A Tribute to Dorothy Warenskjold

(with James Melton)

        Dorothy Warenskjold passed away on December 27th, 2010 at the age of 89.  Although many older opera fans remember her, Dorothy was a very much under-appreciated talent.  With a pure, glorious lyric soprano voice, impeccable vocal technique, classical beauty and delightful stage presence, she should have been a bigger star than she was.  My guess is that the reasons were two-fold.  The opera aficionados of that time craved the romance and sometimes mystique of foreign-born and trained singers; and Dorothy may just have been too much of a lady for the often wild and crazy world of the professional musician.
       Nevertheless, Dorothy had an active career with the San Francisco Opera Company, the then-popular Community Concert series and several radio and television programs, including many appearances on the Bell Telephone Hour and the Standard Hour, both of which were hallmarks of classical music during the middle of the 20th Century.  There are a few recordings of some of her performances on these programs that are a reminder of her talent.  In opera, she shone particularly in roles like Antonia in "Tales of Hoffman" and Liu in "Turandot" as well as Mimi in "La Boheme".  I remember particularly her courageously going on with the show in the San Francisco Opera's revival of "Turandot" the day following the sudden death of her father.  No one else was prepared to sing the part.
       I first heard Dorothy sing at San Francisco's Sigmund Stern Grove, where summer outdoor concerts and even the occasional staged opera were a delight for music lovers.  I was immediately taken with her voice and personality and amazed at how youthful she was.  At the time I was an usher at the War Memorial Opera House, an unpaid position that many high school and college students enjoyed because it enabled us to attend many performances we could otherwise not afford.  Shortly after hearing Dorothy at Sigmund Stern Grove I encountered her in the lobby of the Opera House during an intermission.  As shy and reclusive as I was in those days, I worked up the courage to talk to her and tell her how much I had enjoyed hearing her sing at "The Grove".  She obviously sensed my timidity and was incredibly gracious and friendly.  That was in 1947 or 1948 and a casual friendship continued over the next few years.  I attended all of Dorothy's peformances in the San Francisco Bay Area and occasionally traveled as far as Los Angeles in order to hear her and to engage in a brief conversation afterwards.  Dorothy was very busy with her career in those days, but she visited me a few times, especially after I was married and we had a place of our own.  Dorothy and I shared another interest besides music --a love of animals.  She was delighted to spend time with my houseful of pets.  She never allowed herself a dog because of her hectic schedule of travel, but all of mine instinctively loved Dorothy. 

In the 1960's Dorothy and her mother moved to Southern California.  We stayed in touch via the mail and in person at an occasional local concert.  Dorothy's mother was a voice teacher and coach in the Los Angeles area and eventually Dorothy also took part in the building of young musical artists.  She never married.  Her singing career ceased, I believe rather suddenly, but I don't know what precipitated that.  It was a question I always wanted to ask but felt I shouldn't, and she never volunteered an answer.  We still exchanged letters and an occasional phone call.  Several recordings taken from earlier performances emerged around that time and Dorothy always sent me a copy when they came out.  They are an alluring testimonial to a voice and talent that should have had much wider recognition.

(early sixties)

     After my husband and I also moved to Southern California in the mid 1970's and I had started to breed and show dogs, Dorothy and I re-connected.  She often came to dog shows where I was exhibiting, would watch the judging and then we would have a leisurely lunch while catching up on things.  She was very actively teaching young singers at that time and counseling them and their families about the joys, difficulties and potential pitfalls of a career in music.  She talked about writing a book on the subject and I offered to help her in any way I could.
     A few years ago, her last living relative in California having moved to Kansas, Dorothy decided to sell her home in Encino and also move to that state.  We continued to correspond, and she always wrote excitedly about performances she had attended and work she was doing.  In 2008 Dorothy made a trip to California and came considerably out of her way to visit us in Murrieta.  She appeared a little frail, but the old Warenskjold sparkle was still there.  We talked and laughed about many subjects, went out to lunch and came back to talk some more.  The entire time my dogs --Italian Greyhounds, a breed that tends to be reserved with strangers --surrounded her.  It was mutual love at first sight.  When she left, we talked about my possibly visiting her in the next year or so.
     When another recording emerged, a compilation of songs from radio and television called "The Golden Years of Broadcast Music", she sent me an advance copy.  Our friendship continued through e-mail.  We sent each other short notes and forwarded items of mutual interest and the occasional joke.  Early in 2010 I noticed that Dorothy's e-mails had become fewer and further between.  Becoming concerned, I sent an e-mail asking her if anything was wrong.  On May 11, 2010 I received this response from Dorothy:  "Whatever it is, our friendship is true!   D."  That was the last I ever heard from her.  I did not know how to contact any of her family or friends, so I continued to check the Internet for anything I could learn.  Eventually I found the obituary.   It saddened me.  The world has lost someone who, perhaps, was in it at not the best time.  Dorothy belonged in a kinder, more gentle era.  I did not consider myself to be a close friend of Dorothy's, but maybe the friendship was closer than I thought.  Actually, I think one of the best things I can write about her is what I wrote in the final chapter of my book, "My Mother Never Taught Me Songs".  Here it is:
               One of my fondest recollections of this consummate artist and truly wonderful person involves an unauthorized trip I made on a work day, after calling in sick, to attend a recital she was giving in Red Bluff, about 200 miles north of San Francisco.  After a fabulous musical evening and a few minutes at the reception local music fans gave for Dorothy, I headed for home in my nearly new British Ford only to drop the transmission and subsequently the entire car and myself into a ditch alongside the highway out of town.   I was very young, had very little money and knew absolutely no one in Red Bluff.  After having the car towed to a local Ford dealership at nearly midnight, I had no idea where to go or what to do next.  I decided to head for the lobby of the hotel where I knew Dorothy was staying.  I had no intention of contacting her, but it was at least somewhere to go and, hopefully, no one would hassle me.  I sat on one of the sofas that was furthest from the registration desk and tried, rather vainly, to relax while studying the concert program from that evening.

  Dorothy, her accompanist and her manager returned from the reception about half an hour after I had arrived at the hotel.  She saw me immediately and quickly made her way over to where I was sitting.

              “I thought you were going home,” she said pleasantly.  Her look indicated that she had a feeling that I was not there by choice.

              I felt my face turning several shades of red.  “My car broke down just south of town,” I told her.  “I’m sort of stuck here.”

              She asked me if I had a room and I was forced to admit that I didn’t have the money for one.  This was still in the pre-credit card era.

              Dorothy sat down next to me.  She told her manager, also named Dorothy, to check at the desk to see if she could get me a room near theirs.  We spent another hour talking, during which Dorothy said she would check in the morning about getting another plane ticket so I could fly back to San Francisco with them.  The flight was late enough in the morning that I would have a chance to find out about my car first.  We all knew that it was very likely that the car could not be repaired for several days, especially since it was still under warranty and Red Bluff did not have a British Ford dealership.  We had a leisurely breakfast in the morning and confirmed with the local Ford dealer that it would be some time during the following week before the car could be ready.  Parts would have to be ordered from San Francisco.  Normally I would have worried myself sick over the situation, but Dorothy’s friendly confidence and positive attitude managed to turn the episode into almost a fun recollection rather than the disaster it might have been.


(August 2008, at Lilian's home, courtesy Lilian Barber)

Rest in peace, Dorothy.  Your fans --this one in particular --will always remember you and miss you!


Lilian S. Barber