Jean Marie Kraft
9 January 1927
Jean Kraft (born January 9, 1927) is an American operatic mezzo-soprano. She began her career singing with the New York City Opera (NYCO) during the early 1960s, after which she embarked on a long and fruitful partnership with The Santa Fe Opera which lasted from 1965 through 1987. In 1970 she joined the roster of singers at the Metropolitan Opera where she remained a fixture until 1989. She has also performed as a guest artist with many other opera companies throughout the United States during her career. In 2005 Opera News stated that Kraft was "a gifted mezzo and observant, imaginative actress who lent distinction to a wide range of character roles. By the end of her Met tenure, she had sung nearly 800 performances and become a solid audience favorite."
Early life and education
Born in Menasha, Wisconsin, Kraft began her career working as pianist as a teenager and was also a proficient clarinet and trumpet player. After working as a pianist for four years she decided to reorient her path towards a singing career, at this point more interested in the concert repertoire than in opera. She entered the Curtis Institute of Music where she studied voice under Giannini Gregory. She later continued with further studies under Theodore Harrison in Chicago, William Ernest Vedal in Munich, and Povla Frijsh in New York City.
While still a student, Kraft sang the role of Laura Gates in the world premiere of Mark Bucci's Tale for a Deaf Ear at the 1957 Tanglewood Music Festival in a student production directed by Boris Goldovsky and conducted by James Billings. She made her professional opera debut on February 18, 1960 as the Mother in Hugo Weisgall's Six Characters in Search of an Author at the NYCO with Beverly Sills as The Coloratura. She appeared with the NYCO in several more productions during the 1960s including, Miss Jessel in Britten's The Turn of the Screw (1962), the Forewoman in Charpentier's Louise (1962), Marcellina in Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro (1962), Maud Lowder in Moore's The Wings of the Dove (1962), Death in Stravinsky's The Nightingale (1963), Flora in Verdi's La traviata (1963), Sarah Chicken in Robert Ward's The Lady from Colorado (1964), and Penelope in Menotti's Help, Help, the Globolinks! (1969) among others. She had sung the role of Penelope the previous year for the works world premiere at the SFO.
At The Santa Fe Opera
Kraft was also highly active with The Santa Fe Opera during the 1960s. In 1965 she made her debut with the company as Adelaide von Waldner in Strauss's Arabella. Her other performances with the company during these years included Marcellina (1965); Thisbe in Rossini's La cenerentola (1966); Madame de Croissy in Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites (1966); Mother Goose in Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress (1966); Maddalena in Verdi's Rigoletto (1966); Margret in Berg's Wozzeck (1966); Giannetta in Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore (1968); the Third Lady in Mozart's The Magic Flute (1968); Annina in Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier; and Ninon in the United States premiere of Penderecki's The Devils of Loudun (1969) among others.
Performances in New York and elsewhere
While mostly busy performing in operas in New York City and Santa Fe during the 1960s, Kraft also performed with other opera companies and in concerts throughout the United States during these years. In May 1962 she gave her New York City recital debut at Carnegie Recital Hall with pianist and composer Yehudi Wyner accompanying her in a program that included the premieres of several pieces by Wyner. In Philadelphia Kraft sang the roles of The Monitress in Puccini's Suor Angelica (1962) and Rossweisse in Wagner's Die Walküre (1963) with the Philadelphia Lyric Opera Company. In April 1964 she sang in the New York City premiere of Jack Gottlieb's Tea Party at the Donnell Library Center for the New York Composers Forum.
The Metropolitan Opera Years:1970–1989
In 1969 Kraft was offered a contract by Rudolf Bing to join the roster of singers at the Metropolitan Opera. She leapt at the opportunity after recently having turned down a number of similar offers from a few different European opera houses. She made her Met debut on February 7, 1970 as Flora in La Traviata with Gabriella Tucci as Violetta, Nicolai Gedda as Alfredo, Robert Merrill as Germont, and Francesco Molinari-Pradelli conducting. Thus was the beginning of a nineteen-year-long artistic relationship which resulted in several CD recordings, eight "Live From the Met" recordings for television and video release, and well over 80 Saturday Texaco "Met" Broadcasts.
Kraft became a favorite at the Met very quickly in roles like Emilia in Verdi's Otello, the drug-addicted Mrs. Sedley in Britten's Peter Grimes, and Mamma Lucia in Franco Zeffirelli's production of Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana. She was also an admired Mother Jeanne of the Holy Child Jesus in the critically acclaimed 1977 John Dexter staging of Dialogues of the Carmelites. In describing the haunting finale of that production, Opera News stated, "No one who has seen Dexter’s staging of the finale will ever forget it: the chorus of doomed nuns, singing the “Salve Regina,” was diminished, one voice at a time, as each woman marched to the guillotine. Finally, only Sister Constance and Mother Jeanne were left. Slowly, Kraft’s Jeanne picked herself up and, supporting herself with her cane, hobbled defiantly to her death." Kraft later took over the role of Madame de Croissy in subsequent mountings of that production during the 1980s.
Although Kraft's performances at the Met were largely in comprimario roles, she occasionally got starring parts, such as Herodias in Strauss's Salome (1973, 1977) initially with Grace Bumbry in the title role and Robert Nagy as Herod; Ulrica in Verdi's Un ballo in maschera (1970, 1976) initially with Elinor Ross as Amelia, Carlo Bergonzi as Riccardo, Merrill as Renato, and Roberta Peters as Oscar; Federica in Verdi's Luisa Miller (1971, 1978, 1979) initially with Adriana Maliponte as Luisa and Plácido Domingo as Rodolfo; Gertrud in Hänsel und Gretel (1971–1983) initially with Judith Forst as Hänsel and Joy Clements as Gretel; and Suzuki in Madama Butterfly (1973–1981) initially with Gilda Cruz-Romo as Cio-Cio-San and William Lewis as Pinkerton. Some of the many supporting roles she portrayed were Berta in Il Barbiere di Siviglia (with Marilyn Horne), Countess di Coigny in Andrea Chénier, the Duchesse of Krakentorp in La Fille du Régiment (with Luciano Pavarotti and Joan Sutherland), Gertrude in Roméo et Juliette, Grandmother Buryjovka in Jenůfa (with Astrid Varnay), Hecuba in Les Troyens (with Jon Vickers and Shirley Verrett), Ines in Il Trovatore, Marcellina (with Teresa Stratas and Frederica von Stade), Marthe in Faust (with Franco Corelli), Ninetta in I Vespri Siciliani (with Cristina Deutekom), and the Madrigalist in Manon Lescaut (with Dorothy Kirsten and John Alexander) among others. Her final and 784th performance at the Met was on April 5, 1989 as Larina in Eugene Onegin with Mirella Freni as Tatiana, Jorma Hynninen in the title role, and conductor James Levine.
During her years working for the Met, Kraft continued to return periodically for performances with the Santa Fe Opera. Her roles with the company during these years included Flora (1970), Mother Goose (1970), Marcellina (1970, 1973, 1976, 1985, 1987), Penelope (1970), Death (1970), Suzuki (1972), Lapérouse in the United States Premiere of Aribert Reimann's Melusine (1972), Herodias (1972, 1979), Kate Julian in Britten's Owen Wingrave (1973), The Countess Geschwitz in Lulu (1974), The Third Lady (1974, 1984, 1986), Meg Page in Falstaff (1975, 1977), Genevieve in Pelléas et Mélisande (1977), Larina (1980), Berta (1981), Miss Pick in Hindemith's News of the Day (1981), The Notary's Wife in Strauss's Intermezzo (1984), May in the United States premiere of Hans Werner Henze's We Come to the River (1984), and Juno in the world premiere of John Eaton's The Tempest (1985). Her last performance with the company was as Widow Zimmerlein in Strauss's Die schweigsame Frau in 1987.
Kraft was also active performing in concerts and operas with other organizations during the 1970s and 1980s. As a concert singer she drew particular acclaim for her performances in several of Mahler's symphonies, notably singing his Symphony No. 8 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1977 and performing/recording his Symphony No. 2 with the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein. Some of the opera companies she performed with during these years included the Houston Grand Opera, the Dallas Opera, the New Orleans Opera, and the Opera Company of Boston. In 1976 she made a highly praised portrayal of Augusta Tabor in Moore's The Ballad of Baby Doe with Tulsa Opera. In 1984 she made her debut with the Lyric Opera of Chicago as Larina, returning there to portray the Fortuneteller in Arabella (1984), and Annina (1989). She also portrayed Mrs. Sedley in 1984 in Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's critically acclaimed production of Peter Grimes at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino in Italy. In April 1986 she portrayed Dinah in Bernstein's A Quiet Place at the Vienna State Opera under the baton of the composer. Kraft recalled in 2005 interview, "Keeping the hand in and knowing all the right people — I never did that. They came into my life, like Bernstein. I did A Quiet Place in Vienna, and after we recorded it, he said, ‘I’m sorry I didn’t write an aria for you.’ And I said, ‘I am, too!’." Her last opera appearance was in 1990 at the Seattle Opera as the Duchesse of Krakentorp in Donizetti's La Fille du régiment.
Later life: 1990–present
After retiring from the opera stage in 1990, Kraft divided her time between her family and teaching singing in Santa Fe. Her husband, the late violinist Richard Elias, had played in the Met Orchestra during Kraft's tenure at the house and had retired with her. The couple had built a house in Santa Fe in 1974 where they had lived when not in New York City. Elias died in 2003. A few years after the death of her husband, Kraft moved back to New York City. Since 2017, Jean Kraft has resided at the Lillian Booth Actors Home in Englewood, New Jersey. 
- Brian Kellow (November 2005). "Reunion: Jean Kraft". Opera News. 70 (5). Retrieved May 21, 2009.
- Biography of Jean Kraft at operissimo.com (in German)
- Edward Downes (August 6, 1957). "Opera: 'Tale for a Deaf Ear'; New work by Bucci is sung at Tanglewood". The New York Times. Retrieved May 20, 2009.
- Howard Taubman (February 19, 1960). "Opera: Pirandello Plot; ' Six Characters' Sung at the City Center". The New York Times. Retrieved May 20, 2009.
- Harold C. Schonberg (March 26, 1962). "Opera: 'Turn of the Screw' Presented; Britten Work Is Given 'Full' Performance". The New York Times. Retrieved May 20, 2009.
- Harold C. Schonberg (October 5, 1962). "Opera: 'Louise' at the City Center; Work by Charpentier Opens 37th Season". The New York Times. Retrieved May 20, 2009.
- Harold C. Schonberg (October 13, 1962). "'FIGARO' IS GIVEN BY CITY'S TROUPE; Mazart Opera Is Performed in an English Version". The New York Times. Retrieved May 20, 2009.
- Harold C. Schonberg (November 9, 1962). "'WINGS OF THE DOVE' AT THE CITY CENTER". The New York Times. Retrieved May 20, 2009.
- Harold C. Schonberg (October 4, 1963). "Music: 'Joan of Arc' and 'Nightingale'; Double Bill Opens City Opera's 20th Year". The New York Times. Retrieved May 20, 2009.
- Harold C. Schonberg (October 21, 1963). "Opera: City Company's 'La Traviata'; Beverly Sills Returns to Role of Violetta". The New York Times. Retrieved May 20, 2009.
- Ross Parmenter (July 27, 1964). "Opera: 'The Lady From Colorado'; Central City Troupe Is Doing New Work". The New York Times. Retrieved May 20, 2009.
- Harold C. Schonberg (December 23, 1969). "Opera: 2 by Menotti". The New York Times. Retrieved May 20, 2009.
- Santa Fe Opera Archives
- Alan Rich (February 9, 1962). "Jean Kraft, a Mezzo-Soprano, Offers Contemporary Program". The New York Times. Retrieved May 20, 2009.
- Free Library of Philadelphia: Box: Phila. Lyric Opera Company: 782.1 P5326p Bal Two [1968 - 1975]
- Howard Klein (April 20, 1964). "Cheers and Jeers Greet Opera By Gottlieb at Forum Concert". The New York Times. Retrieved May 20, 2009.
- Metropolitan Opera archives
- Lyric Opera of Chicago Archives
- Interview with Jean Kraft, October 8, 1990