In Loving Memory of Claude Heater
To all Claude’s loved ones and admirers, CHF and Claude's family suggest a donation in lieu of flowers to be made in his memory to the Claude Heater Foundation at: claudeheaterfoundation.org/donate.
Claude Heater's Biography
Broadway to the Opera Stage
Born October 25, 1927 in Oakland, California, 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 propelled Heater throughout his life. His commitment and desire for truth set the stage for one of the world's greatest singers/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." Also, in 1952 he appeared on Arthur Godfrey’s “Talent Scouts,” winning the top prize.
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. 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 Melot in his "Tristan and Isolde" with Birgit Nilsson. Claude sang in the opera again as Melot with Birgit Nilsson at the ultimate Wagner venue, the Bayreuth Festspielhaus. Later on, Claude performed as Tristan with Birgit Nilsson at Hamburg in 1969.
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."
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. Charlton Heston spoke highly of Claude’s performance in his book "The Actors Life. " Charlton Heston and Claude appeared together in 2003 at a Ben-Hur screening at the Motion Picture Academy in Los Angeles, being the last two remaining actors from the film.
A 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, which is 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 canceled.
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." They became dear friends, and they both admired each other’s singing. They both were 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. Claude also sung as Siegmund to Gwyneth Jones' Sieglinde in 1966 in Bayreuth. 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 Academy Award-winning 1959 film, "Ben-Hur," where he played the role of Jesus Christ.
After retiring from the stage in the 1970s, Claude devoted his time to developing dramatic voices from scratch in his San Francisco studio over 30 years. Claude helped create many leading opera singers internationally; some of them became teachers themselves, continuing to teach his technique. His students are full of stories of how Claude changed their lives, and what a kind and generous soul he was.
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."
Running for Congress
In 1992, Claude ran a write-in campaign for Congress that unfortunately was unsuccessful. At the time, Claude admitted the campaign was a long-shot, but was another avenue for him to connect with the public and give back.
Claude had a strong faith through his life, and his thoughtful mind and soul reflected on what he felt were inconsistencies with his Mormon experience, which he articulated in a book he wrote and published in 2007 called “Fatal Flaws of the Most Correct Book on Earth.”
The Claude Heater Foundation
In 2018, Claude co-founded a new opera non-profit, the Claude Heater Foundation (CHF), the fulfillment of an idea and dream he had for many decades. With Claude initially as its sole benefactor, the organization launched its mission to nurture, encourage, and support dramatic operatic voices, classical musicians and artists through developmental, educational programs and professional level performance opportunities. Claude gave his advice to the Foundation’s debut event, the very successful performance of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. He attended rehearsals and guided the leading singers. Claude was present for the August 2018 performance, and could clearly see the appreciation from the crowd. At its conclusion, the audience spontaneously gave Claude a standing ovation. The event was praised by the San Francisco Chronicle as one of the classical music highlights of the year. The Foundation’s 2019 follow up performance in San Francisco was the staging of Verdi’s Nabucco in Congregation Sherith Israel, that the San Francisco Classical Voice called “the organization’s second offering and second success...the opera about ancient Babylonians and Hebrews in a temple — likely to be the first such event in Nabucco’s 178-year history.” CHF also produced Tristan und Isolde in 2019 at the Krzysztof Penderecki European Centre for Music in Poland on August 31, 2019, which was recorded and will be released by PARMA Recordings, distributed through Naxos, which is also being submitted as consideration for the 2021 GRAMMY Awards.
The Foundation’s planned events for 2020 and beyond have been postponed due to the COVID-19 crisis. When it is safe to do so, CHF plans European performances of Nabucco, and Tristan und Isolde, collaboration with European Top Orchestras, Choir, in multiple European Cities, a concert tribute to Claude Heater in Berlin, and CHF International Vocal Competition.
In Claude’s personal life, Juyeon Song became his longtime partner to share the latter part of his life. Claude and Juyeon bonded over their passion for opera and with Claude’s mentoring and support, Juyeon has led a successful career as an opera singer in leading Wagnerian and other roles. Juyeon worked with Claude in co-founding the Claude Heater Foundation, and she will continue to dedicate herself to the organization’s work as part of Claude’s legacy.
The Passing of a Legend
Claude Heater passed away peacefully on May 28, 2020, at age 92, at St. Mary’s Hospital in San Francisco, from natural causes after a longtime illness. At the time of his death, he is survived by his longtime partner Juyeon Song; his children Christian Heater, Steven Heater, Evelyn Heater, Erika Ramlan, Claudia Kruber, Michele Sturtevant, grandchildren Nicolas Kruber, Alexander Sturtevant, Lauren Ramlan, Joshua Ramlan, Cecilia Heater, Zachary Street, and Valentina Heater; and great grandchildren Fiamma Maria Sarcì and Priscilla Sarcì. He was preceded in death by his son Mark Heater.