology at the University of Nebraska and worked for several years as a high school guidance counsellor. He then went to Stanford University to take his MA. Finding the operatic department was producing Verdi's Falstaff, he auditioned for Otto Schulmann, the vocal professor, and obtained the role of Fenton. Although by now 27 years old, Thomas decided to change careers and to become a singer. He studied intensively with Schulmann for three years, then in 1957 he won the opera auditions at San Francisco, making his debut there as Faninal's Major Domo in Der Rosenkavalier. He also sang Malcolm in Verdi's Macbeth before going to Germany to gain experience.
Thomas obtained an engagement at Karlsruhe for three years from September 1958. He made his debut as Lohengrin and sang in operas by Puccini, Verdi, Mozart and Gounod. In 1960 he first appeared in Munich, as Bacchus, and the following year made his Bayreuth debut as Parsifal and also sang Radames at the Deutsche Oper, Berlin. When the rebuilt National Thatre in Munich opened on 21 November 1963 with a performance of Die Frau ohne Schatten, Thomas sang the Emperor, one of his finest roles. Two nights later he sang Walther von Stolzing.
Stolzing had been his debut role at the Metropolitan a year previously, in December 1962; he returned annually to New York, singing his Wagner roles, including Tannhauser, as well as Florestan, Samson and Lensky in Eugene Onegin. In September 1966, when the Met moved to its new home in Lincoln Center, Thomas created Octavius Caesar in Samuel Barber's specially commissioned opera, Antony and Cleopatra. Franco Zeffirelli, who had adapted the text from Shakespeare's tragedy, and also directed the opera, told Thomas that he visualised Octavius as a member of the Kennedy family.
Thomas was now tackling the heavier Wagner roles. He sang Siegmund in Die Walkure at the Paris Opera in 1967; a plan to appear as both Siegmund and Siegfried in Vienna under the direction of Wieland Wagner (with whom Thomas got on particularly well) did not materialise owing to Wagner's death, but the tenor sang young Siegfried at the Salzburg Easter Festival in 1969. He sang Siegfried in Gotterdammerung at the Met in 1974, and also at Bayreuth in the 1976 centenary production of The Ring, but by then his voice was no longer what it had been two years earlier.
Among these heavier Wagner roles, Tristan was the one that suited Thomas best: the music of Siegmund did not lie very comfortably for his voice, while the young Siegfried was too mindless a character for a singer of such obvious intelligence, and the older Siegfried taxed him to the limits of his powers; but Tristan, for a few years, was exactly right for him, musically, dramatically, in every way. His performance at Covent Garden in 1971 will never be forgotten by anyone who saw and heard it. Thomas made fine recordings of Lohengrin, Siegfried, the Emperor and Bacchus; even finer is Parsifal, recorded at Bayreuth in 1962, when the tenor's voice is captured at its freshest and most lyrical.