By J. Taylor Basker
Operas often have tragic endings. Some of their greatest music has been written for characters who are dying. Death is seen as a dramatic opportunity, a moment of truth about our human condition. It is not feared or denied, but celebrated with powerful heartbreaking music. Gospel music also celebrates death—as a transition to resurrection and life immortal. Jesus, saints, and sinners are all affirmed with Amazing Graces as souls fly away and Mary doesn’t weep or mourn.
Salvador Peter Tomas, opera singer and actor, sang his last arias and gospel songs four days before he passed on to sing with celestial choirs on August 9th. On my last visit to him at the Veterans Administration Living Community in St. Albans, Queens, with his dear singer friend from Westbeth, Eve Zani, we sang opera and gospel songs with him. The chaplain was visiting at the same time. She was a gospel singer, who joined us along with his aide who also sang in a gospel choir. Peter was able to sing with us, and the visitors’ room was rocking with loud music affirming life, faith, and hope.
This joie de vivre was Peter’s constant gift to us who knew and treasured him at Westbeth Artists Housing, where he lived for almost 50 years until his health condition and lack of other options resulted in his moving to the VA Community. He complained that the Valkyries were there, and he longed to return to Westbeth. But his health deteriorated and Covid arrived, so he was stuck. Some of us were able to take the long trip to visit him, especially his lawyer and friend, Jesse Kasowitz, who was his pro-bono legal adviser; many others sent him cards and letters. In this way Peter never lost touch with Westbeth. He was not treated kindly there at times. His apartment was robbed of valuables, including his jewelry, computer, sound systems, CDs, videos, and memorabilia of his distinguished career—they all disappeared somehow. But his spirits were kept up by his niece, Maria Reed, who sang to him nightly during phone calls from Georgia.
Born in Mississippi in 1920, later moving to Queens, NY, Peter lied about his age and entered the army during WW2. He served in the infantry, seeing action in Italy, France, Germany, and North Africa. Like most veterans, he didn’t talk much about his intense experiences. After the war he studied acting at the Fontainebleau School of Acting in France and at Trinity College in London. His mother had inspired him with a deep love for classical music. In London he’d often gone AWOL temporarily, hiding in a cramped hidden passage under a stage to hear opera. After returning to the U.S. he studied voice at the Julliard School and at the Teachers College of Columbia University.
Peter’s sonorous bass/baritone voice bought him the roles of Scarpia, Amonasro, Papageno, The Toreador, Lescaut, Figaro, and Elijah in oratorios by Bach and Handel. He also performed in Amahl and the Night Visitors. This was especially impressive since as an African American, there were few opportunities to perform in opera.
His talent as a narrator bought repeat performances of King David, The Siege of Corinth, Peter and the Wolf, Oedipus Rex, Abe Lincoln, St. Matthew’s Passion, Dido and Aeneas, Black Cowboys, the Rod Rogers Dance Company, and Dance Theatre of Harlem. His venues included Carnegie Hall and Alice Tully Hall, Washington National Cathedral, Ascension Church NYC, the Brooklyn and Philadelphia Academies of Music, the Brooklyn Philharmonic, the Marlboro Festival in Vermont, the Berlin Festival, and Joseph Papp’s Shakespeare in the Park.
Peter also performed at Westbeth Music Festivals, organizing many events for an ad hoc group, Westbeth Artists in Residence (WAIR), to celebrate 30 years of global arts at Westbeth. With WAIR, he sponsored Black History Month when the Westbeth Artists Residents Council (WARC) refused to support it. It featured Black Westbeth musicians Patti Bown and Freddy Waits, actors Hal Miller and Marilyn Worrell, and the poetry of now famous actress/poet Sarah Jones in her first public performance. Peter often appeared as a classic and comic actor in Off Broadway, Shakespeare, summer stock and dinner theatre productions.
An activist and friend of Paul Robson, he was a regular participant in the 9/11 Truth Series held at St. Mark’s in the Bowery for many years. He was a co-creator of the film Aftermath: 9/11 and New York Artists which presented interviews with Westbeth artists about their experiences and 9/11’s impact on their work and careers. He was instrumental in groups fighting corruption in Westbeth, and involved in the push against the attempt to turn Westbeth into a co-op. His satirical sense of humor was the result of his deep study of issues that challenged mainstream narratives. He was a master of one-liners, along with his close friend Edith Stephen, who passed away a few months ago at 100 years old. The two of them would hold court over a spellbound audience at Edith’s famous salon events. Peter’s Westbeth family misses him dearly, and treasures memories of his Creole gumbo and other gourmet dishes he provided for Edith’s weekly dinners along with his extraordinary wit and wisdom. He was honored with a military burial at Calverton Cemetery; there will be a memorial for him next spring at Westbeth.