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Claude Heater | Broadway to the Opera Stage

Singing Career

Born in Oakland, CA, Claude Heater grew up in a religious family and at the age of 19 served as a missionary. His journey of faith and challenges within established a zeal for truth that propels Heater to this day. His commitment and desire for truth set the stage for one of the world’s greatest singer/actors. Claude Heater is an enigma; his story and accomplishments are as compelling and revealing as any among the world’s great singers.  

Heater joined the United States Marine Corps in 1945. After serving in the military, he had a sincere desire to pursue a performing career. With no previous vocal training or experience, he began studying voice in Los Angeles. Ironically, his instructor refused to teach him, saying it would be a waste of his time. Fortunately, persistence won, and Heater began a vocal career few ever achieve.

Claude moved to New York City in 1950 to further study singing and acting at the American Theater Wing. In 1950, he made his Broadway debut as a singer and juggler in the original cast of  "Top Banana" with Phil Silvers. In 1952, he was the baritone member of the trio in the world premiere at Brandeis University of Leonard Bernstein's "Trouble in Tahiti."

After singing the roles of Germont in “ La Traviata” and Valentin in “Faust” with the Amato Opera in NYC in 1952, he moved to Italy to continue G.I. Bill funded vocal studies. Claude finished his studies at Scuola Musicale di Milano in Milan, Italy. He debuted as Sharpless in Milan’'s Teatro Piccolo in “Madama Butterfly” and sang Count di Luna in “Il Trovatore” in a neighboring city. In 1953, he toured Spain with an Italian company headed by Mario Fillipeschi in several baritone roles.

Claude was engaged in Würzburg, Germany in 1954 and opened the season as Count di Luna in “Il Trovatore” and ‘Sharpless’ in “Madama Butterfly” along with other roles until he returned to Broadway for the musical, “The Most Happy Fella” in 1955. He returned to Europe in 1956 to sing in Basel, Switzerland with Montserrat Caballé in “Tosca,” “Pagliacci” and “Tiefland” along with “Masked Ball,” “La Boheme,” “Lohengrin” and The Fiery Angel. He went from Basel to Berlin to alternate with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in “Masked Ball” and “Don Carlo” and with Hermann Prey in other roles. His debut was as ‘Escamillo’ in “Carmen.” After a successful Germont in “La Traviata” at the Vienna Staatsoper in 1957, he was engaged at the renowned opera house for three years as a baritone under Herbert Von Karajan. The famous conductor took him to La Scala to sing in his "Tristan and Isolde" with Birgit Nilsson. Claude Heater sang the role again with Birgit Nilsson at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus and also debuted at the same time in 1966 in Bayreuth as Siegmund to Gwyneth Jones' Sieglinde.

His final performances as a baritone were in 1961 with the San Francisco Opera: Demetrius in Benjamin Britten's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," the boyar Schelkalov in Mussorgsky's "Boris Godunov," Ping in Puccini's "Turandot" and Tom Henney in the premiere of Norman Dello Joio's "Blood Moon." His last performance of the season was with Dame Joan Sutherland as Henry Ashton in Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor."

 

Opera General Director

Claude was the General Director of the Oakland Opera of California during the 1988-1990 seasons where among others, Jerome Hines appeared as “Boris Godunov.” Claude has since developed dramatic voices from scratch in his San Francisco studio the the last 30 years.

Ben-Hur

In a column by Louella Parsons (dated July 31, 1958) "The very difficult task of casting the role of Jesus in 'Ben-Hur' has been completed in Rome and came about in a most unusual way. Henry Hennigson, production manager, went to the concert of a young American singer in Rome and heard Claude Heater, whose voice is not only magnificent but he has a beautiful spiritual face. Henningson told William Wyler and Sam Zimbalist about young Heater and as a result, he was tested and given the role. Now here is the strange part: They had to go to Europe to find this boy, who was born in Oakland, California."

Because of an English Law that prohibits seeing the face or the voice of someone portraying the part of Christ unless he is the central character, there was some discussion about having two versions, as Wyler was pleased with Heater’s work. But we do get a glimpse, in the 1993 documentary "Ben-Hur: The Making of An Epic," Claude Heater's face was shown in a costume test photo only once. [citation needed] Charlton Heston spoke highly of his performance in his book ‘The Actors Life.’ Charlton Heston and Claude appeared together in 2003 at the Academy of Arts in Los Angeles in Ben Hur's last showing as the last two remaining actors in the film.

