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May Peterson Thompson - Opera Star pt. 2

When we last left May Peterson Thompson she was singing in Manon, the French opera at Opera-Comique while borrowing clothes from the famous Scottish soprano Mary Garden. She did this with World War I raging around Europe. It’s not necessary to delve into the history of World War I in a simple blog post, but the war began in 1914 and France was one of the battlegrounds. It was a terrible war of attrition in which the Allied powers (England, France, Russia and Italy) fought the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungry, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria. The causes are many, but suffice it to say it was a true World War in that it involved a great number of sovereign countries. The United States, in a typical display of early Twentieth Century isolationism, played no part in the opening years of the war. Both sides courted the United States, but if the United States was to enter the War, they would do it on the side of the Allies. In 1917, the Germans resumed unrestricted submarine warfare, targeting all shipping, not just military vessels, and the United States declared war. American soldiers began pouring into France by 1918 and May Peterson entertained the troops, singing in the camps. Ironically enough, she may have performed for her future husband. Ernest O. Thompson fought in World War I and became a machine gun expert, earning the rank of Lieutenant Colonel by War’s end.  

In the German offensive in March of 1918, German troops got to within 75 miles of Paris and its opera houses, but 1918 proved fatal for the Germans and the rest of the Central Powers. Though still fighting rearguard actions, by the summer of 1918 it was clear the Germans had lost the War and on November 11, German forces signed an armistice, ending one of the bloodiest chapters in European history. It was a great bloodletting, but the world’s suffering was far from over. The Spanish Influenza broke out the same year the war ended, the horseman of war being replaced with the horseman of pestilence. It was a true pandemic, killing between 50 and 100 million people. In contrast, 9 million people died in World War I. It must have truly seemed like the end of the world to many, but it passed and the flu epidemic had run its course by the end of 1920.

May Peterson was back in the United States by the end of 1918. She’d signed a six-year contract with the New York Metropolitan Opera. She performed with some of the most well-known opera stars of the time including Italian tenor Enrico Caruso and Irish tenor John McCormack. She earned the nickname “Golden Girl” of opera while performing in New York, not just for her singing, but for her personality. While performing in New York she was one of the first American artists to sing on the radio.

In 1921, between seasons, Peterson performed in Amarillo with local attorney Ernest Thompson acting as her escort, a man twelve years her junior. The two fell in love and got married in New York in 1924, the same year her contract ended. This is where her “second life” began. From the great opera houses of Europe to Amarillo, Texas must have given her a case of culture shock, but she adapted as always. Her husband became one of the world’s leading minds in petroleum and was an early proponent of conservation. Thompson is an entry all by himself; he spoke out against the United States becoming dependent on foreign oil thirty years before the OPEC crisis (a problem we are all too familiar with today). All evidence points to Mrs. Thompson being the perfect politician’s wife and society benefactor after their marriage. She was involved in local music programs in Amarillo and when politics brought her husband to Austin in 1932, she was involved in the local Austin music scene. She died in Austin after a cerebral hemorrhage at the couple’s vacation house in Estes Park, Colorado in 1952.

From Oshkosh to the court of Kaiser Wilhelm II to war torn France to New York and finally to Texas, no one can say May Peterson Thompson had a boring life. She was buried in the Cemetery in a beautiful spot on Republic Hill, the plot is beneath two tall red oak trees and you have to go out of your way to spot their headstone. I think it’s her journey that fascinates me the most and also an admiration for the courage she must have had to take those first steps.


-       Will Erwin