02 March 2023

P.R. Jenkins

Karajan artists: Jess Thomas – the “more than six feet Siegfried”

The American singer Jess Thomas (1927 – 1993) was a true “heldentenor”, admired for his Lohengrin, Florestan, Parsifal and for the parts he worked on with Karajan: Siegfried and the Emperor in “Die Frau ohne Schatten”.

“Karajan is certainly the most important musical personality of our time.”

Jess Thomas

Thomas studied psychology in Stanford and started to work as a high school guidance counselor before he decided to change his profession and become a singer. In the 1960s, he had constantly increasing success in the major opera houses all over the world. In 1964, for “Die Frau ohne Schatten”, he had his debut at the Vienna State Opera and worked with Karajan for the first time. The production was a tremendous success and for many opera lovers Thomas’ interpretation of the Emperor is unsurpassed.

In 1969, Karajan and Thomas achieved another highlight in their collaboration by performing and recording Wagner’s “Siegfried” with Thomas in the title role. Like “Rheingold” and “The Valkyrie”, the third part of Wagner’s “Ring” should have been performed at the Metropolitan Opera New York under Karajan’s baton in the same year. But the Met was “crippled by one of the most damaging labour disputes in its history (Richard Osborne)” and the “Siegfried” transfer failed. What was it the New Yorkers were missing? Karajan on the rostrum. The Salzburg staging was presented in 1972. From Karajan’s studio recording cast Jess Thomas, Thomas Stewart and Gerhard Stolze remained. The conductor was Erich Leinsdorf.

The “Siegfried” recording struggled with a major problem. The tenor Erwin Wohlfahrt, engaged as “Mime”, died unexpectedly. Gerhard Stolze stepped in but he could only manage a single day for the recording of the first act. Karajan decided to concentrate on Stolze’s part and asked Thomas just to keep the flow of the music going and give Stolze the precise cues. His “real” version would be recorded in another session. Stolze was very concentrated, Thomas was very relaxed and Karajan went on with other parts of the opera. A few days later, Thomas asked Karajan for the date of his recording session. Karajan looked surprised and took him to the studio. They listened to the first act and afterwards, Karajan said: “What do you want, Thomas?” He liked the relaxed Siegfried. Thomas was dismayed but this remained the final version of act 1.

In 1970, Karajan and Thomas met for the last time for a single “Götterdämmerung” in Salzburg – again with Thomas as Siegfried. He also appeared in Karajan’s film version of Beethoven’s Ninth in 1968.

For the “Siegfried” staging, Karajan and his costume designer George Wakhevitch had selected a wig for Siegfried which Jess Thomas hated, although he was very fond of the rest of the costume. To get rid of the wig, Thomas said casually: “I had a similar wig at the Met and the critics said I looked like Birgit Nilsson…” (Thomas knew that Karajan was currently on bad terms with Nilsson!) Karajan cringed and said: “You know, Thomas, we really have to do something about that wig!”


Karajan was infamous for his dark stage lightning (see Birgit Nilsson, who once appeared with a pit lamp at a stage rehearsal). Right after the “Siegfried” production, Rudolf Bing, manager of the New York Met, who had organized guest performances for the upcoming autumn, called Thomas and asked him whether it was true that Karajan had demanded 75 lightning rehearsals. Thomas confirmed the rumour. Bing said: “That’s awful. Usually, we only need two rehearsals for lightning a stage that dark!”

We’ve prepared playlists with Karajan and Jess Thomas. Listen to them here.

Jess Thomas: “Kein Schwert verhieß mir der Vater“ Paul Neff Verlag KG, Wien. 1986

Stay Informed