Obituaries

Obituaries

Critic Donal Henahan; sopranos Laura Beth Botkin and Marguerite Piazza; arts advocate Martin E. Segal; intendant Ulrike Hessler; contralto Florence Kopleff; admired mezzo Nan Merriman.

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Arts champion Segal
© Blanche Williamson 2012
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Piazza, a glamorous and generous soprano, in 1950
OPERA NEWS Archives

DONAL HENAHAN
Cleveland, OH, February 28, 1921 — New York, NY, August 19, 2012 

A Pulitzer Prize-winning critic who wrote for The New York Times for nearly a quarter-century, Henahan studied at Kent State University and Ohio University before enlisting in the Army Air Corps in 1942. After service as a fighter pilot with the Eighth Air Force, Henahan resumed his education at Northwestern University, where he received his bachelor's degree, and did graduate study at the University of Chicago and the Chicago School of Music. He joined the staff of The Chicago Daily News in 1947 and became that newspaper's chief music critic a decade later. In 1967, Henahan arrived at the Times. He was named chief music critic at the Times in 1980 and remained in that position until his retirement, in 1991. He won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism in 1986. A witty, often acerbic writer who was an accomplished pianist and classical guitarist, Henahan also wrote for The Saturday Evening Post, Esquire, Saturday Review, Holiday, Harper's Bazaar and a number of other magazines.

LAURA BETH BOTKIN
Ohio, January 1, 1985 — Lubbock, TX, August 12, 2012 

An admired soprano in the performing-arts community in the Houston area, Botkin created the role of Denise in Houston Grand Opera's world-premiere production of Your Name Means the Sea, a chamber opera by Azerbaijani composer Franghiz Ali-Zadeh, in May 2011. The piece was commissioned as part of HGO's multi-year programming initiative Song of Houston: East + West

Botkin, who worked as a voice teacher at Houston International Theater School and taught voice privately, was a graduate of the Mercer University Townsend School of Music in Macon, GA, and received a Master's of Music and Vocal Performance in May 2008 from Rice University's Shepherd School of Music. She died from injuries sustained in a car accident.

MARTIN E. SEGAL
Vitebsk, Russia, July 4, 1916 — New York, NY, August 5, 2012 

A highly persuasive and indefatigable advocate for the arts throughout his life, Segal was Chairman Emeritus of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts at the time of his death. Among the many board and committee positions Segal held during his years of service to the arts were Chairman of Lincoln Center (1981–86); founding president and chief executive of the Film Society of Lincoln Center (1968–78); founder and chairman of the New York International Festival of the Arts (1985–2002); and chairman of New York City's Commission for Cultural Affairs (1975–77). Segal, who made his personal fortune through the Segal Company, an international consulting business, helped establish the Martin E. Segal Theater Center at the CUNY Graduate Center (2000) and was Founding Advisor for the Library of America (1984). Segal also had affiliations as a board member or trustee with the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton; the National Urban League; Young Audiences, Inc.; the Town Hall Foundation; Public Radio International; the ASCAP Foundation; New York City Center; and twenty other organizations operating in support of the arts, education and health issues.

MARGUERITE PIAZZA
New Orleans, LA, May 6, 1921 — Memphis, TN, August 2, 2012  

Born Marguerite Luft, the soprano attended Loyola University of the South's College of Music in her native New Orleans and did graduate study in voice with Pasquale Amato at Louisiana State University. In 1943, she sang Mimì and Musetta on alternate nights during a ten-performance LSU Opera Workshop run of La Bohème.

Piazza, who took her mother's maiden name as her stage name, made her New York City Opera debut in 1944, during that company's inaugural season, as Nedda in Pagliacci. Her subsequent NYCO roles during her six seasons on the roster included Arzena and Saffi in The Gypsy Baron, Claire in William Grant Still's Troubled Island, Musetta, Donna Elvira and the title role in Menotti's Amelia Goes to the Ball. In 1945, Piazza made her New Orleans Opera debut as Martha in Flotow's opera; she later returned to New Orleans for Gretel in Hansel and Gretel and Wolf-Ferrari's Susanna. Other early credits for Piazza were Cherubino in Pittsburgh and Nedda at the Cincinnati Zoo Opera.

Piazza appeared on Broadway during the 1948–49 season as a Roman Woman in the U.S. premiere run of Britten's The Rape of Lucretia. The following season, she returned to Broadway as the Widow in Happy as Larry, a short-lived musical fantasy. Piazza made her Metropolitan Opera debut in January 1951, as Rosalinde in Die Fledermaus. It was to be her only Met role, with fourteen performances in New York and on tour during the winter and spring of 1951. During her Fledermaus run at the Met, Piazza starred in a high-profile television broadcast of Victor Herbert's Mademoiselle Modiste, singing the leading role of Fifi opposite the Madame Cecile of diva Fritzi Scheff, who had created Fifi on Broadway in 1905.

