[Note: The text of this interview was first published in the Massenet Newsletter in July of 1986.  The photos and obituary were added for this website presentation.]

Soprano  Helen  Jepson

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


The career of Helen Jepson was varied and distinguished.  She sang with many famous colleagues, and won praise and admiration from both the public and her fellow artists.  After working as a corset-fitter and salesgirl, she attended the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, gaining much experience there and even appearing in productions with Nelson Eddy.  She sang with the Met and also in Chicago.  Her studies with Mary Garden both in Chicago and in Paris gave her special knowledge and flair for the French repertoire.

Now past 80, Helen Jepson remains active in opera, working with the Sarasota Opera and its related Guilds.  Lending her experience and prestige to these groups means something very special for everyone -- including Jepson herself, who is very encouraged with what she sees and hears!

About a year ago, it was my great fortune to get in touch with Helen Jepson, and to my delight she agreed to talk with me about her career.  She was very interested and interesting, and the conversation was a joy.  What follows is much of what transpired that afternoon.

Bruce Duffie:    Let me ask about some of your memories in opera -- especially here in Chicago.  You did Thaïs . . .

Helen Jepson:    I think that was probably the most exciting because when they asked me to do it, it was very early in my career, and I said I would never do it unless I could work it with Mary Garden.

jepsonBD:    Is that why you went to Paris in 1936?

HJ:    Yes, but I worked with her before I went to Paris.  Friends contacted her -- she was living at the Blackstone then -- and I rented a room in the attic and worked with her on Thaïs.  She went with me to pick out the material for my costumes, and we became very close.  She charged $50 an hour, and that was a lot of money in those days especially because I hadn't done very many concerts and things as yet.  Then I went to Paris one summer to work her her on Thaïs, Manon, and Louise.  It was just wonderful.  When we were working on Thaïs, we came to the scene where she is consecrating herself to God, and she'd say, "Jepson," (she never called me Helen), "that's so beautiful  You have that spiritual feeling.  Don't change it, it's perfect."  Then we'd come back to the first act and get started on the courtesan, and she's scream, "My God!  How can you be so American?"  But Garden was a wonderful person for me at that time because she was so elegant, and she taught me so much.  And I loved Chicago because I was able to do more than I did in New York.  I could do anything there.  I did L'Amore dei Tre Re with Lazzari, and I did Louise with Rothier and the woman that sang the Mother when Garden did it.  [Note:  that was Maria Claessens.]  She came just for that.  And I did Manon with Schipa, and Faust, and of course Traviata with many different artists.  I also did many performances of Martha, and I never knew who was singing with me because we never had rehearsal after the first performance.

BD:    Wouldn't a (resident) stage-director at least walk you though the opera?

HJ:    Oh yes.  For instance, I stepped into my first Manon (with Schipa) for Moore, and had just a piano rehearsal.  I went along and thought things sounded a bit strange, and then found out that Schipa ws having things transposed down.  This was toward the end of his career, but all of a sudden we'd be in a different key!  I also remember wearing bedroom slippers because Schipa was so short.  Then there was a Martha [shown in photo at right].  I didn't know who the tenor would be, and it turned out to be Gigli.  He came over for just that one performance.  It was the only time in my opera career that they allowed an encore.  He sang M'appari twice.  I think he would have liked to have done it a third time, but it was very exciting.  He'd been away for so long, it was a privilege to sing with him.

BD:    You sang some of these roles with tenors of very different styles and vocal weights.  Did you alter your performance at all to fit with them?

HJ:    No, not vocally, at least.  I remember other strange things, though.  You know Jack Benny's Maxwell Car?  Well it was in Chicago one time and they had it brought to the theater and we had our pictures taken in it.  Then another time in Martha, we were supposed to have a real cow in the scene, but it kept mooing so much that they had to drop that idea.  But I have wonderful memories of opera in Chicago.  I also did Bohème and Otello, and Pagliacci.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let's talk a bit more about Thaïs.

