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Blanche Thebom (1915–2010)

Blanche Thebom was a world-renowned operatic soprano, opera director, and educator. With her trademark six-foot-long hair, she was among the first American opera singers to have a highly successful international career, spending more than twenty years with the Metropolitan Opera in New York. She also appeared in Hollywood feature films. Thebom conducted a groundbreaking tour of the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. After retirement from the Met, she brought her talents to Arkansas when she taught and directed opera productions at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock (UA Little Rock) for almost a decade.

The daughter of Swedish immigrants, Blanche Thebom was born in Monessen, Pennsylvania, on September 19, 1915. She was raised in Canton, Ohio, where she sang in the church choir and also studied ballet, a pursuit she continued until she was in her forties. After attending business college, she worked in Canton as a secretary at an industrial company.

In 1938, she sailed with her parents on a visit to Sweden. Opera star Marian Anderson’s vocal coach and accompanist, Kosti Vehanen, overheard the teenage Thebom singing in the ship’s lounge. Impressed with her talent, he arranged for her to study voice in New York and to sign with world-famous manager/impresario Sol Hurok.

After making her professional debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra, Thebom worked steadily for the next three years performing in concerts around the United States. Her recital debut in New York took place at that city’s Town Hall auditorium in January 1944, earning a review from the New York Times that called her a richly gifted young artist with “an inherent musicianship that presages a brilliant career.”

Thebom made her debut with the Metropolitan Opera in 1944 and remained with the prestigious company for twenty-two years, from the 1940s to the 1960s. She was especially noted for her performances in Verdi’s Aida as well as roles in Wagnerian operas and in Mozart’s Così fan tutte. She occasionally stunned audiences by allowing her six-foot-long hair to drape her for dramatic effect.

She married Richard Metz in 1951, and they honeymooned in Iceland as part of Thebom’s European tour. They later divorced, and had no children.

Thebom was noted for her attractive appearance as well as her voice. She appeared in Hollywood films such as Irish Eyes Are Smiling in 1944 and The Great Caruso with Mario Lanza in 1951.

In 1957, at the height of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, Thebom became the first American to perform at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow when Hurok arranged a three-week Russian tour. In Greece, she performed a concert for thousands of people in front of the Parthenon.

In 1965, she conducted a New York talk show, Blanche Thebom Presents..., which ran for twenty-five episodes. On the program, she interviewed such guests as Marian Anderson, Roddy McDowell, Robert Merrill, Mitch Miller, and Roberta Peters.

After Thebom retired from the Metropolitan Opera in 1967, she continued singing in concerts and recitals. In June 1967, she was named director of the opera division at the Atlanta Municipal Theatre, later founding her own company in Atlanta, the Southern Regional Opera, where she remained until 1973. While in Atlanta, Thebom began working as a voice teacher while also appearing in Atlanta’s summer theatre musicals.

In 1973, she was invited to join the music faculty at the UA Little Rock, where she taught singing and directed the university’s emerging opera program. She directed two operatic productions each year. These included Amahl and the Night Visitors; Alice, Thebom’s stage adaptation of Alice in Wonderland; The Astar Experiment; Beret & Per Hanson; and Thebom’s final production at UA Little Rock, Cinderella, in 1980.

In 1980, Thebom was appointed director of the opera program at San Francisco State University. She established her home in San Francisco, co-founding the Opera Arts Training Program of the San Francisco Girls Chorus and serving as chair of the Pacific Region Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, along with giving private voice lessons. She continued to be active nationally, serving on the board of the Metropolitan Opera from 1970 to 2008, and being a judge for the Miss America pageant.

On March 23, 2010, Thebom died at her home in San Francisco at the age of ninety-four. Her ashes were scattered in San Francisco Bay.

For additional information:
Fox, Margalit. “Blanche Thebom, Star at the Met and Beyond, Dies at 94.” New York Times. March 28, 2010, p. 26A.

“Mezzo-Soprano Blanche Thebom: A Conversation with Bruce Duffie.” Bruce Duffie. http://www.bruceduffie.com/thebom.html (accessed May 11, 2017).

Serinus, Jason Victor. “In Memoriam: Blanche Thebom (1915–2010).” San Francisco Classical Voice, March 24, 2010. https://www.sfcv.org/article/in-memoriam-blanche-thebombr1915-2010 (accessed May 11, 2017).

Nancy Hendricks
Garland County Historical Society

Last Updated 5/11/2017

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