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Claude Heater, the famed opera singer who appeared with his face unseen as Jesus Christ in William Wyler’s epic 1959 production of Ben-Hur, has died. He was 92.
A noted Wagnerian tenor, Heater died May 28 at St. Mary’s Medical Center in San Francisco of natural causes after a long illness, according to an announcement on his foundation website.
While performing in Rome, Heater was spotted by Ben-Hur production manager Henry Henigson, who was struck by the singer’s “magnificent” voice and “beautiful spiritual face,” Hollywood gossip columnist Louella Parsons wrote in 1958.
Heater was then tested and hired to play Jesus in the MGM feature. “Now here is the strange part: They had to go to Europe to find this boy, who was born in Oakland, California,” Parsons wrote.
“Mainly, they were interested in hands. They wanted strong, but sensitive, hands,” Heater told the Marin Independent Journal newspaper in 1992. During production, he noted that “there were people on the set who would see me, drop to one knee and make the sign of Christ.”
As filming progressed, Heater was given more time in front of the camera and a few lines, but British law at the time forbid Jesus to speak or his face to be seen if he were a “secondary character.” So, Heater as Jesus appears only from behind, as when he gives water to Charlton Heston’s enslaved Judah Ben-Hur.
In the 1993 documentary Ben-Hur: The Making of an Epic, Heater is shown front and center in a costume test photo. And in 2003, he and Heston reunited at a screening at the Motion Picture Academy in Los Angeles, the last two remaining actors from the film, winner of 11 Academy Awards, including best picture.
Born in Oakland on Oct. 25, 1927, Heater served as a missionary and in the U.S. Marine Corps before studying voice in Los Angeles. He moved to New York in 1950, joined the American Theater Wing and appeared on Broadway as a singer and juggler in Top Banana, a comedy starring Phil Silvers and Jack Albertson.
In 1952, the 6-foot-4 Heater was the baritone member of the trio in the world premiere of Leonard Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti, won the top prize on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts program and performed in La Traviata and Faust with the Amato Opera in New York.
After he completed his studies in Milan, Heater performed in Spain, Germany and Switzerland before being engaged at the renowned Vienna Staatsoper for three years under conductor Herbert Von Karajan. His final performances as a baritone came in 1961 with the San Francisco Opera.
Heater retrained his voice as a tenor, and in 1964 he took the title role in Hans Werner Henze’s König Hirschat the Bavarian State Opera, serving as the leading dramatic tenor at that opera house through 1968. He would perform often as Tristan in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, including on Belgium television in 1967-68.
After retiring from the stage in the ’70s, Heater taught opera for 30 years out of his San Francisco studio; served as general director of the Oakland Opera of California; ran for Congress as a write-in Republican candidate in 1992; and wrote a 2007 book, Fatal Flaws of the Most Correct Book on Earth, about what he felt were inconsistencies with his Mormon experience.
In 2018, he co-founded the Claude Heater Foundation to “nurture, encourage and support dramatic operatic voices, classical musicians and artists through developmental, educational programs and professional level performance opportunities.”
Survivors include his longtime partner, Juyeon Song, an opera singer; children Christian, Steven, Evelyn, Erika, Claudia and Michele; grandchildren Nicolas, Alexander, Lauren, Joshua, Cecilia, Zachary and Valentina; and great-grandchildren Fiamma and Priscilla.
A donation in his memory may be made to his foundation.
Rhett Bartlett contributed to this report.
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