HJ:    I did that in Chicago before I did a lot of things at the Met.  Most of my performances in that opera were with John Charles Thomas, who was fabulous.  I remember a review by Claudia Cassidy in Chicago.  She said she knew I had worked with Garden, but said she objected to my having "led with the stomach in the first act."  I was trying to be very seductive . . .  [Laughter]  When I finally did Thaïs at the Met, a terrible thing happened.  Garden had me wearing a very small beaded bra, and a G-string, and I had a beautiful red velvet cape to run down the steps in on my first entrance.  Well, when I was dressing at the Met for the performance, Edward Johnson came back and asked if that was what I was wearing.  I said it was, and he said I couldn't possibly go out in that.  He said they'd think I was in Minsky's burlesque show.  So the dresser quickly made a horrible little chiffon skirt that was so thick you couldn't see through.  But the critics the next morning said it was a very mild Thaïs, and I was furious!

jepsonBD:    Garden is supposed to have said that the public liked her best in Thaïs because she wore fewest clothes in that one.

HJ:    Well, she had a wonderful knack for making herself look absolutely naked even when she wasn't.

BD:    A few year ago, Carol Neblett did Thaïs and actually did strip down to nothing at that moment.  Do you think that's right for the opera?

HJ:    No, that's going a little too far.  Do you remember Leona Corona?  She did a Thaïs in Cincinnati and used  body-stocking.  She looked like she had nothing on and was criticized for it.  But being really nude is going too far and I don't like that.  I'm surprised they let Neblett do it.

BD:    Is modern stage-direction going too far as a general rule?

HJ:    I don't get to see as many things as I used to when I lived in New York.  I've been in Florida for ten years, and I've been very pleased with what we have done here.  I do remember objecting to a Faust at the Met.  They had Mefisto come out in a top hat, and Marguerite didn't have the braids.  Something like Faust is so traditional and so beautiful when it's done properly.

BD:    Are there any standard operas which would work in modern dress?

HJ:    I've never thought of it, but I suppose there would be some.  When I did The Secret of Susanna in Philadelphia with Nelson Eddy, we did it in modern dress.  That was years ago --- when I was just finishing up at Curtis.  I wore gold pajamas, and he wore an English afternoon suit with a grey topper.  It was a beautiful performance even though it wasn't in the bouffant style.  I suppose something like Traviata could be done, but I guess I'm too old-fashioned.

BD:    Do you feel that opera speaks to today's audiences?

HJ:    Oh I do, particularly the more things that are done in English.  The criticism is that you don't understand the diction anyway, but I've found that in our theater it's been pretty successful.  This new idea of using supertitles will help a great deal.  There's more being done on TV, and the films -- like the Traviata with Domingo -- are so beautiful.  That ran in one of the theaters here for a long time and had very good attendance.  You must remember that there are almost 700 little opera companies in the country now.

BD:    Is that too much?

HJ:    No, I think  it's marvelous.  When I was starting, the only things I had a chance to do were small roles with the Philadelphia Opera.  The first thing I ever did was the mother in The Marriage of Figaro with Nelson Eddy.  I was about 20, and was made up to look 65.  Then Rose Bampton and I did the two small roles in Thaïs, and we did the two gypsies in Carmen.  But now, they have so many opportunities and I'm glad for it.

BD:    Are the students more well-trained today?

HJ:    I don't think we have too many of what you would call "great" voices coming along, but they are still very young, so you don't know yet.  They're getting a better background, so they should be better actors and actresses when they get on the stage, moreso than when you have no chance as we did before.  Here in Florida we have what we call an Apprentice Program.  The students are not paid, but they get room and board, and if we have some money left over at the end of the season, they get a little bonus.  But these are young singers who do the small parts, and it's worked out very well.

BD:    When several of the veteran singers say that there was no rehearsal, I am appalled.

