Uppman, Theodor

American baritone, 1920 - 2005

Biographical notes:

He was born in Palo Alto near San José (California) and attended the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, later he studied at the University of California and Stanford University. In 1946 he made his debut as Papageno in a Magic Flute performance in his hometown. His professional debut took place in 1947, as Pelléas in a concert performance of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande with Pierre Monteux and the San Francisco Symphony and opposite the great Maggie Teyte as Mélisande. He was subsequentely engaged to appear in the same role at the New York City Opera, again with Maggie Teyte. In 1951 Theodor Uppman was invited by Benjamin Britten to create the title role in his opera Billy Budd at Covent Garden. This role was a tremendous success for the young singer. He repeated the role of Billy in 1952 on NBC-TV Opera (abridged version), and again in 1970 with the Lyric Opera of Chicago.The Met engaged him in 1953. His repertoire there included roles such as Papageno in The Magic Flute (under Bruno Walter), Masetto in Don Giovanni (under Karl Böhm), Guglielmo, Sharpless, Taddeo in L’Italiana in Algeri, Ping in Turandot, Harlekin in Ariadne auf Naxos and Paquillo in La Périchole. He also created a number of roles in modern operas, among them Pasatieri’s Black Widow. He sang in the first American performance of Britten’s Gloriana. He liked to appear in Musicals. Throughout the 1950s he toured the United States and Canada as a member of the “Belcanto-Trio,” together with Pierette Alarie and Léopold Simoneau. He has sung hundreds of solo recitals and was a frequent guest in radio broadcasts and television (Voice of Firestone and Bell Telephone Hour). He participated in the world’s first performance of Leonard Bernstein’s A Quiet Place and sang a number of performances at La Scala, the Vienna Staatsoper, the Kennedy Center and in a recording, conducted by the composer. Since 1977 he has been on the voice faculty of the Mannes College of Music, New York. In 1988 he joined the faculty of Manhattan School of Music. He has not only taught master classes at the Britten-Pears School in Aldeburgh (he has been named an Honorary Director of the school) but also in America, Europe and Australia.


Theodor Uppman as Billy Budd

Britten wrote much of Billy Budd with the voice of Geraint Evans in mind. Evans prepared the role, but its tessitura lay too high for him and he had to withdrew. It was at a very late stage that Theodor Uppman successfully auditioned for the role. He was brought over to England immediately to begin learning the role.

“Well, you certainly look like Billy!”

Benjamin Britten when he met Theodor Uppman for the first time


Claggart (halting Billy): Foretopman!

Billy: Me, Sir?

Claggart: This is a man-o’-war. Take off that fancy neckerchief!

(He pulls off Billy’s neckerchief)

Billy: Very good, Sir.

Claggart: And... Look after your dress. Take a pride in yourself, Beauty, and you’ll come to no harm. Now fall in.


“We’re off to Savannah, o sing Polly Anna, my lovely Susannah, a bird flying high in the sky. She’s only a bird in the sky. Oh, Anna Susannah! I’ll find you a bed by and by.”


Billy (radiant): You wanted to see me. I knew it, I knew I’d be called. Captain of the mizzen! Oh, the honour! - and you telling me! I shouldn’t speak so quick, but the talk’s got around.

Captain Vere (watching him): Would you like to be captain of the mizzen, Billy Budd?

Billy: Yes, or to be your coxswain. I’d like that too.

Captain Vere: Why?

Billy: To be near you, I’d serve you well, indeed I would. You’d be safe with me. You could trust your boat to me. Couldn’t find a better coxswain - that’s to say, I’ll look after you my best. I’d die for you - so would they all.


“Look! Through the port comes the moonshine astray! It tips the guard’s cutlass and silvers this nook; but ‘twill die in the dawning of Billy’s last day. Ay, ay, all is up; and I must up too early in the morning, aloft from below. On an empty stomach, now, never would it do. They’ll give me a nibble - bit of biscuit ere I go.

Sure, a messmate will reach me the last parting cup; but turning heads away from the hoist and the belay, Heaven knows who will have the running of me up! No pipe to those halyards - but ain’t it all sham?

A blur’s in my eyes; it is dreaming that I am. But Donald has promised to stand bythe plank, so I’ll shake a friendly hand ere I sink. But no! No! It is dead then I’ll be, come to think.

They’ll lash me in hammock - drop me deep. Fathoms down, fathoms - how I’ll dream fast asleep. I feel it stealing now... Roll me over fair. I’m sleepy, and the oozy weeds about me twist.”



The Art of Theodor Uppman (Radio broadcasts 1954 - 1957)


Britten - Billy Budd (Britten, December 1, 1951 - World Premiere Performance - 4 acts/Pears, Dalberg, Alan, Evans, Te Wiata, Langdon


Mozart - Die Zauberflöte (Walter 1956 live/Amara, Sullivan, Hines, Peters, London, Franke)


Mozart - Don Giovanni (Böhm live 1957/Siepi, Steber, della Casa, Peerce, Corena, Peters, Tozzi)


Mozart - Don Giovanni (Krips live 1964/Ghiaurov, Stich-Randall, Curtin, Kraus, Kunz, Panni, Marangoni)


Puccini - Turandot (Mehta live 1966/Nilsson, Corelli, Freni, Giaotti, Anthony, Nagy)


Mozart - Don Giovanni (Böhm live 1967/Siepi, Sutherland, Lorengar, Gedda, Flagello, Hurley, Giaotti)

Bella Voce

Bernstein - A Quiet Place (Bernstein 1986 live/Ludgin, Morgan, Kraft,  Brandstetter, Kazaras)


Palestrina and Fauré/Missa “Papae Marcelli” and Requiem (Wagner)



Allen Altman wrote: “On records, it is the sheer beauty of tone that first commands attention: the light spin so perfect for French music, the rich lower range, which has been described as having ‘that mellow and engaging warmth which were a part of the vocal art of Ezio Pinza .’ But after just a few notes, it is Uppman’s ability to reach our hearts to ‘speak to us’ as it were, that takes center stage.”

Another critic said: “Mr. Uppman has the rare gift of personal involvement in whatever he chooses to sing. From this inner concept he brings a sincerety and musical purpose which illumine and intensify the mood and music. His diction is so clear, so easy, and so musically cadenced that the text coincides in sense with the beauty of phrasing.”

It was on the famous Billy Budd recording (conducted by Britten), when I heard this singer for the first time. I was immediately deeply impressed by the beauty of his voice. I think his involvement with the role of Billy is unique!

VAI released a CD called “The Art of Theodor Uppman.” It is a collection of digitally remastered radio broadcast performances from the “Bell Telephone Hour” between 1954 and 1957.The repertoire was intended to appeal to a wide audience, ranging from folk songs arrangements (Foster, Wilder) to French and Italian opera arias. The recordings present him as a singer with a voice of distinguished beauty.

On may wonder why a baritone of this quality was not to be engaged as Don Giovanni, Count Almaviva, Guglielmo and Valentin. Even Athanael, Hérode and Hamlet would have been suitable roles...

  Look! Through the port comes the moonshine astray (Billy Budd / Britten / 1951 live / Benjamin Britten)


E.M. Forster, Benjamin Britten and Eric Crozier working on Billy Budd at the composer’s home, Crag House, Aldeburgh, 1949