Transformation - Thomas Schippers

Go to content
Following his studies, he moved to New York as Kalamazoo offered very little possibility of a career in music. There, his proficiency as an organist proved to be an important asset. He was able to find work as the organist at the Village Presbyterian Church in Greenwich Village for the modest sum of ten dollars per week. In order to make ends meet, he accompanied young singers at the piano and prepared them for auditions. In addition, he also trained the choir for the Presbyterians on Sundays and played the organ for the Jews when they used the building on Saturdays.
The operatic repertoire that he accompanied on the piano was an initiation into a different world for him. The basement of this old Presbyterian Church was called the Greenwich Mews Playhouse. It became the home of the Lemonade Opera Company which was comprised of young potential opera singers who did not have the possibility of financing a personal début. Tommy had also taken a job with them as one of their pianists in order to earn a bit more cash. He learned much about opera in that unassuming basement.  A number of the “Lemonaders” were auditioning for the composer Gian Carlo Menotti who was, at that time, casting his opera The Consul. This led to Tommy’s chance meeting with him.
Tommy’s encounter with Menotti turned his life in a completely different direction. After having accompanied a bass at the piano for an audition for the The Consul, Menotti phoned him to enquire whether he was the pianist who accompanied the singer at the audition. Without hesitation, he asked Tommy if he would be available to prepare The Consul. This marked the beginning of their friendship which lasted many years.

Tommy’s career changed a short time after Gian Carlo Menotti requested that he prepare the singers for his upcoming production of The Consul. From being a coach and accompanist for this opera, he was unexpectedly thrust one day onto the podium. The conductor was ill so he was asked to substitute him for that evening’s performance. Tommy had never even seen the orchestral score consequentially, he spent the entire day studying it. Following ten hours of score study he confessed that,
“I was in such a state of nerves that I had to be carried across the street from my hotel room to the pit!”

He had only ever conducted an opera with two pianos as the accompaniment and did not consider himself any more than an accompanist. But from that time on he continued to conduct the Pulitzer Prize-winning opera at the Barrymore Theater on Broadway until the last performance on November 4, 1950. He had never had a conducting lesson in his life stating that he “learned by doing”. He explained that
“Conducting was a kind of accident. When I was eighteen or nineteen, I was doing too many things. I was playing piano and composing mostly but I always loved the voice. I worked with singers not as a voice teacher but as what we call a coach. A pupil of mine auditioned for The Consul of Gian Carlo Menotti and it was the usual accident. After I had prepared the company, I was playing in the orchestra when the conductor got sick. They needed someone to take over and I was the only one who knew the score. I was terrified but, after conducting the first act, I’ve been conducting ever since. I didn’t get that big thrill that everybody talks about. I was too scared. I didn’t know what I was doing”.
Following the Broadway success of The Consul, Menotti was commissioned by NBC to compose a Christmas opera which would last around an hour. On Christmas Eve 1951, the “Hallmark Hall of Fame” broadcast Gian Carlo Menotti’s Christmas opera Amahl and the Night Visitors. This was the first opera commissioned by any network and the daring twenty-one-year-old Tommy rose to the podium to conduct it on NBC in front of a nationwide audience.
Back to content