HJ:    That happened an awful lot at the old Met.  When I did my first Traviata, we got a full orchestral rehearsal.  But if it was brought back within the next five years or so, there was no orchestral rehearsal unless it was being revised for some reason.  I would be on tour doing concerts, and would come back and step into an opera without any rehearsals at all.  But these would be seasoned artists who had done performances of these operas.  Now I'm speaking just of the Met.  When I went to Chicago, we'd have a rehearsal because the scenery and the staging would be different.  But if I came back to Chicago the next season and the opera was the same, there would be no rehearsal.

BD:    Even if there was a different tenor?

HJ:    Oh yes.  It made no difference.  If there were going to be musical changes -- like that transposing I told you about with Schipa -- we'd have a musical rehearsal with piano, and that would be on the afternoon of the performance day.  But if you're on the stage a lot, you can take care of these things without too much trouble.  The big thing to worry about was people stepping on capes and trains.  I had that happen two or three times.  Things get much more rehearsal now.

BD:    Does that make for a higher standard of performance?

HJ:    Oh definitely.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Tell me about the character of Manon.  Did you enjoy playing her?

jepsonHJ:    Yes, I did.  The only thing with Manon was that I didn't have the chance to do it too many times.  I loved the role, and did the arias on concerts all the time.  Bori was still at the Met and she did Manon, and Sayão did the role, so I didn't have too many opportunities.  I did other roles much more.  I did the movie The Goldwyn Follies and I played an opera singer.  A man named Omar Khayam was the costume designer.  He asked if he could make some costumes for me, and he made wonderful ones for Traviata and Manon.  You see, I had all my own costumes.  I went to Havana and Puerto Rico, and you couldn't take the costumes away from the theater.  You had to have your own if you were traveling.  Each theater would provide them if you needed them, but I had my own costumes, my own jewelry, my own wigs.  I tried to have costumes similar to Bori.  She was known to have the most beautiful collection of costumes -- right down to the little bags and shoes.  But I was making a lot of money on the radio and I did 60 concerts a year all around, so I spent money like mad on costumes, and they were beautiful.  I think that was one of the reasons for my success because I certainly didn't have the greatest voice.  But it was a combination of everything -- costumes, personality, and I was slim in those days.  Some of the singers weren't . . .

BD:    I read a review which stated, "As long as there are singers who sing as well and look as pretty as Jepson, Thaïs will always get revived."  So why isn't it being done more these days?

HJ:    Well, I always felt that Dorothy Kirsten should have done the role.  I think she could have done it well and looked well in it.  She wasn't as tall as I was, but Garden wasn't tall, either.  Marjorie Lawrence did a performance which ws just ghastly.  That was before her paralysis, but she wasn't the type for it.  Maria Jeritza had done the role, but it was always a success at the box office only in Chicago during Garden's day.  It was never a box office success in New York.  The same thing happened with L'Amore dei Tre Re.

BD:    Would it have been more of a success in New York if they'd have let you use the costume that Johnson didn't like?

HJ:    [Laughing]  I'm sure it would have been, God rest his soul.  He was part of that Metropolitan Quartet.  It was Grace Moore, Rose Bampton, Edward Johnson, and Richard Bonelli.  Then when Grace's movie came out, she didn't want to sing in the quartet any more.  I hadn't sung at the Met as yet, and nobody knew who Jepson was, but they knew that I knew most of what they were singing.  So that shot my career ahead about five years.  I went out in the quartet an unknown.  Rose and I had done so much together at Curtis and our voices blended together so beautifully.  She was dark and wore a beautiful blue velvet dress, and I was blond and in coral, so made a very sexy-looking couple.  But we were in Detroit when Edward Johnson got the telegram saying he was to come back to New York to take over the Met because Herbert Witherspoon had died.  From then on, he was the impresario, and we never called him "Eddie" after that . . .

BD:    Was he a better tenor or a better manager?

HJ:    I don't think I'll answer that.  [Laughter]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let's talk about another French role -- Louise.

