Margaret Tynes, soprano who struggled to square her faith with ‘sex kitten’ opera roles – obituary

Margaret Tynes with Duke Ellington, recording A Drum Is a Woman
Margaret Tynes with Duke Ellington, recording A Drum Is a Woman - Alamy

Margaret Tynes, who has died aged 104, was a creamy-voiced American operatic soprano who struggled to establish herself in her homeland; instead she recorded the jazz suite A Drum Is a Woman (1956) with Duke Ellington, danced with Harry Belafonte in his off-Broadway show Sing, Man, Sing!, and sang in Moscow for The Ed Sullivan Show.

Her opera career thrived in Europe, however, with thrilling accounts of Carmen, Tosca and Aïda in Prague, Budapest, Vienna and Barcelona. She took part in Britten’s War Requiem in Munich, while in Luchino Visconti’s staging of Salome at the 1961 Spoleto Festival her gold-leotard-clad portrayal of Strauss’s 16-year-old heroine “seemed not so much indecent as psychopathic – a kind of cannibalistic sex kitten,” according to Time magazine.

Playing Strauss’s depraved seductress disturbed this clergyman’s daughter. After the opening night she knelt in her dressing room and prayed for five minutes, “explaining to the Lord that I didn’t really want to make love to John the Baptist’s head; it was just part of the opera”.

In many respects British audiences saw far less of her. In 1962 she appeared in Phyllis Tate’s BBC television opera Dark Pilgrimage, a modern version of Orpheus and Eurydice with Nigel Douglas, but in 1964 she was “indisposed” for her planned debut as Aida at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden.

Not until 1976 was she heard here live, in a Wigmore Hall recital. “With the luxuriant vocal lines of Strauss and Mahler, Miss Tynes made an effect and here, as elsewhere the pianist Graham Johnson, supported excellently,” enthused The Daily Telegraph.

Margaret Tynes in 1959
Margaret Tynes in 1959 - Shutterstock

Margaret Elinor Tynes was born in Saluda, Virginia, on September 11 1919, one of 10 children of Morris Tynes, a Baptist minister, and his wife Lucy (née Rich), whose piano playing inspired her daughter’s love of music. At the age of six she won $500 in a singing competition.

The family moved to Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1932 and she was elected campus queen at the Negro Agricultural and Technical College. After teaching in Smithfield, North Carolina, she entered Juilliard School of Music, New York, later taking a master’s degree in music from Columbia University. In 1946 she sang Bess in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.

Margaret Tynes made her debut with New York City Opera as Verdi’s Lady Macbeth in 1952. Ellington heard her and telephoned during the night to introduce himself. “Yeah, and I’m the president of the United States,” she replied three times, before realising that it was really him.

She was cast in Belafonte’s 1956 musical not only because of her voice but because the producer thought she suited the sultry role. Ed Sullivan heard her perform at the funeral of the jazz great WC Handy in 1958, invited her to sing spirituals on his show and later accompany his cast in a State Department-sponsored visit to the Moscow Trade Fair.

Margaret Tynes with Harry Belafonte, who danced with her in his Broadway show Sing Man Sing
Margaret Tynes with Harry Belafonte, who danced with her in his Broadway show Sing Man Sing - Bettmann

The US, however, was not ready for her operatic talents. In 1960 she gave a recital at New York Town Hall which, according to The New York Times, was “a pleasant afternoon of dramatic vocal interpretation”. Her three appearances at the Metropolitan Opera in Janacek’s Jenufa with Jon Vickers and Astrid Varney in 1974 received a similarly lukewarm reception.

In 1991 she returned to Greensboro to sing for her college’s centenary concert, but was little heard of thereafter. She insisted, however, that her career was not held back because of her colour. “I don’t remember anything except going from glory to glory to glory,” she said.

Margaret Tynes married, in 1961, Hans von Klier, a Czech aristocrat and industrial designer who was involved in designing the Olivetti typewriter. He died in 2000 and she is survived by several nieces and nephews.

Margaret Tynes, born September 11 1919, died March 7 2024