American Music Heroes: Thomas Schippers

American conductor Thomas Schippers had a distinguished career from Kalamazoo to La Scala.(Photo:
American conductor Thomas Schippers had a distinguished career from Kalamazoo to La Scala.(Photo:

The upcoming fourth of July holiday is inspiring me to reflect on some American born artists who have receded a bit since their passing.

At the time of his death in 1977 Thomas Schippers (b. 1931, Kalamazoo, Michigan) had been Music Director of the Cincinnati Symphony since 1970, and had conducted well over three hundred performances at the Metropolitan Opera.

Schippers made his Met debut at the age of 25., but was conducting Gian Carlo Menotti’s operas The Telephone and The Medium on Broadway when he was twenty. At twenty-one he conducted the world premiere of Menotti’s mega hit Amahl and the Night Visitors on NBC TV.

In 1961 Schippers conducted Maria Callas’s final performances in Milan, Cherubini’s Medea at La Scala. The video clip is about Callas, but be patient you’ll see Schippers in charge in the pit*

Schippers’s youthful flair and talent never burned out. He died at forty-seven, but his career was white-hot for nearly thirty years.

He appeared regularly with the New York Philharmonic and the Chicago Symphony and was the founding Maestro of the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy – where he is buried. Schippers introduced both of Samuel Barber’s operas, Vanessa and Antony and Cleopatra.

Schippers gifts as a musician were indisputable. Added to the mix, he was devastatingly handsome. Thomas Schippers was one of those people attractive to any gender or sexual preference. He was part of the Samuel Barber-Gian Carlo Menotti menage. The chilly and autocratic Rudolf Bing, director the Metropolitan Opera, was rumored to be besotted with Schippers.

Thomas Schippers married Nonie Phipps, heiress to the Grace Fortune in 1965. She was a knockout herself. Eight years later she died of cancer, and Schippers himself succumbed in 1977. He had just conducted the long-awaited Met debut of Beverly Sills. At Schippers’s death, Sills commented, “It’s heartbreaking to realize that two such gorgeous young people are gone.”

It’s hard to get a handle on Thomas Schippers’s talents today. He made a few orchestral recordings and a lot of opera, but died before filmed opera was easily accessible.

Schippers sustained a world-class career from his nineteenth birthday and got some good advice along the way.

Soprano Eileen Farrell (1920-2002) worked with Schippers in the theater and in the recording studio. One day in London, young Tom was being especially pissy to the orchestra. Farrell finally said to him “You are loaded with talent, Tommy. There’s no need to be such an asshole!” (You had to know Eileen Farrell.)

One can’t say his career and talents weren’t fulfilled, but it’s sad they didn’t go on very much longer.

*Also from Eileen Farrell. One day during an exhausting rehearsal she looked down, tired and tongue-tied “Oh, I see we have Pippers in the shit again!”

Read more: Thomas Schippers’ Official Website