Historical Performances: “Tosca” with Marie Collier, Jess Thomas and Ramon Vinay – San Francisco Opera, October 21, 1965

Note from William: This post continues my series of observances of historic performances that I attended at San Francisco Opera during the general directorship of Kurt Herbert Adler. This is the eleventh of sixteen such observances of performances from the company’s 1965 Fall season.

Five days after attending a performance of Puccini’s “Tosca” on my 1965 San Francisco Opera subscription series [see Historical Performances: “Tosca” with Collier, Konya and Vinay – San Francisco Opera, October 16, 1965] , one of my friends persuaded me to join her in another “Tosca” performance. (My report on the previous week’s “Tosca” contains my comments on Marie Collier’s performance. which should be consulted for my thoughts on both her Saturday and Thursday night Toscas.)

Jess Thomas’ Mario Cavaradossi

There was one change of cast from the previous Saturday night’s performance – Wagnerian tenor Jess Thomas would be replacing Sandor Konya as Mario Cavaradossi.

I had seen Thomas earlier in the 1965 season [Historical Performances: Jess Thomas’ Victorious “Die Meistersinger” – San Francisco Opera, September 11, 1965] and was scheduled to see him again two nights later on my subscrption series as Bacchus  in Richard Strauss’ “Ariadne auf Naxos”. (He also performed the title role of Wagner’s “Lohengrin” that season, but I was unable to schedule either of the two performances in which he sang.)

As it turned out, this Thursday evening “Tosca” was the only performance by Thomas ever in a lead Italian role at the San Francisco Opera’s War Memorial Opera House. In fact, his only other non-German role was in English – the title role of Britten’s “Peter Grimes” in 1973.

The 38 year old Thomas’ sweet tenor voice proved to be a beautiful instrument for Walther’s prize song in “Meistersinger” and Cavaradossi’s iconic tenor arias Recondita armonia and E lucevan le stelle (and for Bacchus’ great duet with Ariadne in the Strauss comedic drama).

[Below: South Dakota Heldentenor Jess Thomas as Mario Cavaradossi; edited image, based on a Maria de Monte photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera Archives.]


Jess Thomas, who had been a psychology student at University of Nebraska and was pursuing an advanced psychology degree Stanford University. Always interested in vocal performance, when he was a Masters’ student in Stanford’s psych department, he successfully auditioned for the role of Fenton in a Stanford University production of Verdi’s “Falstaff”.

Thomas pursued vocal performance lessons from famous Stanford professor Otto Schulmann (who also taught Wagnerian mezzo-soprano and San Francisco Opera star Janis Martin). In 1957 at age 30, Thomas made his San Francisco Opera debut in 1957 in comprimario roles in Richard Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier” and Verdi’s “Macbeth”. After that, he made his reputation singing Wagnerian roles in Germany, returning for principal roles at the San Francisco Opera after an absence of seven seasons.

Thomas’ two major Wagnerian roles in the 1965 season began a series of heldentenor assignments that made him San Francisco Opera’s undisputed lead Wagnerian tenor for the next decade. Possessing effective acting skills (his academic preparation in psychology an obvious bonus), he was one of the mid-century artists who transformed Wagnerian acting.

Ramon Vinay’s Baron Scarpia

Jess Thomas took over a niche in the operatic repertory that had been occupied in the previous decade and a half by Chilean heldentenor Ramon Vinay. However, Vinay, whose career began as a baritone, had effected a plan to leave the tenor roles aside when the high notes became less secure and to take on a group of lyric baritone roles.

Vinay’s specific approach to extending his career was studied by Placido Domingo, who himself has successfully moved from the tenor to the baritone repertory.

[Below: the Baron Scarpia (Ramon Vinay, left) has unwelcome designs on Floria Tosca (Marie Collier, right); edited image, based on a Carolyn Mason Jones photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Vinay was a prolific artist in the San Francisco Opera’s 1965 and 1966 season.  I will be praising his performances in many of these roles, particularly ones by Rossini, Mozart, Mussorgsky and Verdi that have a comic touch.

However, this was an era in San Francisco Opera history that audiences were able to see the dramatic baritone roles performed by Tito Gobbi, Ettore Bastianini, Giuseppe Taddei, Peter Glossop, Louis Quilico and Cornell MacNeil. Vinay’s late career Scarpia did not – in my estimation – measure up to the standard set by his baritone contemporaries.

[Below: Ramon Vinay as the Baron Scarpia in the 1965 San Francisco Opera production of Puccini’s “Tosca”; edited image, based on a Pete Peters photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera Archives.]


A season designed for Franco Corelli that did not go as planned

San Francisco Opera’s 1965 season was planned around superstar Italian tenor Franco Corelli, who was was scheduled to perform the title role of Giordano’s “Andrea Chénier”, the role of Dick Johnson in Puccini’s “La Fanciulla del West” and one performance as Cavaradossi in “Tosca”.

Corelli had to cancel most of the season San Francisco Opera season due to orthopedic injuries. In his place, I saw Richard Tucker as Chénier and Joao Gibin as Chénier and Johnson.

[Below: Italian tenor Franco Corelli as Mario Cavaradossi in the San Francisco Opera’s 1965 production of Puccini’s “Tosca”, whose single performance in the role was the only time he ever appeared with the company at the War Memorial Opera House; edited image, based on a Maria de Monte photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera Archives.]


Corelli did arrive at the War Memorial Opera House at the very end of the season to perform the role of Cavaradossi for the final November 2nd “Tosca”. This single “Tosca” performance proved to be the only time in history that Corelli sang in a San Francisco Opera production at the War Memorial Opera House.

It was only the tour cities of Los Angeles and San Diego that benefited from Corelli’s presence in the 1965 season that had been organized to feature him.