HJ:    That one I loved, particularly in Chicago with Rothier.  I had worked it with Garden, and I wore very simple things in it.  I had very good reviews in it and I wanted to do it at the Met, but Grace Moore was to do it there.  I did all the rehearsals and even started the dress-rehearsal, but Grace came back then and did all the performances.  In that production, though, Louise was over-dressed in my opinion, and I didn't feel it could compare with the ones in Chicago.

jepsonBD:    Was there a rivalry among the sopranos then -- you and Moore and Bori and Sayão?

HJ:    I don't think so.  I never felt any.  In fact, Grace invited me to her country home in Monaco.  When I did Pelléas, she came to one of the rehearsals and gave me a few suggestions.

BD:    What other things did Garden tell you?

HJ:    She helped me with each role.  She did say that when you walk out on a stage for a concert, you immediately take in your audience by looking at them and smiling, and you never walk off with your back to them.  They are still with you until you make your exit out the door.  She would say little things like that, but she was so wonderful.  We'd work on gestures, and lessons would go on for much longer than the hour, but she'd never charge me for the extra time.  Eventually she'd say, "Jepson, you exhaust me.  I've got to go home and go to bed!"  She had the most marvelous perfume, and I asked her where I could get it.  She told me it was her own special brand, and no one in the world could get it.

BD:    It seems like back then the opera world revolved around the stars more than it does today.

HJ:    That I think is true, yes, but it was like the movies were.  They were star productions.  Carol Lombard and Clark Gable -- everything was around them because they were the stars.  It was like that in the my day.  Now the whole cast is important -- not just one particular star, unless it's someone very special.

BD:    Is the public better-educated about opera today?

HJ:    Oh I think so, yes.  We give special rates for students, and we even have special classes for children who then perform.  There are hundreds of operas written for children, and I knew nothing about this before.  We allow the girl scouts to come in and see the dress-rehearsals.  We also take scenes to the schools in Bradenton, Venice, and Sarasota.

BD:    If a composer came to you and asked for advice on writing a new work, what would you say?

HJ:    Oh, gracious...  I'd say write something down-to-earth; not too elegant; something that everyone could enjoy; something in modern dress.

BD:    That leads to one of my favorite questions -- is opera "art" or is it "entertainment?"

HJ:    I think it's both.  It's certainly art, and many of them are certainly entertainment.

BD:  Let me ask about one last role -- Traviata.

HJ:    I probably sang that role more than any other.  It's a role you grow into.  I sang it many times with many tenors, and often with Tibbett.

BD:    Are you optimistic about the future of opera?

HJ:    Oh yes, very much so.  I'm glad I'm in it down here in my little way with the small company.  But we're growing.  I think that opera is going to flourish more all the time.  Just think of all the places all over where they have four-opera seasons, so there are so many more people having opera than in my day.  None of these companies were around then.  We had traveling companies like the San Carlo, but you'd go and then wait until the next time they came around.  Now it's right in the communities.


Obituary: Helen Jepson
Tom Vallance, The Independent, Wednesday 24 September 1997

Helen Jepson, soprano: born Titusville, Pennsylvania 28 November 1904; twice married (one son, one daughter); died Bradenton, Florida 16 September 1997.

The first singer to reach the Metropolitan Opera through the medium of radio, Helen Jepson was a lyric soprano with a dark-eyed, blonde-haired beauty that matched her charming voice.

In the Thirties and Forties, American opera-goers were delighted to see a home-grown soprano alongside the more prominent European stars of the day, and she became a major attraction at the Met and other opera companies. She was the first soprano to record Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, had a starring role in the film The Goldwyn Follies (1938) and sang on radio with the bands of Paul Whiteman and Rudy Vallee, both of whom later claimed her as their discovery. In fact, the conductor Philip James first featured her with his Hamburger Symphony Orchestra on a local New Jersey broadcast in June 1933, months before she attracted the interest of those two gentlemen.

