Sunday Morning Opera: William Warfield


William Warfield was one of the great operatic basses – period.  He was also married to the legendary Leontyne Price.

“…Warfield was a graduate of the Eastman School of Music. In 1975 he accepted an appointment as Professor of Music at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He later became Chairman of the Voice Department. In 1994, he moved to Northwestern University’s School of Music, where he stayed until his death.

He sang the premiere performances of the version for soloist and orchestra of Set I of Aaron Copland’s Old American Songs in 1955, and of the version for soloist and piano of Set II of the collection in 1958. (He also recorded both sets of the songs.) His vocal talents were also featured on two recordings of Handel’s “Messiah” – a classic, but heavily cut, performance by the Philadelphia Orchestra under the direction of Eugene Ormandy (released in 1959), and a lesser-known, drastically restructured recording made in 1956, also heavily cut, with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. Bernstein combined the Christmas and Resurrection sections, and ended with the arias and choruses depicting the death of Christ. The Ormandy recording featured the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and Bernstein’s the Westminster Choir.

“...Warfield was also accomplished in acting and poetry recitation. He played the character De Lawd in a celebrated Hallmark Hall of Fame television production of The Green Pastures, a role he played twice on live TV (both versions survive as kinescopes). He appeared in two Hollywood films, including a star-making performance as Joe in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 1951 Technicolor remake of Show Boat. His other film was an overlooked item called “Old Explorers”, starring James Whitmore and José Ferrer. In a nod to “Show Boat”, Warfield played a cameo role as a tugboat captain. Footage of Warfield in “Show Boat” has been included in several TV shows and/or films, notably That’s Entertainment!. Warfield played his Show Boat role in two other productions of the musical – the 1966 Lincoln Center production, and a 1972 production in Vienna. He sang Ol’ Man River in three different record albums of the show – the 1951 motion picture soundtrack album on MGM Records, a 1962 studio album featuring Barbara Cook and John Raitt on Columbia Masterworks, and the RCA Victor album made from the Lincoln Center production.

He made an appearance on The Colgate Comedy Hour and on a program called TV Recital Hall in 1951, the same year that he made his screen debut in Show Boat. He later appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1955. In 1961, he appeared as a recital soloist on an episode of the Young People’s Concerts, conducted by Leonard Bernstein. In March 1984 he was the winner of a Grammy in the “Spoken Word” category for his outstanding narration of Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait accompanied by the Eastman Philharmonia . And in the 1990s, he narrated a special jazz arrangement of music from “Show Boat”, on the PRI program Riverwalk Jazz. In 1999 Warfield joined baritones Robert Sims and Benjamin Matthews in a trio by the name of “Three Generations”. Managed by Arthur White, this ensemble toured the United States giving full concerts of African-American spirituals and folk songs until Warfield’s death in 2002…”