Florence Kopleff, whom Time magazine once called the “greatest living alto,” died July 24, 2012 at Hospice Atlanta. Her voice was one that defined for many music lovers the ideal sound for a contralto: deep and rich in tone, rock-solid in technique and intonation, understated but eloquent in nuance. A splendid presence on the oratorio stage, she was in demand for masterworks from Bach and Handel through Hindemith and Britten, as well as concert performances with the American Opera Society. A mainstay of the Robert Shaw Chorale, she sang on every recording the group made – even, as a tenor, on the male-chorus recordings. In later life she shared her experience and insight with future vocal artists as a professor at Georgia State University’s School of Music.
Born in New York City on May 2, 1924, Kopleff was a member of her high-school glee club, singing solos and taking roles in Gilbert and Sullivan productions. Although she harbored an ambition to be an opera singer, she prepared herself for a secretarial career with courses inshorthand, typing, and bookkeeping. In 1941 she met Robert Shaw and became a member of his Collegiate Chorale, which performed in New York City; several years later she began touring with the Robert Shaw Chorale. Through the Chorale’s busy years of touring – crisscrossing the nation and making State Department-sponsored tours of the USSR, Europe, the Middle East, and South America – she was a mainstay of the group, becoming the Chorale’s secretary and handling the minutiae of payroll and travel accommodations.
Kopleff soon had an active solo career as well, performing and recording the great oratorio roles with such renowned conductors as George Szell, Charles Munch, Fritz Reiner, Eugene Ormandy, Jean Martinon, Maurice Abravanel, and of course Robert Shaw. She also performed frequently in recital around the country. She recorded Mahler with Abravanel, Berlioz and Debussy with Munch, Beethoven with Reiner. With the Robert Shaw Chorale, she was contralto soloist in Grammy-winning recordings of masterworks by Handel, Bach, and Britten, among others.
After Shaw tookup the reins of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in 1967, she came to Atlanta to become a music professor at Georgia State University and the school’s first Artist in Residence. She continued her active solo career and began a fruitful relationship with the Atlanta Symphony, with which she gave many memorable performances. During her long association with the ASO Choruses, she gave innumerable group voice classes and prepared transliterations of foreign-language texts.
Kopleff acknowledged with gratitude the deep influence that Robert Shaw had on her life. It was he who encouraged her to take private voice lessons and who fostered her love of literature, philosophy, poetry, and religion. “He made me the human being that I am,” she said. Shaw returned the high regard. Taking note of her Jewish family background and the matchless humanity of her interpretations, he once said that she sang “from an accountable Semitic Fatherhood of God and an unaccountable motherhood of Man.”
"Florence not only gave amazing performances as a contralto," said School of Music director W. Dwight Coleman, "but she also demonstrated and expected the highest level of professionalism of her students and colleagues. She was my mentor and a dear friend."
Kopleff taught hundreds of singers in her 30 years at Georgia State University, where she was honored with the Alumni Distinguished Professor Award in 1982. “Music is my religion,” she said with characteristic directness. “I don’t have a family or a business to leave to the world, so my music, which is my life’s work, will be my testament.”
John Haberlen, former director of the School of Music, remembers his first encounters with Miss Kopleff fondly: " My first concert at GSU in the fall semester of 1973 featured Pergolesi's Stabat Mater; fortunately I took a draft of the program to her office before the concert...on the cover I had naively printed "Florence Kopleff, Alto"...she stared at me and said sternly, change that to 'contralto and don't you ever forget it!' Over our 39 years of special friendship she made generous gifts to music and academic organizations, but unknown to most she made many anonymous gifts to needy music students. A large circle of friends and the GSU music faculty were a part of 'her family' and today we celebrate her life and legacy."
A memorial service will be held on Sunday, September 16, 2012 at 3:00 pm in the Florence Kopleff Recital Hall at Georgia State University. Memorial gifts may bedirected to the Florence Kopleff Recital Hall Endowment Fund or the Florence Kopleff Vocal Scholarship, GSU Foundation, P.O. Box 3963, Atlanta, GA 30302.