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Memories of Tosca in 1968: Professor Labatt Remembers

In 1968, Tosca was a highlight of the 24th season of San Antonio’s annual Opera Festival. The lead singers were world-famous Metropolitan Opera stars, tenor Richard Tucker as Caravardossi and soprano Dorothy Kirsten as Tosca. Not many people today probably remember that remarkable production, but there is in San Antonio one member of the actual cast from 51 years ago.

Joe Labatt, now Professor of Business Law at the University of the Incarnate Word, in 1968 was a boy soprano, and sang the plaintiff song of the Shepherd Boy that begins the climactic final act. He shared with us his memories of the opera and the major stars with whom he got to perform.

He recalls warmly how kind the great stars were to him. He rehearsed his part directly with them. He recalls that he was working on his geometry homework, and Tucker said “Let’s let Joe go first so he can do his homework.” Tucker apparently saved his voice in rehearsal, perhaps a reason for his long career (1945-1975) as a star tenor.

Labatt sang his part from the orchestra pit. He recalls that at the curtain call, Richard Tucker himself came forward and gestured down into the pit, calling on the audience to recognize the shepherd boy.

 

1968 San Antonio Opera Festival Program

Another memory is of going backstage after a concert to meet the great Joan Sutherland here in San Antonio. Labatt was about eleven years old, and was studying the role of Amahl in Amahl and the Night Visitors. Sutherland asked him if he liked opera. When he told her that he was studying Amahl, she began spontaneously to sing the part of Amahl’s mother. He sang back. Backstage in San Antonio, he spontaneously sang a duet with Joan Sutherland. He subsequently sang Amahl in San Angelo and for the Young Persons concert of the San Antonio Symphony, where his “mother” was the great San Antonio soprano Jane Braswell

Joe Labatt went on to have many experiences in the arts. He wrote an original opera Navarro, which was performed at UTSA. He has recorded three albums of original songs as a singer/songwriter. He also wrote a play about Mark Twain and Ulysses S. Grant. As a student he led the Princeton Tigertones at Princeton University, and recently founded a similar student acapella singing group at Incarnate Word.

The San Antonio Opera Festival ran annually beginning in 1945, and until the death of conductor Victor Alessandro in 1975 four operas were offered every year. San Antonio was very blessed in the opera available here in those years. Richard Tucker came to San Antonio many times, and Dorothy Kirsten’s husband was a San Antonian, so she too was very much a regular performer here.

The other operas presented in 1968 were Tales of Hoffman with Placido Domingo (a year before his Met debut) and Beverly Sills (singing multiple roles), La Traviata with Anna Moffo and Sherrill Milnes, and Der Rosenkavalier. San Antonio’s opera festival was a star-studded event. Reportedly the old Municipal Auditorium, more than twice the size of today’s Tobin Center, sold over 3000 tickets for every performance.

Our thanks to Professor Labatt for sharing his memories of those glory days.