Thursday, June 30, 2011

Get to know Thomas Schippers

If you wait a bit in viewing the above clip you'll see a blurry image of Thomas Schippers (1930-1977) conducting Cherubini's Medea at La Scala, Milan. Maria Callas had returned to Milan to claim her greatest role, and the thirty-one year old Schippers, from Kalamazoo, Michigan, was there to join her.

Thomas Schippers is forgotten today. Shame on all of us. His conducting career began in 1950. He conducted Gian Carlo Menotti's operas, The Medium and The Telephone on Broadway. Schippers led the world premiere of the most performed opera of all, Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors on NBC television in 1951. That was the first year he was eligible to vote or drink legally. His debut at the Metropolitan Opera came in 1955. Soon he became a great favorite of impresario Rudolf Bing and of the public. Recordings followed-mostly of opera. Schippers was a founding father (or grandson) of the Spoleto Festival. He conducted the premiers of Samuel Barbers two operas, Vanessa and Antony and Cleopatra -the latter for the opening of the new Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center in 1966. The highest profile gig in music for years to come.

Schippers had it all. He was an astonishing musician who more than passed muster with Callas, with Zino Francescatti, Gyorgy Czifra, Dimitri Mitropolous, Leontyne Price-some of the greatest names in music of the time. He was devastatingly handsome. It as rumored that Rudolf Bing-not known to be so inclined- was besotted with him. He was a member of the Barber-Menotti (who were so inclined)
for years.

And then there was Eileen Farrell. The great American soprano took the maestro under her wing and more than once he got a talking to. After a recording session where the young conductor had roundly alienated the orchestra, Farrell took him aside and said, "You are loaded with talent. There's no need for you to be such an asshole!" Schippers took the hint and peace was restored.*

Even in the performing arts, being gay was dicey in the 50s and 60s and being openly gay was impossible. Schippers married the young heiress Nonie Phipps in 1965. They seemed to live happily until her death from cancer in 1974. By that time the couple was living in Cincinnati, where Thomas Schippers was the Music Director of the Cincinnati Symphony. I image they loved him in Cincinnati. Looks, charm, charisma and musicianship were his-important to the community in that order. He commuted to the Met and to gigs worldwide. His last performance at the Metropolitan was conducting the belated debut of Beverly Sills, in Rossini's The Siege of Corinth.
He and Sills had re introduced this work to La Scala in 1969 and went on to collaborate on a wonderful recording of Lucia di Lammermoor.

Thomas Schippers died in New York in 1977. Cancer took him as it had taken his wife three years earlier. He left a legacy of opera recordings, lots of them-and a few syphonic discs. He died before video concerts and operas were the norm.
He deserves to be remembered better. If you are an opera lover, seek out his recording s of La forza del desitno, La boheme, Carmen, The Siege of Corinth, Lucia, und so weiter. If you're not an opera lover, get over yourself and listen anyway.

*Later on, a tongue tied Farrell, exhausted from a long rehearsal, looked down and cried "Oh! I see its Pippers in the shit again!"

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