Claude Heater (born October 25, 1927), is an American opera singer and writer on religion. He began his career as a concert baritone in the United States in 1954. He then sang as a baritone with opera houses in Europe from 1956 to 1961. He retrained his voice as a tenor, and from 1964 on had great success in the dramatic tenor repertoire at major theatres internationally. After retiring from the stage in the 1970s, he devoted his time to the study of religion. He is also known for portraying the role of Jesus (uncredited in the titles) in the 1959 film classic Ben-Hur.
Early life and career as a baritone
Born in Oakland, California, Heater grew up in a Mormon family and at the age 19 served as missionary of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He then served in the United States Armed Forces, after which he worked as an usher in a theatre in Los Angeles while studying to be an opera singer. He moved to New York City to study singing further and in 1951 he made his Broadway debut as a singer and juggler in the original cast of Top Banana. In 1952, he was the baritone member of the trio in the world premiere at Brandeis University of Leonard Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti.
Heater began his career as a classical singer in the United States in 1954, singing baritone parts in oratorios and other concert works. His first opera performances were given at Theater Basel in 1956-1957. He was then committed to the Deutsche Oper Berlin from 1957–1959 and the Vienna State Opera from 1959-1961. Among the roles he sang during this portion of his career were Escamillo in Georges Bizet's Carmen, Germont in Giuseppe Verdi's La traviata, Sharpless in Giacomo Puccini's Madama Butterfly, and Silvio in Ruggero Leoncavallo's Pagliacci. His final performances as a baritone were in 1961 with the San Francisco Opera: Demetrius in Benjamin Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream, the boyar Schelkalov in Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov, Henry Ashton in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, Ping in Puccini's Turandot and Tom Henney in the premiere of Norman Dello Joio's Blood Moon.
In a column by Louella Parsons (dated July 31, 1958), the very difficult task of casting the role of Jesus in Ben-Hur has been completed in Rome and came about in a most unusual way. Henry Hennigson, production manager, went to the concert of a young American singer in Rome and heard Claude Heater, whose voice is not only magnificent but he has a "beautiful, spiritual face." Hennigson told William Wyler and Sam Zimbalist about young Heater and as a result he was tested and given the role.
The role of Jesus was concealed or shown in the rear view for the film. However, in the 1993 documentary "Ben-Hur: The Making of An Epic," Claude Heater's face was shown in a costume test photo only once.
Career as a tenor
From 1961-1964 Heater concentrated on re-training his voice as a tenor, first with Mario del Monaco in Milan and later with Max Lorenz in Munich. His first performance as a tenor was in the title role of Hans Werner Henze's König Hirsch at the Bavarian State Opera in 1964. The performance was a great success and he became the leading dramatic tenor at the opera house from 1964–1968; drawing particular acclaim for his portrayal of Wagnerian heroes like Siegmund in Die Walküre, Tristan in Tristan und Isolde, and the title roles in Lohengrin, Parsifal, Siegfried, and Tannhäuser. Other important roles at that house were Florestan in Ludwig van Beethoven's Fidelio, Samson in Camille Saint-Saëns's Samson et Dalila and the title role in Verdi's Otello.
Outside of Munich, Heater worked actively a guest artist at important opera houses during the 1960s and 1970s. His performance credits include appearances at De Nederlandse Opera, the Deutsche Oper Berlin, the Grand Théâtre de Bordeaux, the Grand Théâtre de Genève, the Hamburg State Opera, the Hungarian State Opera House, La Fenice, La Monnaie, La Scala, the Liceu, the Semperoper, and the Staatsoper Stuttgart among others. He sang the roles of Siegmund and tristan Bayreuth Festival in 1966, the latter of which was recorded live for television and later released on video. He also gave an admired portrayal of Tristan at the Festival dei Due Mondi in 1968.