Dictionary of Welsh Biography


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THOMAS , IFOR OWEN ( 1892 - 1956 ), operatic tenor, photographer and artist ;

b. Bay View , Red Wharf Bay , Anglesey , April 10, 1892 , third child and only son of Owen Thomas and Isabella (née Morris ) , a celebrated singer from Dyffryn Nantlle . The family moved to Pandy , Pentraeth , where he was educated in the village board school before being apprenticed to a carpenter . He began singing under the tuition of his mother and E.D. Lloyd of Bangor ( 1868 - 1922 ), winning a scholarship in 1914 to the Royal College of Music out of a field of 400. He left London in 1917 to study with Jean de Reszke in Paris and Benjamino Gigli in Milan .

The major concert halls of Britain had already welcomed the ‘ Welsh tenor ’ before he opened in La Scala Milan in 1925 , moving to Monte Carlo and Nice before becoming chief tenor in the Paris Opera in 1927 . In that year he was admitted as an honorary bard to the Gorsedd of Bards as ‘ Ifor o Fôn ’, before sailing to the United States .

Although he appeared with the Philadelphia Opera Company in 1928 he left the world of opera for the concert platform, broadcasting and recording for H.M.V. and Sanders . He became a great favourite with the American Welsh who dubbed him ‘the second Evan Williams with a hint of Caruso ’. He also sang with leading quartets before forming one himself - The Four Aces - with three other New York Welshmen . On the operatic stage he sang with Caruso (as his deputy), Chaliapin and McCormach in Milan and with Frances Alda and Kathryn Meisle .

His career as a solo artist was tragically brought to an end in 1929 by asthma , an old complaint which had prevented his going to Llangefni Grammar School as a boy. Complete recovery proved elusive, in spite of spending 1931 in Italy , and although he sang occasionally in 1932 he eventually accepted a post as photographer for Colliers Magazine in 1933 . Here he made a name for himself, especially for his portraits of F.D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill , as well as a host of film stars. After retiring in 1948 he turned to painting in oils and watercolour , exhibiting in Britain and the United States .

He was a fervent Welshman - he Cymricised his middle name to Owain - and over the years he was host to scores of fellow Welshmen in his house in New York . He was considered one of the mainstays of Welsh culture in the city and in the Welsh Presbyterian Church , and conducted the Côr Merched Cymru in New York from 1944 onwards.

He died after a long illness, on his birthday, 1956 , having returned from Wales the previous year. He was buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery , Delwanna , N.J. He married twice (1) Ceridwen Evans in 1920 ; a child from the marriage d. in 1922 . The marriage was annulled and he married (2) Mildred Unfried , a professional pianist from New York , who survived him.

Sources:

  • Y Drych newyddiadur cenedlaethol Cymry America , 1927-56 ;
  • Y Clorianydd , 1893-1956 ;
  • The New York Times , 11 Apr. 1956 ;
  • Anglesey Archive Services, Llangefni;
  • personal knowledge.

Author:

Eryl Wyn Rowlands, Llangefni

Published date: 2001