Obituary: Jess Thomas

Jess Floyd Thomas, opera singer: born Hot Springs, South Dakota 4 August 1927; married (two sons, one daughter); died Tiburon, California 11 October 1993.

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.

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR and Payroll Manager

£35000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This dynamic outsourced contact...

Recruitment Genius: Production & Quality Control Assistant

£19000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An excellent opportunity for a ...

Ashdown Group: Group HR Advisor - Kettering - £32,000

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group HR Advisor with an established...

Guru Careers: HR Manager / HR Generalist

£40 - 50k (DOE) + Bonus: Guru Careers: We are seeking a HR Manager / HR Genera...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor