May 2010

Blanche Thebom: A True Diva

By Sarah K. Mcdonald

Blanche Thebom, renowned operatic mezzo soprano and longtime Potrero Hill resident, died in her home March 24.  She was 94.

Thebom was born on September 19, 1915 in Monessen, Pennsylvania, and raised in Canton, Ohio.  An opera accompanist discovered Thebom singing in a shipboard lounge in 1938 while she was traveling with her parents to Sweden. She studied with famed mezzo soprano Edyth Walker, and sang her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in Philadelphia in 1944. She performed 356 times during her 22-year career at the Met. Thebom also performed in Atlanta, and debuted at the San Francisco Opera in 1947 as Amneris in Verdi’s Aida. She was known for her warm voice, acting ability, and beauty.    

Thebom sang the part of Carmen at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow during a three-week tour of the Soviet Union in 1957. She was the first American to sing at the historic venue. “She said, ‘you don’t play Carmen unless you can act the part and look the part,’” said John Anderson, a Potrero Hill resident who knew Thebom.

After her retirement, Thebom briefly ran the Southern Regional Opera Company in Atlanta, before settling in San Francisco.  According to Thebom’s longtime friend and neighbor Aida Anderson – no relation to John – Thebom chose the neighborhood deliberately.  “With her prestige and her money, she could have lived anywhere,” said Anderson, “and she chose Potrero Hill.”

Thebom worked closely with the San Francisco Girls Chorus, starting the Opera Arts Training Program in 1989, an annual three-week workshop for girls aged 16 to 18. She mentored blossoming opera singers in the bel canto style she practiced, an Italian-originated vocal approach that prevailed in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. Thebom taught students in her home on 19th Street.  “You’d hear someone down the block singing their heart out,” said Ed Lortz, a former neighbor.

Thebom was a member of the Potrero Boosters Neighborhood Association and active in efforts to underground electric utility infrastructure as a way to beautify the neighborhood.  “She was interested in all the activities going on in the Hill,” said John Anderson.

“I was engrossed with her,” said Aida Anderson. “She was so well educated. She could talk about anything. She knew everything.”  Anderson recalled a story Thebom often told of her performance in a production of Salome in Buenos Aires. Thebom performed the Dance of the Seven Veils, and came out appearing “stark nude” in the end. After the show, Thebom tried to leave her hotel, only to be stopped by a crowd of men clamoring outside. Alarmed, she asked the concierge if there was a revolution happening, but the concierge said the crowd was for her. “You are the revolution,” he said.

Thebom lived in a New England-style house she had built on 19th Street. She has no surviving immediate family members. Aida Anderson said she and her husband Rollin were her closest friends in the City.  “I consider myself very fortunate that we got to know her as well as we did,” she said.  “You always knew you were in the presence of a true diva.”

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