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Helen Traubel (Soprano)

Born: June 16, 1899 - St. Louis, Missouri, USA
Died: July 28, 1972 - Santa Monica, California, USA

The noted American soprano, Helen (Francesca)Traubel, studied with Yetta Karst. She made her concert debut as soloist in Gustav Mahler's 4th Symphony with the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra on December 13, 1923. In 1926 she got a first offer to join the Metropolitan Opera company which she turned down to continue with her studies.

On May 12, 1937, Helen Traubel made her Metropolitan Opera debut in New York (and her first appeararance on the opera stage) as Mary Rutledge in the world premiere of Walter Damrosch's opera The Man witbout a Country. Since the Met already had two first-class Wagnerian sopranos, Kirsten Flagstad and Marjorie Lawrence, Traubel at first had difficulty finding her niche. Her first major role there as a regular company member was Sieglinde in Die Walküre on December 28, 1939, the only standard role which she had previously sung, at the Chicago Opera. This performance was such a success that for the next two years she divided the leading Wagnerian soprano roles with Kirsten Flagstad. The latter left the USA in 1941 to visit her homeland of Norway and couldn't return for political reasons. The same year, Lawrence was stricken with polio and her career was curtailed.

On February 22, 1941, Helen Traubel sang with tenor Lauritz Melchior in excerpts from Wagnerian operas on the live broadcast concert of the NBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Arturo Toscanini. The broadcast originated from Carnegie Hall at a time when the NBC Symphony Orchestra usually performed in NBC Studio 8-H. RCA Victor later released some of the music from the concert.

Helen Traubel became the leading American Wagnerian soprano on its roster, excelling especially as Isolde, Elisabeth, Brünnhilde, Elsa, and Kundry. She was renowned for her strong voice, which was often described as a "gleaming sword"; her endurance and purity of tone were unsurpassed, especially as Brünnhilde and Isolde. Although she longed to sing Italian opera, she never did in a complete performance, although she often included Italian arias in her recital repertoire. Towards the end of her Met career, she did add the Marschallin in Richard Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier briefly to her repertoire.

Helen Traubel's contract wasn't renewed in 1953 when the Metropolitan Opera's Rudolf Bing expressed disapproval of her radio and TV appearances with the likes of Jimmy Durante and her expressed desire to expand her lucrative career in major supper and night clubs. Before her departure from the Met, Traubel, was singing coach to President Truman's daughter Margaret.

Helen Traubel went on to perform in the nightclub circuit and between operatic arias belted out such tunes as St. Louis Blues (which she called "the folk song of my native village") and Bill Bailey Please Come Home to cheering audiences. She appeared at the Copacabana, as well as in many cameo television roles. In 1955, she appeared on Broadway in the Rodgers and Hammerstein failure, Pipe Dream, playing a bordello madame with a heart of gold and the voice of Isolde. The road led straight to Hollywood and a role in a 1954 movie, Deep in My Heart, based on the life of operetta composer Sigmund Romberg. In it she had a chance to clown her way through a turkey-trot song and dance number with actor Jose Ferrer. To the amazement of everyone, she showed a natural flair for comedy and soon found her name on marquees with those of Jimmy Durante, Jerry Lewis, Red Skelton and Groucho Marx. She also appeared in the films Gunn and The Ladies Man, and opposite Groucho Marx as Katisha in a Bell Telephone presentation (abridged) of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado. Her last appearance on stage was with Jimmy Durante at Harrah's in Lake Tahoe in 1964.

Helen Traubel wrote two mystery novels: The Ptomaine Canary, which ran as a serial in 700 newspapers, and The Metropolitan Opera Murders (1951). The latter features a soprano heroine, Elsa Vaughan, who helps solve the mystery, as well as being a thinly-disguised portrait of Traubel herself. She also wrote an autobiography, St. Louis Woman (1959).

For her contribution to the recording industry, Helen Traubel has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6422 Hollywood Blvd. In 1994 she was inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame. She died on July 29, 1972 of heart attack in St. John's Hospital, California, aged 73, and was interred in the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles.

Source: Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of 20th Century Classical Musicians (1997); Wikipedia Website (June 2010); Article by Dorothy Townsend in the Los Angeles Times (July 30, 1972)
Contributed by
Aryeh Oron (August 2010)

Recordings of Bach Cantatas & Other Vocal Works




Charles O’Connell


BWV 478

Links to other Sites

Helen Traubel (Wikipedia)
Hollywood Star Walk: Helen Traubel (LA Times)

Helen Traubel (St. Louis Walk of Fame)

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