Traubel, Helen (1899–1972)

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Traubel, Helen (1899–1972)

American soprano who dominated the Met in the 1940s and was one of America's greatest singers. Born in St. Louis, Missouri, on June 20, 1899; died in Santa Monica, California, on July 28, 1972; daughter of Clara Stuhr Traubel (a singer) and Otto Ferdinand Traubel (a druggist); married Louis Franklin Carpenter (a car salesman), in 1922 (divorced); married William L. Bass (her manager).

Helen Traubel's career was strange by any account. Blessed with a fabulous voice, she was little known until she reached 40 and became internationally famous. Traubel, who was talented in many fields, was determined to use her talents as she saw fit.

She was born in 1899 into a middle-class German family in St. Louis, Missouri, where love of music was considered natural. By the time she was 12, she had seen 30 operas. She began to sing in church choirs and took voice lessons with Louise Vetta-Karst in 1916. In 1922, she married Louis Carpenter, a car salesman, and two years later debuted with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. Traubel continued to sing locally until 1935 when Walter Damrosch, the American "Pope of Music," heard her sing and insisted that she come to New York. In the spring of 1937, she made her Metropolitan Opera debut appearing with Kirsten Flagstad and Lauritz Melchior. She also began to sing on the radio with NBC and thus became more and more widely known throughout the United States.

In 1938, Traubel decided she should temporarily retire from the stage and study with Giuseppe Boghetti, Marian Anderson 's teacher. Finally she felt ready to appear in public again and debuted at New York's Town Hall on October 8, 1939. Two weeks later, she sang in Carnegie Hall and not long after at the Met. After Kirsten Flagstad returned to Norway in 1941, Traubel reigned supreme as the Met's "Queen of the German Wing." She was particularly known for her Wagnerian repertoire for which her large voice and big frame seemed ideally suited. She was the first entirely American-trained singer to do Isolde and all three Brünnhildes in a season. International tours followed, although Traubel remained essentially American.

During World War II, Traubel discovered that she enjoyed performing light music for the troops in USO concerts. With the advent of television, she appeared with Jimmy Durante, Red Skelton, Ed Sullivan and others. In the late 1940s, she began to write detective stories. (In her 1951 The Metropolitan Opera Murders a statuesque Wagnerian soprano solves a mystery.) In 1953, Traubel expanded her activities by appearing in nightclubs. This was the final straw for Rudolf Bing, the Met's very European director, who disdained her affinity for the popular media. Bing told Traubel she must choose between nightclubs and opera. Calling him a snob, Traubel ended her association with the Met and went to Hollywood to make three movies. She also made numerous recordings for RCA and Columbia and was the first singer to record with Arturo Toscanini and his NBC Symphony Orchestra. Recordings document what a fantastic voice this versatile performer possessed. Traubel died at 69, still greatly admired.


Swan, John. "Traubel, Helen," in Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

"Traubel, Great Soprano," in The New York Times Biographical Edition. July 1972, p. 1415.

suggested reading:

Traubel, Helen. St. Louis Woman. Duell, 1959.

John Haag , Athens, Georgia