Background Information
Performer Bios

Poet/Composer Bios

Additional Information

Biographies of Performers: Main Page | A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | X | Y | Z
Explanation | Acronyms | Missing Biographies | The Sad Corner

James Schwabacher (Tenor)

Born: 1920 - San Francisco, California, USA
Died: July 25, 2006 - San Francisco, California, USA

The American tenor, James H. Schwabacher, Jr., came into music through that family. His grandmother, Carrie Fleischhacker (of another distinguished pioneer family), was a composer; his father a singer; his mother also musical, danced and played the piano "vaguely.". His family was also closely linked to the Dinkelspiels. Typically, with most well-brought-up children of the day music was a cultural necessity, a social ingredient in daily life. Young James and his sister Marie Louise took piano lessons; with enthusiasm James started the keyboard at the early age of 5, and was consistently encouraged by a rich assortment of local and national talents: Reba Kay, Gunnar Johansen, and most tellingly for James, Helen Matthias. At Presidio Open Air School the young musician also sang in student performances of popular musicals; surprisingly, with his boy soprano voice he surpassed his indifferent piano career. Mother was enthusiastic, "110 per cent supportive"; James was taken to sing for Franz Prochowski, the renowned voice teacher, when he was in San Francisco giving summer master-classes. This maestro was the first to encourage a singing career. In the musical life that followed, there were few major singers and musicians in opera whom James did not associate with and learn from, including such greats as Martial Singher, with whom he studied, and all the others who embraced this amiable colleague.

Unlike most young singers at the time, Schwabacher went to college. Initially he didn't want to; he was impatient; he wanted to sing. Fortunately, on a trip to New York in the summer of 1938 he met Erno Balogh, the wise accompanist to Lotte Lehmann. Erno Balogh told him to get good musical training first; a singing career could always come afterwards. The advice of Professor Albert Elkus took him across the bay to Berkeley and the University of California (UC) for a proper education. Yet, music was the center of his academic curriculum; singing as soloist with the University Chorus was the beginning of his professional life.

World War II took him away from San Francisco for five years, which he spent in the army as a first lieutenant. 1946 marked his return to musical affairs and concentration on a career. In the family firm, Schwabacher-Frey, he took up a singing career. His first solo role was while he was a student at UC Berkeley, in the Mozart Requiem. Jan Popper, the charming, ebullient Opera Man of the West Coast, had formed a small company of singers which toured the state doing chamber works. James joined the hearty bunch (Theodor Uppman, Lois Hartzell) for a season of Cosi fan tutte, and Maestro Popper put him on the Stanford music faculty. During these postwar years the fledgling tenor grew into the assured young professional, singing on campus in the local premieres of Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes and Igor Stravinsky's Rake's Progress. Study with renowned Danish lieder singer Povla Frijsh established his song repertoire and his artistic sensibilities.

Success followed success. Kurt Herbert Adler, then chorus director of the San Francisco Opera, heard Schwabacher sing at Stanford, and in 1948 cast him in Wagner's Die Meistersinger. Their association grew into a deep friendship over the years; Schwabacher considers Adler his mentor in all matters musical. Gaetano Merola, impresario of the Opera Company, hired him for four seasons, singing 14 different roles in operas as varied as Tamino in Mozart's Magic Flute and Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. In those days the young tenor shared the boards with the most illustrious voices of the century.

James Schwabacher, a rare combination of talent and wealth, had a 30-year career as a recitalist and oratorio singer. After his San Francisco Opera period, his course was clear. During the 1950’s his career took a subtle turn; the horizons widened even more. Opera gave way to oratorio, to Lieder, to a career of song recitals. It began with the annual Carmel Bach Festival, California, where he first sang the Evangelist in J.S. Bach's St. John Passion (BWV 245) and the St. Matthew Passion (BWV 244), roles he held consistently there for more than twenty years and sang successfully in other cities. His first Evangelist in the St. Matthew Passion (BWV 244) was at the Carmel Bach Festival's first performance of the work, in 1950. James had just the voice for that. Ironically, his last performance was in that role, with the Kansas City Philharmonic in 1976..

For his performance of the St. Matthew Passion (BWV 244) with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Erich Leinsdorf on January 17, 1953, the Chronicle music critic Alfred Frankenstein wrote in his review, "Schwabacher's assignment as the Evangelist was sung with the mastery of its music and its meaning such as the writer of these lines has seldom witnessed." From then on, it was a career of recitals and lecture recitals, along with opera intermission broadcasts and preview lecturing. He opened Hertz Hall at UC Berkeley with Berlioz' Te Deum; he recorded; he moved into television with a KQED series called the History of Song in 1958.

The 1960’s were the years of travel. In New York Thea Dispeker signed him as one of her artists; there followed a Town Hall recital with the distinguished accompanist Paul Ulanowsky in 1962. He had three worldwide tours in Europe, Israel, and Scandinavia, all with Alden Gilchrist, his accompanist from San Francisco. There were numerous tours across America with Ralph Linsley as accompanist, and for six seasons he was tenor soloist in New York with David Randolph's Masterwork Chorus.

Many of these performances were lecture-recitals in which Schwabacher fulfilled an innate desire to inform as well as perform, to give meaning to his recitals beyond the pleasure of his singing; they led to opera previews on radio, TV, and before live audiences during the 1950’s and 1960’s and countless radio interviews for the San Francisco Opera broadcasts.

