Jess Thomas (August 4, 1927 – October 11, 1993) was an American operatic tenor, best known for his Wagner singing.
Jess Floyd Thomas was born in Hot Springs, South Dakota. As a child he took part in various musical activities but studied psychology at the University of Nebraska. For several years he worked as a high school guidance counselor before enrolling at Stanford University for an MA. Learning that the operatic department was producing Verdi's Falstaff, he auditioned for Otto Schulmann, the vocal professor, and obtained the role of Fenton. Although by now 27 years old, Thomas decided to change careers and to become a singer. He studied intensively with Schulmann for three years before his operatic debut in 1957. In 1958, he joined the Badisches Staatstheater in Karlsruhe. He was awarded the Wagner Medal at Bayreuth, Germany in 1963. His many appearances in North America and Europe between the late 1950s and early 1980s included 15 seasons in 109 performances of 15 roles at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.
He died in Tiburon, California in 1993, aged 66.
Thomas made his operatic debut in 1957 for the San Francisco Opera performing in Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier as the Haushofmeister. In 1958, he debuted in the title role of Richard Wagner's Lohengrin for the Karlsruhe Staatstheater at the commencement of a career in Germany. Following that Thomas quickly appeared in all the opera centres and became known as an "opener" due to his engagement at the inaugural performances of the rebuilt Deutsch Oper in Berlin, Stuttgart and in 1963 at the re-opening of the National Theatre in Munich. Thomas was invited to sing the role of the Emperor in the opening performance of Die Frau ohne Schatten on 21 November and Walther in Die Meistersinger on the 23rd both conducted by Josef Keilberth. Of course on the 22nd the assassination of President Kennedy rocked the world and it was decided to carry on with Die Meistersinger the following day. As told by Jess Thomas in a lengthy interview of 1993 a few months before his untimely death from a heart attack (see Ealdred Aruspex's YouTube channel) the two American singers, Claire Watson and the tenor, were moved to tears by the singing of the Star Spangled Banner and tribute preceding the performance.
A reviewer for Opera News wrote how the young tenor "filled the large opera house" with his clear strong voice. (Opera News November 1963)
Later in his career Thomas would be invited to sing five Wagnerian roles over the Vienna Festival managing three.
It was at Bayreuth that he established his reputation as a Wagnerian tenor performing in the following roles:
He recounts having no prior experience or knowledge of the role of Parsifal when joining the cast under Hans Knappertsbusch. The live recording of this performance has since become a reference in the opera's discography along with his later recording of Lohengrin with Rudolf Kempe. (Interview in 1993 and Gramophone Magazine)
In 1963, he joined the roster of the Metropolitan Opera and went on to sing 109 performances of 15 roles with the company, including all the major tenor roles of Wagner. Amongst the highlights of his career with the Metropolitan Opera was appearing at the opening of the new Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center in the first performance of Samuel Barber's Antony and Cleopatra with Leontyne Price.
On December 9, 1981, San Francisco Opera general director Kurt Herbert Adler called Thomas an hour before a performance of Die Walküre. Heldentenor James King had lost his voice, and Adler asked Thomas if he would like to sing the role in an hour. "But I haven't even shaved yet," Thomas said. Though he hadn't looked at the score in years, Thomas performed the role at age of 54, relying on a strong memory of the Siegmund role and some expert prompting. The next day, headlines proclaimed Thomas's 11th-hour rescue for Die Walküre. Thomas's farewell performance took place in the title role of Parsifal with the Metropolitan Opera in 1982 while it was on tour in Washington DC.
His recordings include Die Meistersinger (with Otto Wiener, 1963), Die Frau ohne Schatten (1963), Siegfried (conducted by Herbert von Karajan, 1968–69), Ariadne auf Naxos (conducted by Karl Böhm, 1969) and, from Bayreuth, Parsifal (with Irene Dalis as Kundry, led by Hans Knappertsbusch, 1962) and Lohengrin (with Anja Silja and Astrid Varnay, 1962).