Born in Titusville, Pennsylvania, in 1904, Jepson grew up in Akron, Ohio, where she studied voice and had leading roles in high-school productions of I Pagliacci, The Bohemian Girl and HMS Pinafore. She sold corsets and gramophone records to pay for tuition (also listening closely to records of Rosa Ponselle and other stars of the day) and won a scholarship to the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia.

While a student, she sang with the Philadelphia Civic Opera and organised a summer troupe with three other singers. Calling themselves the Mississippi Misses, they travelled 6,000 miles in 12 weeks giving concerts in 87 towns. In 1930, after appearances with the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra and the Civic Opera, she created a sensation playing Nedda in I Pagliacci with the Philadelphia Grand Opera. She stayed with the company for three seasons until its financial collapse in 1932.

Moving to Manhattan with her husband, the flautist George Possell, she made her coast-to-coast radio debut singing "The Jewel Song" from Faust on Rudy Vallee's Fleischman Hour, on Columbus Day 1933 (after which Vallee referred to himself as her "Columbus"). Engaged to make weekly appearances on the Paul Whiteman show, she was voted Most Important New Air Personality of 1934.

Her broadcasts attracted the attention of the Metropolitan and she made her debut with them on 24 January 1935 in the world premiere of Horatio Seymour's one-act opera In the Pasha's Garden. Starring the great baritone Lawrence Tibbett as a stern pasha who buries his wife's lover alive in a trunk (in which he had been hiding), it was a weak piece, but Jepson was acclaimed for her beauty, voice and charm. Violetta, Louise, Nedda, Melisande and Desdemona were among roles that followed, while she continued to get regular bookings on the radio on The Bell Telephone Hour, Your Hit Parade and other shows.

On 10 October 1935 Porgy and Bess, the superb folk-opera by George and Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward, had its premiere in New York, and just four days later Jepson and Tibbett started recording its songs for Victor Records with the orchestra and chorus of the stage production. It was well known that George Gershwin had originally hoped that Tibbett might create the role of Porgy and the composer supervised the recordings, which have frequently been reissued and still impress. (The original leads, Todd Duncan and Anne Brown, eventually recorded their roles in 1940 for Decca.)

Jepson made few other recordings, though she put her Desdemona on disc in an abridged 12-part version of Verdi's Otello (with Giovanni Martinelli as the Moor and Tibbett as Iago) in 1939.

Two years earlier, Sam Goldwyn, planning a film extravaganza called The Goldwyn Follies (to rival on screen the stage revues of Ziegfeld), cast Jepson as one of the stars. The resultant melange of comedy acts, opera, ballet, jazz and popular music, linked by the wisp of a story, was an indigestible hodge-podge but there were some compensations, including luscious colour, songs by the Gershwins, and the preservation on film of Jepson singing "The Brindisi" from Verdi's La Traviata (with Charles Kullmann), Enrico Toselli's "La Serenata", a chorus of the Gershwins' "Love Walked In" (with Kenny Baker) and, best of all, a soaring "Sempre Libre" which winningly displayed her fine coloratura.

Paramount announced that it would be signing Jepson to a contract for a string of filmed operettas, but, perhaps because other opera stars (including Tibbett) had failed to prove box-office draws, the plan fell through.

Divorced in the early Forties and remarried (to Walter Dellera), Jepson continued to headline at the Met while doing concerts and broadcasts until a throat ailment forced her retirement in 1947. She became a voice teacher (one of her pupils was the future stage and television star Edie Adams), then returned to college in New Jersey to study speech therapy for handicapped children, taking up volunteer work in her local Cerebral Palsy Rehabilitation Centre.

She continued to attend the opera regularly and was usually a guest attraction at the Met's special events, where she was always given an ovation befitting of one of the house's great sopranos.


© 1985 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded on the telephone on April 13, 1985.  Segments were used (with recordings) on WNIB later that year, and again in 1994.  The transcription was made published in the Massenet Newsletter in July of 1986.  It was slightly re-edited, the photos were added and it was posted on this website early in 2014.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.