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May Peterson Thompson - Opera Star pt. 1

In the past, we’ve used this platform to talk about some of the lesser known people who are buried at the Cemetery. We’ve written about Confederate veterans, immigrants and others who aren’t on the brochure or in the new book. This time I would like to write a little about one of the people who is on the walking tour and who is in the book. May Peterson Thompson (left), wife of Railroad Commissioner Ernest O. Thompson, was a fascinating woman. We’ve written about her life before, but I think her early career in Opera needs a little more perspective. You can read her whole biography here, but it’s the early part of her life I’m fascinated with. It says she is buried here at the Cemetery because she was the wife of a railroad commissioner, but she could have qualified on her own for her career in music under the new cultural statute.

She was born in Wisconsin in 1880 and studied at the Chicago Conservatory of Music. Southwestern University, which houses the May Peterson Thompson Archive, has a scrapbook of hers from 1896 which contains information about her early performances. So she was singing before audiences by sixteen and she was in Europe not long after that. She traveled there on her own at a time when women couldn’t even vote. It wasn’t as if she toured with someone on a pleasure cruise either, she went to learn the trade of music. She apparently suffered for it as well. She taught English and sang in concerts to get the money for one of the celebrated European voice coaches. These days, someone can learn to sing opera in the United States, but back at the turn of the century you were not an opera singer if you hadn’t studied in Europe. American opera singers HAD to go to Europe and had to perform there to be worthy of performing in New York or being taken seriously anywhere else.

In addition to the everyday discrimination against women at the time, an American trying to learn opera from German or French teachers faced an uphill climb. Her handbook article mentions that she spent two years in Florence and then traveled to Germany where someone stole her money and she had almost starved. However, she found a singing master to teach her in Berlin and gave a performance before Kaiser Wilhelm II, the last emperor of Germany. The journey from Florence and near starvation to the court of Kaiser Wilhelm is not well documented, but must have been impressive. That in itself would be worthy of a romantic novel or two, but after that, she studied with one of the most renowned tenors ever to have lived, Jean de Reszke (left). De Reszke was Polish and widely regarded as the biggest opera star of the late 19th Century.

How does a woman from Oshkosh Wisconsin communicate with a world renowned Polish Tenor? I have no idea, but the partnership must have been a fruitful one. She returned to the United States and gave 26 concerts before returning to Europe when she was offered the lead in Manon (above right), a signature French opera of the time. Manon was written by the celebrated composer Jules Massenet whose work really captured the zeitgeist of the French musical movement of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. She performed Massenet’s work at Opéra-Comique, one of the most influential music establishments in European history. It’s still in operation today (site is in French). Thompson apparently never had much money in her early career, because her bio states she had to rent her costumes and borrow makeup from Mary Garden. Mary Garden (on the cover of Time to the right) was one of the most talented and well known female opera stars of the era. Garden was Scottish, but had a highly successful career in France and the United States before she retired. Garden was also an early silent film star. I keep handing down these superlatives to the composers and singers Thompson worked with, and it seems excessive, but it is what the history books say about these people. May kept good, or at least important, company.

I will finish this blog post on Friday, but May Peterson’s career, before she even knew Ernest Thompson, was not even close to being over.


- Will Erwin