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Biography

Career as a Bariton

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 began his careful examination of the Book of Mormon after fasting while reading it

from cover to cover while still on his Mission. 20 years later he asked to be

excommunicated from the Mormon Church. And published a book called ‘Fatal Flaws of the

Most Correct Book on Earth. (This is what Joseph Smith called his book).

He joined the United States Marine Corps at 17 in 1945-46, he then studied voice in Los Angeles

building his voice from scratch. His teacher first refused him saying it was a waste of his time. 

After serving as a missionary for 2 yrs, he moved to New York City in 1950 to further study singing and acting at the American Theater Wing. In 1950 he made his Broadway debut as a singer and juggler in the original cast of  "Top Banana" with Phil Silvers. In 1952, he was the baritone member of the trio in the world premiere at Brandeis University of Leonard Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti. After singing the roles of 'Germont' in “ La Traviata” and 'Valentin' in “Faust” with the Amato Opera in NYC, in 1952  he moved to Italy to continue vocal studies as an Opera Singer, funded by the G.I Bill. He finished his study at Scuola Musicale di Milano in Milan, Italy after a year. He debuted as ‘Sharpless’ in Milan’'s Teatro Piccolo in “Madama Butterfly” and sang ‘Count di Luna’ in “Il Trovatore” in a neighboring city. In 1953 he toured Spain with an Italian company headed by Mario Fillipeschi with several baritone roles. He was engaged in Würzburg, Germany in 1954 to open the season as Count di Luna in “Il Trovatore” and ‘Sharpless’ in “Madama Butterfly” along with other roles until he returned to Broadway for the musical “The Most Happy Fella” in 1955. He returned again to Europe in 1956 to sing in Basel, Switzerland with Montserrat Caballé in “Tosca”, “Pagliacci” and “Tiefland” along with “Masked Ball” “La Boheme”and “Lohengrin”, The Firey Angel. He went from Basel to Berlin to alternate with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in “Masked Ball” and “Don Carlo” and with Hermann Prey in other roles. His debut was as ‘Escamillo’ in “Carmen”. After a successful ‘Germont’ in “La Traviata” at the Vienna Staatsoper in 1957, he was engaged there for 3 years as a baritone under Herbert Von Karajan who took him to La Scala to sing in his Tristan and Isolde with Birgit Nilsson. Claude Heater sang again the role with Birgit Nilsson at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus that he sang with her at La Scala and also debuted at the same time in 1966 in Bayreuth as Siegmund to Gwyneth Jones' Sieglinde.

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, Ping in Puccini's Turandot and Tom Henney in the premiere of Norman Dello Joio's Blood Moon.[3] His last performance of the season was with Dame Joan Sutherland as Henry Ashton in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor.

Opera General Director

Claude was the General Director of the Oakland Opera of California during the 1988-1990 seasons where among others, Jerome Hines appeared as “Boris Godunov”. He chooses to develop some dramatic voices from scratch in his San Francisco studio for the last 20 years.

Ben-Hur

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. Now here is the strange part: They had to go to Europe to find this boy, who was born in Oakland, California." 

Because of an English Law that prohibits seeing the face or the voice of someone portraying the part of Christ unless he is the central character, there was some discussion about having two versions, as Wyler was pleased with Heater’s work. But we do get a glimpse, in the 1993 documentary "Ben-Hur: The Making of An Epic," Claude Heater's face was shown in a costume test photo only once. [citation needed] Charlton Heston spoke highly of his performance in his book ‘The Actors Life’. Charlton Heston and Claude appeared together in 2003 at the Academy of Arts in Los Angeles in Ben Hur's last showing as the last two remaining actors in the film.

Career as a tenor

From 1961-1964 Heater concentrated on re-training his voice as a tenor, first with Mario

del Monaco in Rome and later with Max Lorenz in Munich and Salzburg. He was scheduled for

his debut in Munich as Parsifal at the Prinzeregententheater, an opera house built like the

Bayreuth Festspiel House that was still being renovated. So 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 Parsifal, Siegfried, and Tannhäuser. Other important roles

in various opera houses were Florestan in Ludwig van Beethoven's Fidelio, the title role in Verdi's Otello

along with Canio in Pagliacci and Turiddu in Cavalleria.

Outside of Munich, Heater worked actively as 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 Melot at Bayreuth Festival in 1966, and was to sing Siegfried the following year under Wieland Wagner, but due to the untimely death of Wieland, his projects were cancelled. 

His first Tristan was in Hannover, Germany. He prepared the role in Salzburg and Munich along with Parsifal for his Munich National Theater debut under the guidance of Max Lorenz who was the favorite Tristan in Europe while Lauritz Melchoir sang it at the Metropolitan Opera. He made his voice change with the help of his neighbor and idol Mario Del Monaco who later bought his white Cadillac from him. Their Villas in Rome were attached by a single wall. Mario came to Claude's “Flying Dutchman” debut at La Scala and Claude in turn went to Mario's ‘Die Walküre’ debut in Stuttgart. He became a Mario fan after seeing Mario in “Otello” and “La Wally” at La Scala. He also saw Ramón Vinay as “Cyrano de Bergerac” at La Scala as well. Claude was a fan of Ramón after seeing him at the Metropolitan Opera as “Otello” and honored when Ramón Vinay sang ‘Iago’ in Claude's Boston “Otello” with Renata Tebaldi.

After his debut as “Tristan”, Claude sang it in 9 0r 10 different Tristan productions in two years including The Festival of Two Worlds with Giancarlo Menotti at Spoleto and Trieste, Italy as well as the Liceu in Barcelona and the Hamburg Staats Opera with Birgit Nilsson followed by the Dresden Opera with Astrid Varnay. He finished his Boston “Otello” with Renata Tebaldi and Ramón Vinay as ‘Iago’ and took a midnight plane to Italy where he had a staged orchestra rehearsal of Tristan und Isolde in Genoa the next day. Both his Bayreuth and La Scala debuts came in 1966 as ‘Siegmund’ singing with Gwyneth Jones and ‘Erik’ with Leonie Rysanek.

He had five seasons at Barcelona's Liceu singing ‘Tristan’, ‘Tannhäuser’, ‘Siegmund’, ‘Siegfried’ that he staged as well. Montserrat Caballé stepped in for an ailing Anja Silja to sing the Elizabeth in “Tannhäuser” as a favor to Claude who sang with her in her first Tosca, Nedda in “Pagliacci” and ‘Marta’ in “Tiefland” in Basel, Switzerland. In 1967-8 Claude made two films of Tristan und Isolde with the Belgium TV the second was the full Tristan und Isolde with minor cuts. The first ‘full length’ film Claude has done since the 1958 Academy Award film ‘Ben Hur’ where he played the role of The Jesus Christ.