Piazza was a regular television presence in the 1950s; her energetic, affable glamour won her a regular spot on Your Show of Shows as well as frequent guest appearances on The Nash Airflyte Theatre, Coke Time, The Buick-Berle Show and other popular variety and anthology shows. She was also a commercial spokesperson for Camel cigarettes and recorded for Capitol Records. In the mid-1950s, Piazza began performing in night clubs, singing jazz and pop standards in such top-flight venues as the Cocoanut Grove in Los Angeles, the Shamrock in Houston, the Sands in Las Vegas, the Blue Room in New Orleans and several important Manhattan locations, including the Pierre, the Plaza, the Waldorf=Astoria, the St. Regis and the Americana. 

Piazza's performing career essentially came to an end after she had surgery for a facial melanoma in the late 1960s, but she used her own battle with cancer to raise awareness of the disease. Piazza remained active as a fund-raiser for charity — she established an annual fund-raising gala to support the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital — and was a generous patron of the arts, particularly in her adopted city of Memphis.

ULRIKE HESSLER
Kassel, Germany, February 7, 1955 — Munich, Germany, July 30, 2012 

The first woman to be appointed intendant of the Saxon State Opera House in Dresden, Hessler died after a nineteen-month battle with cancer. Prior to her Dresden appointment, in 2010, Hessler spent most of her professional career at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, where she began working in the press department in 1984. She held a variety of positions in Munich, including director for public relations and program development. During the 2006–07 and 2007–08 seasons, Hessler was part of an interim directorship at the Bavarian State Opera with BSO music director Kent Nagano, running the day-to-day affairs of the opera house. Among Hessler's accomplishments during her brief tenure in Dresden were the establishment of the annual Dresden Peace Prize; the appointment of Christian Thielemann as director of the Staatskapelle Dresden; and the planned annual residency of Thielemann and the Semper Opera at the Salzburg Easter Festival, beginning in 2013, replacing the Berlin Philharmonic after its forty-five-year tenure there.

FLORENCE KOPLEFF
New York, NY, May 2, 1924 — Atlanta, GA, July 24, 2012 

Active chiefly as a concert and oratorio soloist, the contralto appeared frequently with the Robert Shaw Chorale and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Robert Shaw. Kopleff appeared on several of the Chorale's popular LP recitals in the 1950s and '60s, including The Stephen Foster Songbook, Irish Folk Songs and The Great Choruses from Messiah. Other conductors with whom Kopleff worked and recorded included Charles Munch, Fritz Reiner and Maurice Abravanel.

In 1968, Kopleff joined the faculty at Georgia State University, where she was the school's first artist-in-residence. Kopleff was Professor Emerita at GSU at the time of her death. In 2004, in recognition of her years of service, the GSU School of Music's recital hall was renamed in her honor.

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Merriman sings on "Serenade to America," 1946
© NBC/Photofest 2012
NAN MERRIMAN
Pittsburgh, PA, April 28, 1920 — Los Angeles, CA, July 22, 2012

One of the most admired singers of her generation, the mezzo chose to end her stage career at the age of forty-five, when she married Dutch tenor Tom Brand and settled in the Netherlands with her husband and his ten children from his first marriage. Merriman's recordings, several of which have been reissued on CD, remain notable for their wit, elegance and sovereign musicality. Her 1954 performances of Spanish and French songs, made for EMI with pianist Gerald Moore, are particularly splendid, as are the opera and concert recordings Merriman made with Toscanini, Karajan, Stokowski, Monteux, Cantelli and Bernstein. 

At fifteen, Merriman moved with her family to Los Angeles, where she studied with Lotte Lehmann and Alexis Bassian and sang on the soundtracks of several Hollywood films. At the invitation of Laurence Olivier, Merriman made her Broadway debut in 1940, singing Purcell and Palestrina songs during the set changes for Olivier's short-lived production of Romeo and Juliet, in which he costarred with his new bride, Vivien Leigh. Merriman worked in concert and recital before making her professional opera debut in 1942, as La Cieca in La Gioconda in Cincinnati. After Arturo Toscanini heard Merriman in a brief radio appearance, he immediately engaged her; their many collaborations included NBC broadcasts of Gluck's Orfeo (Orfeo, 1944), Rigoletto (Maddalena, 1944), Otello (Emilia, 1947) and Falstaff (Meg Page, 1950), as well as concert appearances in Carnegie Hall.

Beginning in the 1950s, Merriman centered her career in Europe and appeared with distinction in Brussels, Paris, Vienna, Milan and Amsterdam in concert, recital and opera. Merriman's most celebrated opera role was probably Dorabella in Così Fan Tutte, which she sang at Aix-en-Provence (1953, '55 and '59), the Piccola Scala (1955 and '56) and at Glyndebourne (1956). Merriman was also Dorabella on Herbert von Karajan's superlative first recording of Così in 1954 and Meg Page on his 1956 recording of Falstaff. At the 1953 Edinburgh Festival, Merriman was Baba the Turk in Glyndebourne Opera's British premiere of The Rake's Progress. Merriman sang opera infrequently in North America but made her San Francisco Opera debut in 1957, singing Dorabella to Elisabeth Schwarzkopf's Fiordiligi, and was Carmen for Vancouver Opera in 1960.

After her husband's death, in 1970, Merriman remained in the Netherlands for several years, then returned to Los Angeles to live in retirement. spacer 

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