Blanche Thebom 

Blanche Them as Dorabella in Cosi fan butte

                                                                              As Dorabella in Così fan tutte 

Blanche Thebom by painting at the Metropolitan Opera

                                                                    By her beloved friend Eleanor Steber’s portrait
                                                                           in Founder’s Hall, Metropolitan Opera

When this wonderful American artist, as Princess Eboli in Verdi’s Don Carlo, cursed the fatal gift of her own allure (“O don fatale”), no suspension of disbelief was necessary. Blanche Thebom was indeed a beauty. We met at the time of her twentieth anniversary at the Met in 1964, when her career as one of the world’s foremost mezzos was winding down and she was singing, for the most part, important character roles. In an operatic repertory that ranged from Handel and Mozart to Berg and Stravinsky, she cut a wide swath internationally during the two decades of her greatest celebrity. She even went as far as to sing the soprano role of Elisabeth in Tannhäuser (at the Royal Opera in Stockholm, a tribute to her Swedish antecedents). She adored Zinka Milanov, professionally and personally, as much as I did (one of her “greatest fantasies,” she always said, was to hear Zinka sing Elisabeth—“If she did, I would go from anywhere in the world to anywhere else in the world to hear her”), and she, too, loved to tell Zinka stories. The two sang together so often for so many years that there was more than ample opportunity for observation. Many’s the time we swapped stories—real ones, from our own considerable experience, infinitely more human (and, yes, usually amusing) than those of the apocryphal sort that have proliferated into a vast storehouse of anecdotes that seem designed to ridicule rather than reveal. A Thebom favorite: one night at some sort of reception, Zinka, Blanche, and the latter’s then husband, Richard Metz, were chatting over cocktails. Metz couldn’t keep his eyes off Zinka’s extraordinary brooch, a diamond-studded treble clef perched on a platinum music staff and pinned at the edge of her very décolleté gown. He kept questioning her about it and leaning over to look at it more closely. Batting her eyelashes, in her most honeyed, coquettish tone, she asked at last, “Richard—vhich one of my treasures are you admiring?” BT had brains as well as talent. After retiring from the stage, she was briefly director of the Atlanta Opera. In that post, in the manner of Eleanor Roosevelt and Harry Truman, she did all her own correspondence. Such personal attention to the tiniest detail wore her out, and she went on to other places and endeavors (finally to San Francisco, her home for the last three decades of her life), but always in music and always with the intention of making things better for the art form she so loved. With her death at ninety-four on 23 March 2010, we lost one of our most ardent advocates for two particular, special causes: young female singers and arts education for all American youth. The ardor, the advocacy, the warm dear lady herself will long be missed.

                                           Zinka Milanov displays her treble-clef brooch and incidental treasures

© Bruce Burroughs 2021