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.
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. Thomas appeared as Bacchus in Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos at the Munich Festival.
It was at Bayreuth that he established his reputation as a Wagnerian tenor performing in the following roles:
- Parsifal 1961-63, 1965;
- Lohengrin 1962, 1967;
- Siegmund in Die Walküre 1967 (Bayreuth Festival on Tour in Osaka);
- Walther in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg 1963,1969;
- Tannhäuser 1966-67; and
- Siegfried 1969, 1976.
In 1963, he joined the cast 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 Washington DC in a guest performance of Parsifal by the Metropolitan Opera in 1982.
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).
- Forbes, Elizabeth (October 16, 1993). "Orbituary: Jess Thomas". The Independent (UK).
- "Classical Music Dance and Guide". New York Times. 2002-10-11. Retrieved 2009-06-09.
- "When did the new Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center open?". The Metropolitan Opera FAQ. Retrieved 2006-08-03.
- "No Time To Shave". LA Times. Retrieved 2009-06-09.
- "My First Walkure". The Berkeley Daily Planet. Retrieved 2009-06-09.