Career as a Tenor

From 1961-1964, Heater concentrated on re-training his voice as a tenor, first with Mario del Monaco in Rome and later with Max Lorenz in Munich and Salzburg. He was scheduled for his debut in Munich as Parsifal at the Prinzeregententheater, an opera house built like the Bayreuth Festspiele House, that was still being renovated. His first performance as a tenor was in the title role of Hans Werner Henze's "König Hirsch" at the Bavarian State Opera in 1964. The performance was a great success, and he became the leading dramatic tenor at the opera house from 1964–1968; drawing particular acclaim for his portrayal of Wagnerian heroes like Siegmund in "Die Walküre," Tristan in "Tristan und Isolde," and the title roles of Parsifal, Siegfried, and Tannhäuser. Other important roles in various opera houses were Florestan in Ludwig van Beethoven's "Fidelio," the title role in Verdi's "Otello." along with Canio in "Pagliacci" and Turiddu in "Cavalleria Rusticana."

Outside of Munich, Claude worked actively as a guest artist at essential opera houses during the 1960s and 1970s. His performance credits include appearances at De Nederlandse Opera, the Deutsche Oper Berlin, the Grand Théâtre de Bordeaux, the Grand Théâtre de Genève, the Hamburg State Opera, the Hungarian State Opera House, La Fenice, La Monnaie, La Scala, the Liceu, the Semperoper, and the Staatsoper Stuttgart, among others. He sang the roles of Siegmund and Melot at Bayreuth Festival in 1966 and was to sing Siegfried the following year under Wieland Wagner, but due to the untimely death of Wieland, his projects were cancelled.

His first Tristan was in Hannover, Germany. He prepared the role in Salzburg and Munich along with Parsifal for his Munich National Theater debut under the guidance of Max Lorenz, who was the favorite Tristan in Europe while Lauritz Melchoir sang it at the Metropolitan Opera. He made his voice change with the help of his neighbor and idol, Mario Del Monaco, who later bought his white Cadillac from him. Their Villas in Rome were attached by a single wall. Mario came to Claude's “Flying Dutchman” debut at La Scala and Claude in turn went to Mario's "Die Walküre" debut in Stuttgart. He became a Mario fan after seeing Mario in “Otello” and “La Wally” at La Scala. He also saw Ramón Vinay as “Cyrano de Bergerac” at La Scala as well. Claude was a fan of Ramón after seeing him at the Metropolitan Opera as “Otello” and honored when Ramón Vinay sang Iago in Claude's Boston “Otello” with Renata Tebaldi.

After his debut as Tristan, Claude sang it in eight different productions in two years, including The Festival of Two Worlds with Giancarlo Menotti at Spoleto and Trieste, Italy, as well as the Liceu in Barcelona, with the Hamburg Staats Opera with Birgit Nilsson, and followed by the Dresden Opera with Astrid Varnay. He finished his Boston “Otello” with Renata Tebaldi and Ramón Vinay as Iago

and took a midnight plane to Italy where he had a staged orchestra rehearsal of "Tristan und Isolde" in Genoa the next day. Both his Bayreuth and La Scala debuts came in 1966 as Siegmund, singing with Gwyneth Jones and Erik with Leonie Rysanek.

He had five seasons at Barcelona's Liceu singing Tristan, Tannhäuser, Siegmund, and Siegfried, a production that he staged as well. Montserrat Caballé stepped in for an ailing Anja Silja to sing the Elizabeth in “Tannhäuser” as a favor to Claude who sang with her in her first Tosca, Nedda in “Pagliacci” and ‘Marta’ in “Tiefland” in Basel, Switzerland.

In 1967-68, Claude made two films of Tristan und Isolde with the Belgium TV; the second film was the full "Tristan und Isolde" with only minor cuts. This was the first ‘full length’ film Claude had acted in since the 1958 Academy Award film, "Ben Hur," where he played the role of  Jesus Christ.