Opera singer Claude Heater, who played Jesus Christ in 'Ben-Hur', dies at age 92
While performing in Rome, Heater was spotted by ‘Ben-Hur’ production manager Henry Henigson, who was immediately taken by voice and his “beautiful spiritual face”
Famed opera singer Claude Heater, who played Jesus Christ in ‘Ben-Hur’, died at the age of 92 on May 28 at St. Mary's Medical Center in San Francisco, California, of natural causes after a long illness.
Heater was born on October 25, 1927, in Oakland, California. He reportedly grew up in a religious Mormon family and, at the age of 19, served as a missionary. Heater joined the United States Marine Corps in 1945. After serving in the military, he began studying voice in Los Angeles.
He moved to New York City in 1950 to further study singing and acting at the American Theater Wing. The same year, he made his Broadway debut as a singer and juggler in the original cast of ‘Top Banana’ with Phil Silvers. In 1952, he was the baritone member of the trio in the world premiere of Leonard Bernstein's ‘Trouble in Tahiti’.
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.
While performing in Rome, Heater was spotted by ‘Ben-Hur’ production manager Henry Henigson, who was immediately taken by voice and his “beautiful spiritual face”.
Because of a British law that prohibited showing the face or the voice of someone portraying the part of Christ unless he is the central character, there was some discussion about having two versions of the film. Ultimately, Heater as Jesus appeared only from behind, when he gave water to Charlton Heston's Judah Ben-Hur. In the 1993 documentary ‘Ben-Hur: The Making of An Epic’, Claude Heater's face was shown in a costume test photo only once.
“Mainly, they were interested in hands. They wanted strong but sensitive, hands,” Heater said in a 1992 interview, adding that during the production of ‘Ben-Hur’, “there were people on the set who would see me, drop to one knee and make the sign of Christ.”
After retiring from the stage in the '70s, Heater taught opera for 30 years out of his San Francisco studio. He also served as general director of the Oakland Opera of California, ran for Congress as a write-in Republican candidate in 1992, and wrote a book, ‘Fatal Flaws of the Most Correct Book on Earth’ in 2007 about 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”.
Heater is survived by his longtime partner Juyeon Song; his children Christian Heater, Steven Heater, Evelyn Heater, Erika Ramlan, Claudia Kruber, Michele Sturtevant, grandchildren Nicolas Kruber, Alexander Sturtevant, Lauren Ramlan, Joshua Ramlan, Cecilia Heater, Zachary Street, and Valentina Heater; and great grandchildren Fiamma Maria Sarcì and Priscilla Sarcì.