Nadine Conner, 96; Compton Native Was Lyric Soprano

Times Staff Writer

Nadine Conner, a native of Compton whose lyric soprano voice earned her a nearly two-decade career at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, died Saturday at a convalescent hospital in Los Alamitos. She was 96.

Conner was born Evelyn Nadine Henderson on Feb. 20, 1907, the youngest of seven children in a family devoted to the arts. She studied piano and drama as a child, and with all of her siblings took part in plays and musicals put on in the family home.

During high school, she began studying voice privately with Hollywood-based tenor Amado Fernandez.

She hoped to be a dramatic soprano, singing heavy roles in such works as Puccini's "Tosca" and "Madame Butterfly," but when she saw that her voice was not big enough to fill large halls, she shifted to the lighter lyric repertory. She went on to study music at USC. After college she married a USC classmate, but the marriage was dissolved two years later. "His last name was Conner," she told The Times in 1997, "and that's where I got my stage name." She married her second husband, Laurance Heacock, a Compton surgeon, in 1939.

Her career began in Los Angeles with seven years of singing on national radio. She appeared with such stars as Bing Crosby and Gordon MacRae and toured with film star Nelson Eddy. She joined a fledgling opera troupe in Los Angeles, founded by Albert Coates in 1939, making her debut as Marguerite in Gounod's "Faust."

Prompted by an executive of the Met, she auditioned in September 1941, and debuted there three months later, at the age of 35, as Pamina in an English version of Mozart's "The Magic Flute," under the baton of Bruno Walter.

"The new soprano has a voice of appealing quality," a reviewer wrote of her debut. "It is even throughout its range with well-rounded tones at the top; it is clear and pure and warm in tone; it sounds fresh and youthful." She won acclaim not only for her Mozart roles, including Zerlina in "Don Giovanni" and Susanna in "The Marriage of Figaro," but also for her portrayal of Violetta in Verdi's "La Traviata," Mimi in Puccini's "La Boheme," Gilda in Verdi's "Rigoletto," and Rosina in Rossini's "The Barber of Seville," among others.

Of a 1946 Met production of Humperdinck's opera "Hansel and Gretel," a New York Sun reviewer wrote: "Nadine Conner, as Gretel, and Rise Stevens, as Hansel, made up the best brother-and-sister act to be heard at the Metropolitan in recent times."

In all, there were 249 Met performances of 15 roles in 18 seasons. Conner's Met farewell was in "Faust" on March 12, 1960.

Her only movie was "Of Men and Music" in 1951, with Jascha Heifetz, Artur Rubinstein and Dmitri Mitropoulos. She sang Norina's aria from Donizetti's "Don Pasquale" and, with tenor Jan Peerce, the love duet from Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor."

She and her husband returned to Southern California in 1970, settling in Cypress, where Conner taught singing.

Her husband died in 1987. Conner is survived by a daughter, Sue Lynn Hawkins of Irvine; a son, Loren Heacock of Fountain Valley; four grandchildren; three great-grandchildren; and two nieces. Funeral and memorial services will be private.

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