Thomas Schippers, one of the most gifted conductors of opera and orchestra this country has ever produced, died of lung cancer Friday night in his New York City apartment. He was 47.
Born in Kalamazoo, Mich., on March 9, 1930. Schippers won a scholarship to the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, where he studied piano with Olga Samaroff. By the time he was 18. Eugene Ormandy invited him to conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra. Three years later Arturo Toscanini offered him a guest spot with the NBC Symphony.
In the same year that he led the Philadelphia Orchestra. Schippers made his debut as an opera conductor, leading the Lemonade Opera Company in New York City. He soon moved over to the New York City Opera Company.
Early in 1950, Gian Carlo Menotti asked the rising young conductor to prepare the singers for the premiere of his new opera. "The Consul." From then on. Schippers moved steadily and rapidly to the top. After five years with the New York City Opera, he made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera in 1955, the second-youngest man ever to conduct there. In 1969, he became the first American to lead an opening night at the Met.
It was also in 1955 that Schippers made his debut leading the New York Philharmonic. Three years later, together with Menotti, he helped to found the Spoleto Festival in Italy, where he held the post of music director until recently.
Orchestral engagements took him to the philharmonics in Vienna, London, Israel, and Berlin. At the same time, he became a principal conductor of La Scala in Milan, and a guest conductor at London's Covent Garden, the Rome Opera and the Wagner shrine in Bayreuth, Germany.
In 1963, when he conducted "Die Meistersinger" at Bayreuth, he was the youngest conductor in the history of that house. When the new Metropolitan Opera House opened in 1966. Schippers was the conductor of the opera commissioned for that occasion. "Antony and Cleopatro" by Samuel Barber.
In April, 1965, Schippers married Nonie Phipps, the great-grand-daughter of Andrew Carnegie's partner, Henry Phipps. Her father, Michael, was the son of one of the Graces of the old New York family. Thus Schippers' marriage allied him to two of the larger fortunes in New York City. Mrs. Schippers died, also of cancer, in 1973.
In 1970, Schippers accepted the post of music director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, an ensemble that he soon improved both in technical matters and in repertoire.
For the past several years he had suffered health problems and underwent an operation two years ago for an enlarged esophagus. That was followed by a series of complications. Last March, when an attack of pneumonia prevented Schippers from conducting a New York concert, his place was taken, in an unprecedented gesture of friendship, by three conductors. Leonard Bernstein, Kenneth Schermerhorn and David Stahl.
A few months ago, at Schippers' insistence, the Cincinnati orchestra's board of directors began a search for a new music director, awarding Schippers the title of laureate conductor for life. It was an honor he was to hold only briefly.
Schippers was a fluent pianist and a gifted organist. During his career he was honored for his services to American music. Only a year ago he was named music director of the venerable Santa Cecilia Academy in Rome, the first American to be offered the post. It was a position he was never able to occupy.
In his years in opera, Schippers conducted 19 operas by Verdi. For a time, he had planned to conduct and record all of them. Today's record catalogue list four of them.
Among the special pleasures in Schippers' work at the Spoleto festivals each summer were the famous oratorious that he led on the large plaza in front of the cathedral.In 1963, he gave what he was told was the first performance of Handel's "Messiah" ever sung in Italy. He took particular delight in hearing his opera chorus singing "Oggi fra no un bimbo e nato" in place of "For unto us a Child is born."
That was also the year he made his debut at Bayreuth, leading a "Meistersinger" that major critics praised highly. Wieland Wagner's controversial staging was loudly booed that year, but when the handsome young American conductor came onstage, the applause was vociferous.
Among New York critics who regularly covered his opera performances at the Metropolitan, there was a solidly held opinion that Schippers was one of the most effective conductors of Verdi opera to be heard anywhere.
For many years his youth, coupled with his extreme good looks, and eventually, his marriage to a wealthy and beautiful woman, had led to jealous comments by some of his colleagues and rivals who suggested that Schippers' success was due to other than musical factors. But from the hard work and remarkable musical talents upon which he built, there was never a hint of truth to these. His death leaves a severe vacany in our musical life.