Temple University’s Boyer College of Music and Dance will hold a memorial to honor Helen Laird, who served as Dean of the College from 1978 to 1993, on Sunday, April 7, 2019 at the college’s Rock Hall Auditorium. The memorial will also be streamed live at youtube.com/boyercollege.
Former voice faculty member at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM), Laird helped establish CCM’s BFA Musical Theatre program in the 1960s. She believed that other forms of singing should be included in a conservatory, so she lobbied former CCM Dean Jack Watson to establish a program in musical theatre, the first of its kind in the country. Watson recruited Jack Rouse to shape the program, which conferred its first BFA degree in musical theatre in 1969 to Pamela Myers. Fifty years later, the nationally-recognized program is one of the top musical theatre programs in the country.
Laird passed away on Oct. 24, 2018, at age 92. A Haddonfield, New Jersey resident for 40 years, Laird was best known throughout the Philadelphia region as Dean of Temple University’s Boyer College of Music. Her glorious soprano voice, however, had been heard previously in solo performance with the Philadelphia Orchestra, which was among many of the leading ensembles throughout the United States and in Europe, with which she sang during her career as soloist and in opera. She became known throughout the musical academic world also for her administrative acumen, which resulted in her election as the first female officer of the National Association of Schools of Music, the primary accrediting body for college music degree programs in the United States.
Born in Harrisburg, Illinois, her exceptional musical talent became apparent from a young age. Singing opportunities came to her very early, and she matriculated at the University of Nebraska as a music major. Following a move by her family to Wyoming, she embarked upon and completed a graduate degree at Columbia University in New York City. After further vocal study and concert appearances in the United States, she went to Europe in 1953, and by 1954 had been engaged for leading roles at the Basel City Theater in Switzerland. Appointments followed at Mainz and Kassel in Germany, and for 14 years she was a leading soprano with performances of major roles in over 40 operas, averaging over a hundred performances per season. She found time to return to the United States for specific engagements. She garnered significant awards, including the first ever Blanche Thebom Award, the Laureate of International Competition in Geneva and the Martha Baird Rockefeller Award for Vocal Performance. Included among her title roles were Verdi’s Aida, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly and Tosca, and Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos and others. Important also were several Wagnerian roles, including Eva in Die Meistersinger and Senta in The Flying Dutchman. Favorites included Countess in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni and Chrysothemis in Richard Strauss’ Elektra. A review of her Madama Butterfly in Kassel said, “She created the timeless destiny of Madama Butterfly with her acting ability, with conquering naturalness, and with full use of her dramatic and moving vocal resources.” Of her Ariadne, it was said in Frankfurt, “She unfolded a greatness of interpretation and bewitched the audience with her beautiful voice.” Her repertoire ranged from baroque to contemporary, with a particular attention to American works, which she enjoyed sharing with European audiences.
Seeking to expand her teaching, Laird returned to the United States and accepted the post of voice professor and artist-in-residence at CCM. She taught and administered at CCM for a decade, during which she helped establish the college’s Musical Theatre Program, until she accepted a position at Temple University. She served the university from 1978 to 1993 as Professor of Voice and Opera and Dean of the Boyer College of Music and Dance. Laird’s time at the university resulted in major growth for the school, said Boyer College Dean Emeritus Jeffrey Cornelius in an obituary he wrote for her:
“At her retirement she was hailed as an exceptional professor and administrator and as one who encouraged and followed the professional success of her students, among whom are major American figures in opera and musical theater.”
The complete obituary written by Cornelius is available at http://www.temple.edu/boyer/about/Laird.asp. The Haddonfield Sun has published an obituary at https://haddonfieldsun.com/obituary-helen-lorene-laird-ab6ad5d48a00?gi=813b1b311b2c. Legacy.com has also published an obituary at https://www.legacy.com/obituaries/philly/obituary.aspx?pid=190618951.
Temple University’s Boyer College of Music and Dance will hold a memorial for Laird at 3 p.m. on Sunday, April 7, 2019, at the Rock Hall Auditorium, located at 1715 North Broad Street Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19122. The memorial will also be streamed live at youtube.com/boyercollege.