Death of US opera star who played Jesus Christ

Death of US opera star who played Jesus Christ


norman lebrecht

June 07, 2020

Claude Heater made his first splash in the 1952 world premiere of Leonard Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti. He sang three years as a baritone at the Vienna State Opera and eight at San Francisco before pushing his voice up to Heldentenor range and making a Wagnerian career.

His greatest role, however, went uncredited. He performed as a body double for Jesus Christ in the blockbuster movie Ben Hur. His face was unseen and his voice unheard, but his hands were just right.

Claude Heater died in San Francisco on May 28 after a long illness. He was 92.

More here.


  • RW2013 says:

    One of the best goosebump moments in all of film, assisted by the excellent score.

    • A.L. Hern says:

      I’m afraid that the tepid adjective “excellent” really doesn’t begin to do justice to Miklos Rozsa’s music.

      The opera composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold called his own film scores “opern ohne singen,” “operas without singing. Rozsa’s is no less than that, a story told in thrilling, moving music that not only reinforces what’s already on screen or contained in the film’s dialogue, but adds to it in ways that the images and words cannot, even to the point of providing occasional exposition that might have been awkward, and absorbed the audience less fully, had it been conveyed by those images and dialogue.

      In addition, there are certain sounds that have a profound effect on the human nervous system; composers, particularly in the western classical tradition, have been exploiting that for centuries. The truly great composers of film scores have also been able to harness that association between sound and emotion for dramatic effect, and Rozsa was one that discipline’s greatest masters.

  • Hermann the German says:

    Claude Heater was my first Tristan at Hanover State Opera in the late 1960s, which by the way, was also his first Tristan. R.I.P.

  • Gerald says:

    He is the Melot on the Bohm, Nilsson, Windgassen, 1966 Bayreuth recording.

  • SoCal Dan says:

    It is true that Claude Heater does not speak any lines or even show his face in the role of Jesus Christ during the movie Ben-Hur (1959). For example, in the scene where Jesus gives water to the enslaved Judah Ben-Hur (played by Charlton Heston), the camera shows Jesus from behind, and the character is silent.

    According to the Hollywood Reporter, Heater did speak several lines during the filming of the movie. But those lines were removed from the final cut because of British law. Apparently, back in 1959, movies that portrayed Jesus Christ as a secondary character were prohibited from having him speak or his face seen.

    The absence of dialogue and the mystery of Jesus Christ’s face in that scene with Judah Ben-Hur convey a spiritual dimension to the meeting of those two characters, even though not directly intended by that British law of 1959.

  • A.L. Hern says:

    I wouldn’t call Heater’s part in “Ben-Hur” “body double.” He played Jesus, face unseen as per the stipulation by “Ben-Hur” author Lew Wallace’s estate that Jesus’s face never be depicted in any dramatic productions.

    By 1959 that stricture was relaxed to the point that, had director William Wyler wished to show Jesus’s face, he would have been free to do so, but Wyler chose to honor it, perhaps because he felt the film, despite its subtitle “a tale of the Christ,” was actually NOT about Jesus, but what he represented and his effect on the novel and movie’s fictional characters.