A musical legacy at Georgia State Sept. 16 concert will celebrate the life and generosity of Florence Kopleff

In the world of oratorio singing, Florence Kopleff was renowned for her contralto. At Georgia State University, the professor emerita was legendary for her teaching and generosity. To celebrate her legacy as one who gave her all in concert, in the classroom and to the campus, a memorial celebration is planned Sept. 16 at the recital hall that bears her name.

The concert is scheduled for 3 p.m., and admission is free. Performers include the Georgia State University Singers, Deanna Joseph, conductor; vocal soloists Richard Clement, Kate Murray, Maria Valdes, Magdalena Wór and Serafina Furgiuele; Tania Maxwell Clements, viola; Walter Huff, piano; and remarks by Thomas Shaw, Alice Parker and Lorna Haywood, among others.

Kopleff, who died July 24 at age 88, taught hundreds of singers in her three decades at GSU. Time magazine once called her the “greatest living alto,” and 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.

“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,” recalled John Haberlen, former director of the GSU School of Music. “A large circle of friends and the GSU music faculty were a part of ‘her family’ and today we celebrate her life and legacy.”

“She was an absolute icon as a singer, but that wasn’t what made an impact in my life; it was her generosity of spirit and her willingness to encourage greatness in all of her charges,” said Chris Fowler (B. Mu., 1985, M. Mu., 1993), who serves as the choral music director at Buford (Ga.) High School. “She saw the incredible value of those who would reach the next generation of musical performers, teachers, and appreciators. Her dedication to excellence was contagious, prompting all of us to push harder and accept only the best that we could give.… I can only imagine how many others can echo the same thanks to a dear lady who gave so freely to her students.”

“Music is a natural inheritance of all peoples. Often it can be the key, along with all the arts, to unlocking a person, to revealing all the meaning, emotion and beauty that can be integrated into a life,” said Sue Williams (M. Mu., 1983), a former student of Kopleff. “Florence insisted that her students not only use that key but use it to the very best of their ability.”

Her legacy extends even to the musical programs she was not associated with.

“The Georgia State University Opera Theater sincerely mourns the loss of a great advocate in Florence Kopleff,” said Carroll Freeman, GSU’s Valerie Adams Distinguished Professor of Opera, who stages operatic events every fall semester at the Kopleff Recital Hall.

“Though not a huge opera fan, she continued to bless the opera program here with scholarships, recital- and concert-wear – which have made ample additions to our costume stock – accessories, props, and even operatic highlights from her CD collection …  In her long, successful lifetime, her large, glorious voice (which she also shared generously) was only surpassed by her largesse. Her legacy of excellence in vocal music at GSU lives on and is ever indebted to her.”

Kopleff was born in New York City, where as a high school senior she met choral conductor Robert Shaw. She joined his chorale and doubled as its secretary. A mainstay of the Robert Shaw Chorale, she sang on every recording the group made – even, as a tenor, on the male-chorus recordings.

“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.”

In an active solo career, she performed and recorded the great oratorio roles with such renowned conductors as George Szell, Charles Munch, Fritz Reiner, Eugene Ormandy, Jean Martinon, Maurice Abravanel.  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.

When Shaw came to Atlanta in 1967 as music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Kopleff joined him because of the support offered by GSU. Music department chair Thomas Brumby arranged for her to be the first artist-in-residence at GSU, and within the University System of Georgia. Her affinity for her vocal students helped earn her the Alumni Distinguished Professor Award in 1982. She retired in 1998.

Her generosity continues to make an impact on campus. In 1984, she set up her first vocal scholarship, and today the Kopleff Scholars represent music majors at GSU who have demonstrated exceptional vocal talent. They often perform in the recital hall that in 2004 was renovated and renamed in honor of her philanthropy.

“I have the deepest gratitude for her donation to the Georgia State University Foundation,” soprano Melissa Joseph said of receiving the Kopleff Scholarship. “If not for her contribution, I would not be here pursuing my dreams.”

One scholar, mezzo-soprano Serafina Furgiuele, traveled to China for a music exchange program that was only possible through the Kopleff funding. In Atlanta, Furgiuele visited Kopleff, sang for her and received important advice.

“She’s an amazing personality with such a warm heart,” said Furgiuele, who is scheduled to perform at the Sept. 16 memorial celebration. “I asked her if I should live at home [in Suwanee]to save money or live downtown for convenience. She advised me to be near campus and make friends with other music students, hang out and sing together.”

Memorial gifts may be made to the Florence Kopleff Recital Hall Endowment Fund or the Florence Kopleff Vocal Scholarship, GSU Foundation, P.O. Box 3963, Atlanta, GA 30302-3963.

—By GSU Foundation Writer Michelle Hiskey, with reporting from Helene Erenberg of the GSU School of Music