The Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, in which she played Cousin Nettie, marked Turner’s sole foray into film. Throughout the singer’s colorful career on stage, Turner mastered 75 grand opera roles at the San Francisco Opera, the New York City Opera and the Metropolitan Opera.
Shirley Jones, who also starred in “Carousel,” told the Santa Rosa Press Democrat last week that when she heard her costar sing, “I said, ‘Oh no, I don’t want to be in this movie with that woman.’ Her talent was extraordinary.”
A Northern California native and a star of the San Francisco Opera, Turner was the first to popularize “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” Composer George Cory Jr. and lyricist Douglas Cross wrote the tune for Turner in 1953, long before Tony Bennett’s recording made it his signature song in the early 1960s.
“My friend Mr. Bennett got hold of it and it became his song rather than mine,” Turner said in an interview with the English newspaper the Daily Mail in 2010. According to Turner, U.S. audiences first became familiar with the ballad through her performances of it.
Born Claramae Haas in Dinuba, Calif., on Oct. 28, 1920, Turner got her start in the San Francisco Opera chorus before going on to a solo debut there in a 1942 perf of “L’Amore dei Tre Re.” Turner’s leading roles with the company included Azucena in Verdi’s “Trovatore” and Madame de Croissy in the U.S. stage preem of Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites.”
While anchored in San Francisco for most of her career, Turner also spent four seasons with the Metropolitan, singing 105 perfs with the Opera in Gotham and on tour. While at the Met, Turner made two of her most acclaimed turns as Auntie in the 1948 company premiere of “Peter Grimes” and Gertrud in “Hansel and Gretel,” which she recorded in 1947.
After leaving the Met in 1950, Turner went on to perform with the New York City Opera, where she sang the titular role in “Carmen,” as well as the original Madame Flora in Menotti’s “The Medium,” in the opera’s world premiere at Columbia University in 1946.
Turner last performed onstage in an opera with Beverly Sills in 1974 in San Francisco.