• A sample of sheet music from the May Peterson Collection.
    A sample of sheet music from the May Peterson Collection.
  • 1924 photo of May Peterson
    1924 photo of May Peterson

The personal papers and sheet music of an international opera star have been made available to the public thanks to the efforts of two Southwestern students.

May Peterson was the daughter of a Methodist minister from Wisconsin who became an international opera star. In 1918, she signed a six-year contract with the New York Metropolitan Opera, where she sang with another famous opera star, Enrico Caruso. Peterson retired from the opera in 1924 after marrying Amarillo businessman Ernest Thompson, whom she met during a singing engagement in Amarillo. After Peterson died in 1952, Thompson donated her papers to Southwestern.

Kathryn Stallard, director of Special Collections in Southwestern’s A. Frank Smith, Jr. Library, said the material was sitting in storage when she took over her current job in 1997.  “It was just waiting for the right person to come along,” Stallard said.

Erin McHugh, a voice major who recently graduated from Southwestern, turned out to be that right person. McHugh, who sings in the Austin Lyric Opera Chorus, was able to use her expertise of opera to evaluate the collection. She spent much of her junior year organizing the collection, which included 850 pieces of sheet music, as well as hundreds of photos, newspaper clippings, telegrams and letters.

“It was fascinating for me to trace her career,” said McHugh, who hopes to become an opera singer herself. “It was very inspirational.”

McHugh will be auditioning this fall for graduate schools, and hopes to attend one in New York, San Francisco or Boston.

Johanna Hoyo, a senior English major who hopes to become a secondary school teacher, organized the web site for the collection.

“I had always wanted to learn how to build pages,” Hoyo said. “I’m really interested in technology and how it can operate in learning environments.  May Peterson was my first self-taught project, and I definitely want to do more of this in future, but linked to my primary interest and cause, which is education.”

Stallard said the site is potentially “wonderfully rich” for researchers interested in studying music, culture and even race of the early 1900s. Stallard noted that it complements the Carrie Minette Hickerson Sheet Music Collection, which is also housed in Special Collections and dates from the same period.

“The ability to look at her music collection should give insights into how she shaped a singing career at the turn of the last century,” said Bruce Cain, an associate professor of music at Southwestern who teaches opera.

Michael Cooper, another music professor at Southwestern, said the collection will be important to singers who specialize in Italian opera and to scholars who study the ways in which performers interpreted and embellished notated music in the past. He noted that among the most significant items is Peterson’s manuscript compilation of cadenzas and other additions to Italian opera arias as they were done by some of the most brilliant and famous singers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.


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