31 May 2013
Claramae Turner, 92, Great American Contralto, Has Died
Dinuba, CA, October 28, 1920 — Santa Rosa, CA, May 18, 2013
A contralto gifted with a magnificent voice and formidable stage presence, Claramae Turner began her career in San Francisco. She sang contralto leads in Gilbert and Sullivan performances at the Bush Street Music Hall and was a member of the San Francisco Opera chorus before making her SFO solo debut as a Voice in a 1942 performance of L'Amore dei Tre Re, conducted by the composer, Italo Montemezzi. San Francisco Opera would remain Turner's artistic home. She began her San Francisco Opera resumé with character and comprimario parts in the 1940s (the Voice of Antonia's Mother in Les Contes d'Hoffmann, the Innkeeper in Boris Godunov, Berta in Il Barbiere di Siviglia, the Second Norn in Götterdämmerung, Marthe in Faust) before progressing to leading roles such as Herodias, Carmen, Azucena, Amneris, Ulrica, Klytämnestra, Neris in Medée and Mme. de Croissy in Dialogues of the Carmelites, which Turner sang when SFO offered the U.S. stage premiere of Poulenc's opera, in 1957. In 1974, she returned to the company after a nine-year break to deliver a well-received comic turn as the Marquise de Birkenfield to Beverly Sills's Marie in La Fille du Régiment.
In May 1946, Turner created the role of Madame Flora in Gian Carlo Menotti's Medium at Columbia University, although she did not sing in the opera's professional premiere the following year. By then, Turner was under contract to the Met, where she made her debut as Marthe to Ezio Pinza's Méphistophélès in Faust in November 1946. Turner spent four seasons with the Met, singing 105 performances with the company in New York and on tour. Her notable Met assignments included Auntie in the 1948 company premiere of Peter Grimes; Gertrud in Hansel and Gretel, which she recorded with the Met in 1947; and Gertrude in the historic 1947 broadcast of Roméo et Juliette that starred Bidù Sayão and Jussi Björling. Turner's last Met credit was a tour performance as Marthe in Des Moines, Iowa, in the spring of 1950; after re-auditioning for incoming Met general manager Rudolf Bing, she was not reengaged for the company and never sang there again.
It was the Met's loss. Turner's voice was big and warm, with a shining clarity in its upper register during her prime. Her diction was immaculate and unaffected, her generosity limitless and her stage savvy — honed by the years she spent in character parts at SFO and the Met — unfailing. Whatever the role or the venue, Turner sang like a star. She began a long and productive professional association with New York City Opera in 1953, when she made her company debut as Madame Flora. Turner took on leading roles in the NYCO premieres of Hansel and Gretel (the Witch, 1953), Oedipus Rex (Jocasta, 1959), The Mikado (Katisha, 1959), Il Trittico (Frugola, La Principessa and Zita, 1961), Louise (la Mère, 1962), Dialogues of the Carmelites (Mme. de Croissy, 1966) and Bomarzo (Diana Orsini, 1968), as well as the title role in a new production of Carmen (1962). At Lyric Opera of Chicago, Turner's roles included Azucena, Ulrica, the Matron from Milwaukee in Rafaello de Banfield's Lord Byron's Love Letter and Fricka in the company premiere of Die Walküre (1956). In 1967, she sang Baroness Grunwiesel in the U.S. premiere of Henze's Junge Lord in San Diego.
Turner reached her widest audience as Nettie Fowler in the 1956 film of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel. The film was a box-office disappointment upon its initial release but reached new generations of fans on television, beginning in the 1960s. The Carousel soundtrack album, which featured Turner's thrilling renditions of "You'll Never Walk Alone" and "June is Bustin' Out All Over," was a best seller and remains in print on CD. Turner also recorded the roles of Ma Moss in Aaron Copland's Tender Land, conducted by the composer (1965), and Ulrica in Un Ballo in Maschera, conducted by Arturo Toscanini (1954). Her television credits include Gertrud in Hansel and Gretel (1950) and Madame Flora in an Omnibus presentation of The Medium (1959), as well as The Ed Sullivan Show.
Turner was a popular concert and recital artist and loved to sing material that would now be termed "crossover." In 1952, songwriters George Cory and Douglass Cross wrote a pop song for Turner, which she often sang as an encore but never recorded. Called "I Left My Heart in San Francisco," the song waited almost ten years before another singer, Tony Bennett, recorded it and made it a hit.
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