Piggott's opera star was Frances Greer
(Editor's note: The following story was written in response to the letter to the editor written by Ernest Cashion of Prairie Grove, Ark., which appeared in the Sept. 21 edition of The Piggott Times. Thanks to Shirley Schoettlin for providing the name of the singer in question.)
By JENNIFER VERNON Times News Staff
Frances Jane Greer was born on Jan. 12, 1917, in Piggott, the daughter of Charles F. Greer and Narene (Spence) Greer. Later the family moved to Helena. She graduated from West Helena High School and continued her education at Louisiana State University. She went on to be one of the youngest prima donnas in the Met's history.
In 1997, Greer was interviewed by Ronald Ross (Dean of the LSU School of Music) and his wife, Jane, for the T. Harry Williams Center for Oral History Collection at LSU.
When Ross inquired about her love for music and at what age that love developed, Ms. Greer referred him to an entry in the book "President Clinton's Amazing Arkansas". The entry retold her mother's account of her humming "Over There" while nursing as an infant. Ross told her that sounded a little farfetched and Greer admitted that she knew it did and that her mother received a lot of calls about that story, but that she could tell him one thing - her mother never lied.
She also recalled her first public performance, at age four, which was of "I Love You Truly". Her performance resulted in her receiving a stern talking to from her father - Greer had kicked to the right and left and leaned from side to side while singing. She thought that was the thing to do. He told her that was not and to stop it.
Greer began her singing career as a child in Piggott, according to a June 24, 1949, issue of The Piggott Banner. She was a member of the choir at the First Presbyterian Church in Piggott.
In the interview with Ross, Greer said she had considered studying at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. She wrote the school a letter and submitted her grades, but she never received a response. Greer said that hurt her feelings.
The music department at LSU was not the only thing which drew her to the school. Her favorite sport also played a part in her decision.
"So I had to get to Baton Rouge to LSU - I'm a football fan, a football kid, love football - I knew about LSU football," she said.
In 1934, she auditioned for professor H.W. "Pop" Stoffer and won a scholarship to LSU. During her time at LSU she found work singing for the Rotary Club.
In the interview she cited instructors Helen Gunderson and Pearl Willis as major influences. She said they were absolutely wonderful and took no nonsense. Her teachers tried to instill in her the ability to read music, not just sing music by ear. She was a member of the LSU Opera and the School of Music Ensemble. Pasquale Amato, a famous Italian baritone and former Metropolitan Opera Star in his own right, was her voice teacher from her sophomore year on.
"Language is the most important thing when singing opera - you must get the message across," she told Mr. Ross. Amato often asked her about her motivation and what she was trying to say.
"If you are singing the word 'apple', you have to see and smell and taste that apple before your audience does," was just one of the lessons Amato taught her.
Greer recalled one major opera per year during her time at LSU. Those she participated in included Carmen, Madame Butterfly, Faust and La Traviata, portraying Violetta in the latter. The production of Carmen was under the direction of Dalton S. Reymond, a Hollywood set designer she worked with before Amato arrived at the university. The other three were under Amato's direction.
Greer felt that her teachers were really great artists and very professional in the way they carried themselves. She noted the way conductor Louis Hasslemans picked up his baton and looked at the orchestra. She saw more of Amato because he was her voice teacher and was closer to him.
"He made an actress out of me - that's what he did. It has to be in your mind. You can't be yourself - you can't be yourself at all - you've got to be someone else," Greer said. She recalled one time when Amato, who was a big man, illustrated being a cricket - getting smaller and smaller as he kneeled by the piano.
After graduating from LSU in 1938, Greer toured Europe as a soloist with the Louisiana State University Symphony. The 1949 issue of The Banner notes that she was one of the last American singers to appear in the leading European capitals before World War II and that she gave over 70 concerts with the orchestra and in recital.
Prior to her time with the Met, Greer sang with the Philadelphia Opera Company. She was invited to audition for the Met by Willford Pelletier.
Greer was successful in the "Auditions of the Air" bid to become one of the Metropolitan Opera's lead sopranos.
A background sheet provided by the Metropolitan Opera Archives reads, "Frances Greer comes from Piggott, Arkansas, and is proud of it, even if her home town 'has a funny-sounding name'." Her hobbies at the time, listed in order of importance, were dancing, cooking, keeping house and singing popular tunes. The fact sheet also noted her favorite food, chocolate cake.
The sheet also notes that she was married to a singer named Robert J. Gay who was serving in the Army at the time. The duo met while part of the Philadelphia Opera Company. This writer was unable to find out what happened to Gay.
According to the Metropolitan Opera Archives, on June 22, 1944, Greer wed Victor Trucco in Carson City, Nev. Trucco was an Assistant Director of the Metropolitan Opera Association.
In addition to her stints with the Philadelphia Opera Company and the Met, Greer performed in over 80 performances at the Memphis Open Air Theatre and made appearances on numerous television programs. Greer also sang at numerous United Nations functions, was honored as an "Arkansas Traveler", and sang at the White House and Carnegie Hall.
She even met Clark Gable while on a Metropolitan Opera spring tour. When she met him on the set of one of his pictures in Hollywood in 1945, he told her not to call him Mr. Gable, just Clark. She and Gable had a picture made between takes.
In 1949, when she returned to her birthplace for Les Biffle Day, Trucco made the trip with her and served as her accompanist on the piano in a variety of locations around town including the Karl and Matilda Pfeiffer estate, the Piggott Picnic and the First Presbyterian Church.
Her final performance with the Met was in 1950. Her performances with the Met numbered 153.
After leaving the Met, Greer joined the voice faculty at the School of Music of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in 1954. She said she loved teaching because it was one on one. With the permission of the dean, she only taught the girls, because she said she didn't know anything about teaching the guys.
Greer taught at the university for 10 years. The LSU interview then makes an allusion to another marriage. Greer told Ross that she didn't finish her tenure at the university, she left and got married. The husband's name is not cited.
Greer died on June 28 of this year in Ann Arbor.