Thomas Carey was an American operatic baritone singer and music professor. Born in Bennettsville, South Carolina, his voice carried him around the world from his time in the U.S. military where he enjoyed singing for his fellow soldiers, to his studies in New York City and Europe, to his time spent at the University of Oklahoma as one of the school’s first Black faculty members. His papers, held at the Amistad Research Center, include correspondence, news clippings, photographs, and other materials relating to his professional career and that of his wife, Carol Brice. Much of the collection pertains to the Cimarron Circuit Opera Company, an opera company founded by Carey and Brice in 1975. There is also a collection of personal letters from Carey’s time studying and performing in Europe that he wrote to his close friends, Wilfrid Pelletier and his wife.
As a young man, Carey served in the U.S. military during the Korean conflict. Afterwards, he moved to New York to study at City College of New York and the Henry Street Music School in Brooklyn. Upon graduating, he receives a grant from the William Matheus Sullivan Foundation to study opera in Europe. The earliest correspondence in the collection is from 1959-1963, written while Carey was in Germany. Almost all of these letters are addressed to “Maestro & Madame” – Wilfrid Pelletier and his wife. Wilfrid (or Wilfred) Pelletier was a well-known Canadian-American conductor, at the time living in New York. It is likely that Carey was a former student of Pelletier before moving to Germany. Carey wrote to them at least monthly, sometimes weekly, keeping them updated on his instructors, his studies, and his performances. There are approximately 100 letters from this period and they illustrate Carey’s transformation from a young student overcoming the culture shock of a new country to an established and recognized performer among his peers.
The move to Germany was initially to Stuttgart to study under Prof. Giesen, but he found Munich and the tutelage of Prof. Grundlach to be more appealing. Many of his letters in early 1960 are focused on convincing the Pelletier’s that he would rather live in Munich and commute to Stuttgart, even going as far as creating a weekly work plan should he live in Munich.
In other letters from around the same time, Carey shares that is working on the musical Show Boat in addition to learning the Verdi’s Rigoletto opera. Although “Maestro” Pelletier does not like the idea of Carey splitting his focus between the two and suggests that he focus on opera, Carey writes in response that he is “very lucky to be in Show Boat, because we are bringing good American music to people who need it very badly." In a few letters written around March 1960, Carey writes about his reaction to hearing the news of Leonard Warren’s untimely death. Warren, a baritone singer like Thomas Carey, died onstage while performing at the Met Opera in New York.
After spending much of the 1960s traveling and performing concerts around Europe, Thomas Carey joined the faculty of the University of Oklahoma as an artist-in-residence. His last letter to the Pelletier’s is from March 27, 1969, where he writes from the Waldorf Hotel in London about his most recent concert – “I do believe that my concert on the 25th was my best yet. I think this and so do many of my friends.”
While Carey moved to Norman, Oklahoma to teach at the university, his wife Carol Brice, who he met while in Vienna, Austria, moved to New York to perform on Broadway. Brice eventually moved to Norman and officially joined the University of Oklahoma faculty in 1974 teaching music. A year later, they founded the Church Circuit Opera Company, which was later renamed the Cimarron Circuit Opera Company. Various news clippings from their time in Oklahoma show how valued they were to the Norman community. He was named Oklahoma Man of the Year in 1976, and a 1987 article from the Oklahoma Gazette calls Carey a state treasure.
Images from the Thomas Carey papers. Images from Amistad’s website, newsletters, and blogs cannot be reproduced without permission.