Another episode of the historic RCA Magic Key programs – this one featuring Metropolitan Opera Baritone John Charles Thomas in a program of American songs to go along with the theme of the program; the 15th annual celebration of National Music Week. Everything performed on the program is composed by an American, and there’s a lot you may never have heard before. It was all broadcast live on May 1, 1938 over the Red Network of NBC (also owned by RCA).
A little background on John Charles Thomas (via AllMusic):
A regular presence on American radio (Edgar Bergen/Charlie McCarthy referred to him as “that famous trio, John, Charles, and Thomas”), baritone John Charles Thomas was equally splendid in the opera house. Blessed with a superlative instrument, Thomas was thoroughly trained in vocal technique, dignified in appearance, and immaculately refined in sound. Impressive in the Italian repertory, he was equally suited to the French repertory, where his ripe, unforced sound gave more vocal impact than that provided by most artists of French origin. As his father was a Methodist minister, Thomas often attended camp meetings where he was encouraged to sing. After attending Conway Hall in Carlisle, PA, he made the decision to become a physician and enrolled at the Baltimore Medical School. Having entered a 1909 voice competition whose prize was a scholarship to Peabody Conservatory, Thomas found himself the winner and instead entered the conservatory. There, he began his studies with Blanche Blackman, later working with Adelin Fermin. His career took him first into operetta, in 1914 to Gilbert & Sullivan, and soon to such other popular works as Maytime and Apple Blossoms. Despite good reviews and appreciative audiences, Thomas chaffed under the routine, finding the monotony, in his own words, “unbearable.” He remained in musical comedy simply to amass the money needed to undertake a concert career. His concert debut took place in 1918, but the transition to serious music was a protected one. A local Washington, D.C., opera company provided the stage for his 1924 operatic debut as Amonasro. The following year, he embarked on a concert tour. While in Europe in 1925, Thomas sang an audition at the Théâtre de la Monnaie and was offered a contract. The baritone vacillated for several months, not certain whether he wished to make concert work secondary in his future plans. In the end, he signed and made his European stage debut as Herod in Massenet’s Hérodiade. His performance in Brussels was so well-received that his contract was extended for an additional three years. Among Thomas’ 15 assignments there was the world premiere of Milhaud’s Les Malheurs d’Orphée. His Covent Garden debut as Valentin on February 22, 1928, provoked the ire of Feodor Chaliapin, the Méphistophélès, whose applause was significantly less than the baritone’s. During the early ’30s, debuts at major American houses followed in quick succession. On November 6, 1930, his Chicago debut as Tonio stirred one of biggest firestorms since the first appearance of Galli-Curci in the city. San Francisco also heard Thomas for the first time in 1930; there, his introductory role was Jochanaan. On February 2, 1934, the artist made his Metropolitan Opera debut, singing (and acting) a poised and mellifluous Elder Germont. The departure of Gatti-Casazza and entry of Edward Johnson as general manager resulted in increased opportunities in New York where the singer’s gallery of portraits, including an effervescent, sometimes over-boisterous Figaro and a fully realized, beautifully sung Rigoletto. During his nine years of service at the Metropolitan, Thomas sang too few performances, only 35 appearances in nine roles. Thomas’ recordings, though too few in number, confirm the fully integrated, silken sound of his sizeable baritone. Whether arias, ditties (serious or humorous), or traditional hymns, every item he recorded was treated to the most respectful interpretation, in addition to the arresting authority of a genuinely magnificent voice.
Here is that broadcast, as it was heard on May 1, 1938,