After a nonmalignant growth on his vocal chords did in his voice, teaching, mentoring, and institutional leadership became his life. He taught privately, passing on to others the art of Frijsh, Ulanowsky and his long-time teacher Mabel Riegelman. He helped propel opera students such as Deborah Voigt and Thomas Hampson to international stardom.

His love of music and family money, derived from a fortune made in office supplies, inspired him to co-found the Merola Opera Program in 1957 and San Francisco Performances in 1980. His love of the waning tradition of the art song - vocalist accompanied by piano - led him to establish the Schwabacher Debut Recital Series in 1983. James Schwabacher was deeply involved in the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra for most of his adult life, serving as the third president of the San Francisco Symphony Foundation, and as a member of the Board of Governors since 1959, eventually becoming a Life Governor.

His home on Broadway in Pacific Heights was filled with rare recordings of musicals and the scores of unknown operettas, as well as a music studio and a third-floor solarium that he once described to the late Chronicle society columnist Pat Steger as "the Top of the Schwab." He was an equal opportunity host, inviting the famous over for dinner - Leonard Bernstein and Marilyn Horne were guests - as well as the unknown, coaching a handful of budding Merola opera singers privately each year. He also enjoyed spending time at his family's ranch in Cupertino, where its vineyard grapes were bottled by Ridge Vineyards. James Schwabacher in 2006 of complications of pneumonia. He was 86.

Robert P. Commanday wrote for San Francisco Classical Voice in 2002, discussing Jimmy and his singing during the crest of his vocal career:
“Anyone listening seriously to opera and singing here between 1952 and 1967 will remember fondly the singing of James Schwabacher. For them, and for those who missed this special but too-brief career, there is now a CD of his recital performances during that time (Cambria CD). I suppose that for most people today, the name James Schwabacher primarily conjures up the musical leader, the patron of the Schwabacher Recitals given on Sunday afternoons and featuring the Adler Fellows, often in recital debuts — such artists as Thomas Hampson, Susan Graham, Ruth Ann Swenson, and Deborah Voigt. Or the host at important Opera events. Or his helping initiate the Merola Opera Program and serving as its president for 30 years while it sent out branches (such as the Western Opera Theater) and became the foundation of the S.F. Opera Center.
Those who have been around might recall his role helping to found both Spring Opera, a great institution that should never have been taken down, and San Francisco Performances, the only lasting success of a concert presenting organization in the City. For all that, he was first and foremost a musician and tenor.”

In the obitury published in 2006 in San Francisco Classical Voice, Robert P. Commanday wrote:
“James H. Schwabacher Jr. was never called "San Francisco's Mr. Music," but he should have been. Or better, "San Francisco's Gentleman of Music," for he was all of that. He was an elegant person whose manner and style as singer, friend, colleague, and public figure were all of a gracious piece. He was so well-known and affectionately regarded that there was never need for an introduction when he took the stage to deliver an urbane introduction, or a running chat with audiences, at the San Francisco Opera, Merola Opera Program (notably at its Grand Final Auditions), Spring Opera, Carmel Bach Festival, and, since 1983, the Schwabacher Debut Recital Series, which he founded and supported to give budding young singers the best platform on which to launch their careers here.”

David Gockley, general director of the San Francisco Opera, called Schwabacher "one of the foundations" of the opera company. S.F. Opera's Merola Program is the nation's oldest training program for young singers and considered one of the nation's finest.
"San Francisco and the world of opera owe him a huge debt of gratitude, and he will be forever part of the opera's legacy," Gockley said in a prepared statement.

Longtime friends described the bachelor James Schwabacher as a gentleman of style who loved to laugh and who had an enormous passion for music of all kinds. friends said:
"He was one of the greatest men in the history of San Francisco, being so passionate about opera and song and such a champion of young singers and young artists of all kinds, including composers," said Jake Heggie, composer of "Dead Man Walking." Heggie received his first paid commission, "Eve Song," from Mr. Schwabacher in 1995, after moving to San Francisco from Los Angeles two years earlier.

James Schwabacher reads the program during his "Magic of Opera" class at the Fromm Institute of the University of San Francisco in 2002 (Chronicle file photo by Lacy Atkins) [01]

Source: Obituary in San Francisco Classical Voice Website (Author: Robert P. Commanday, 2006); Obituary in SFGate (Author: Carolyne Zinko, July 27, 2006); University of California Website (Author: Marvin Tartak, April 10, 2001)
Contributed by
Aryeh Oron (December 2011)

Recordings of Bach Cantatas & Other Vocal Works




George Poinar


BWV 244 [1st - Evangelist]

Sandor Salgo


BWV 11 [1st], BWV 11 [2nd], BWV 106 [1st]
BWV 244 [1st - Evangelist], BWV 244 [2nd - Evangelist], BWV 244 [4th - Evangelist], BWV 244 [5th - Evangelist], BWV 245 [1st - Evangelist], BWV 245 [2nd - Evangelist]

Links to other Sites

Farewell to Our Man of Music by Robert Commanday (San Francisco Classical Voice)
James Schwabacher -- patron of arts, opera tenor (SFGate)

Renaissance Man of Bay Area Music: Tenor, Teacher, Administrator, Impresario - James H. Schwabacher, Jr. (Calisphere)

Biographies of Performers: Main Page | A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | X | Y | Z
Explanation | Acronyms | Missing Biographies | The Sad Corner


Back to the Top

Last update: Tuesday, May 30, 2017 02:51