Helen Francesca Traubel (June 16, 1899 – July 28, 1972) was an American opera and concert singer. A dramatic soprano, she was best known for her Wagnerian roles, especially those of Brünnhilde and Isolde.
Born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri, she began her career as a concert singer and went on to sing at the Metropolitan Opera from 1937-53. Starting in the 1950s, she also developed a career as a nightclub and cabaret singer as well as appearing in television, films and musical theatre. Traubel spent her later years in Santa Monica, California, where she died at the age of 73.
Traubel was born in St. Louis, Missouri to a prosperous family of German descent. She was the daughter of Otto Ferdinand Traubel, a pharmacist, and Clara Traubel (née Stuhr). She studied singing in her native city with Louise Vetta-Karst and later in New York City with Giuseppe Boghetti among other teachers. She made her debut as a concert singer with the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra in 1923, and in 1926 she got a first offer to join the Metropolitan Opera company after performing the aria Liebestod at the Lewisohn Stadium under conductor Rudolph Ganz. She turned down the offer in order to continue with her studies and career as a concert singer.
Traubel made her first appearance on the opera stage on May 12, 1937, when the composer Walter Damrosch asked her to portray the role of Mary Rutledge in the world premiere of his opera The Man Without a Country at the Met. Later that year she made her debut with the Chicago City Opera Company with whom she was active until the company went bankrupt in 1939. In 1940 she joined the roster of the Chicago Opera Company, remaining active with that company until it too went bankrupt in 1946. She sang in several performances with the San Francisco Opera in 1945 and 1947; making her debut with the company as Brünnhilde in Die Walküre on October 9, 1945 with Lauritz Melchior as Siegmund, Margaret Harshaw as Fricka, and William Steinberg conducting.
Since the Met already had two first-class Wagnerian sopranos, Kirsten Flagstad and Marjorie Lawrence, Traubel at first had difficulty finding her niche. Her debut as a regular company member was as Sieglinde in Die Walküre in 1939, the only standard role which she had previously sung, at the Chicago Opera. Flagstad left the US in 1941 to visit her homeland of Norway and could not return for political reasons. The same year, Lawrence was stricken with polio and her career was curtailed.
On February 22, 1941, Traubel sang with tenor Lauritz Melchior in excerpts from Wagnerian operas on the live broadcast concert of the NBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Arturo Toscanini. RCA Victor later released recordings of excerpts from the concert, as well as a famous studio recording of Brünnhilde's Immolation Scene from Die Götterdämmerung. Traubel later triumphed in Tannhäuser and in Tristan und Isolde. She was renowned for her strong voice, which was often described as a "gleaming sword;" her endurance and purity of tone were unsurpassed, especially as Brünnhilde and Isolde. Although she longed to sing Italian opera, she never did in a complete performance, although she often included Italian arias in her recital repertoire. Towards the end of her Met career, she did add the Marschallin in Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier briefly to her repertoire.
In 1948, while her Met career was at its height, US President Harry S. Truman contracted her to act as an "advisor" to his daughter, Margaret, who was hoping to launch a career as a classical singer. Traubel's 1959 autobiography, St. Louis Woman, contains an account of the three years she spent in the role, and how in the end she felt it had adversely affected her stature in the music world to have her name associated with "such a musical aspirant."
Traubel's contract at the Metropolitan Opera was not renewed in 1953 when its General Manager, Rudolf Bing, expressed disapproval of her radio and TV appearances alongside the likes of Jimmy Durante and her expressed desire to expand her lucrative career in major supper and night clubs. Traubel went on to appear at the Copacabana, as well as in many cameo television roles. After her Met career, she appeared on Broadway in the Rodgers and Hammerstein failure, Pipe Dream, playing a bordello madame with a heart of gold and the voice of Isolde. Additionally, she appeared in the films Deep in My Heart, Gunn and The Ladies Man. She also appeared opposite Groucho Marx as Katisha in a Bell Telephone presentation (abridged) of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado. Traubel's last night club appearance was with Jimmy Durante at Harrah's Lake Tahoe in 1964.
A baseball fan, Traubel was once the part owner of her hometown team, the St. Louis Browns. She wrote two murder mysteries, The Ptomaine Canary (serialized in US newspapers via Associated Press) in 1950 and The Metropolitan Opera Murders (1951), which feature a soprano heroine, Elsa Vaughan, who helps solve the mystery, as well as being a thinly-disguised portrait of Traubel herself.
Her later years were devoted to caring for her second husband and former business manager, William L. Bass, whom she had married in 1938. (Her first husband, was Louis Franklin Carpenter, a St. Louis car salesman. The couple married in 1922 but soon separated.)
Helen Traubel died of a heart attack in Santa Monica, California, aged 73, and was interred in the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles.
For her contribution to the recording industry, Helen Traubel has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6422 Hollywood Blvd. In 1994 she was inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame.
Notes and references
1. Hischak (2007) p. 297; Sicherman and Green (1980) p. 697. Note that McHenry (1983) p. 416 and some press obituaries give the year of her birth as 1903.
2. Sicherman and Green (1980) p. 697
3. Metropolitan Opera Archives
4. San Francisco Opera Performance Archives
5. Youngstown Vindicator (December 23, 1958), p. 11
6. See Gettysburg Times (September 29, 1953), p. 6 and Montreal Gazette (July 31, 1972), p. 14.
7. Hischak (2007) p. 297.
8. Star-News (July 31, 1972), p. 18
9. Time Magazine (April 24, 1950)
10. Montreal Gazette (31 July 1972) p. 14
11. Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, Hollywood Walk of Fame:Helen Traubel
12. St. Louis Walk of Fame, Helen Traubel
Gettysburg Times (via Associated Press), "Helen Traubel In Tiff With Met: Won't Sign", September 29, 1953, pg. 6
Hischak, Thomas S. "Traubel, Helen", The Rodgers and Hammerstein Encyclopedia, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2007, p. 297; ISBN 0-313-34140-0
McHenry, Robert (ed.), "Traubel, Helen", Famous American Women: A Biographical Dictionary from Colonial Times to the Present, Courier Dover Publications, 1983, p. 416; ISBN 0-486-24523-3
Metropolitan Opera Archives, Traubel, Helen (soprano), MetOpera Database
Montreal Gazette (via Associated Press), "Former Met Star Helen Traubel Dead", July 31, 1972, p. 14
San Francisco Opera Performance Archives, Helen Traubel
Sicherman, Barbara, and Green, Carol Hurd (eds), "Traubel, Helen Francesca", Notable American Women: The modern period, Volume 4, p. 697, Harvard University Press, 1980; ISBN 0-674-62733-4
Star-News (via United Press International), "Helen Traubel, Former Opera Diva, Dies", July 31, 1972, p. 18
Time Magazine, "Happy Heroine" (cover story), November 11, 1946
Time Magazine, "Murder at the Met?", time.com, April 24, 1950
Traubel, Helen and Hubler, Richard Gibson, St. Louis Woman, University of Missouri Press, 1999; ISBN 0-8262-1237-9
Youngstown Vindicator (via Associated Press), "Helen Traubel Says Role with Margaret 'Hurt' Her", December 23, 1958, p. 11