March 23, 2016

St. Kate’s alumna forged impressive opera career

Program photo from the Metropolitan Opera's 1956–1957 season performance of La Traviata featuring Helen Vanni '46 as Flora Bervoix.

Over the course of her 90-plus remarkable years, Helen Spaeth Vanni '46 has woven together an impressive opera career and her role in St. Kate’s community into a legacy.

After graduating from St. Kate’s in 1946, she taught voice in the Twin Cities for a year before furthering her voice studies in New York for two years, giving several recitals and concerts. In December 1949 she married U.S. Navy Lieutenant Mario Vanni. Just over six years later, with three children and a newly signed Metropolitan Artists contract under her belt, Vanni moved her family from the Midwest to New York City.

She went on to build an expansive career. Having sung in “major orchestras and opera companies in San Francisco, the Canadian Opera, Pittsburgh, Santa Fe, Cincinnati, New York City, and Edmonton in Alberta,” Vanni also served as the head of the Voice Department at the Cleveland Institute of Music in Cleveland, Ohio from 1973 to 1977.

In 1977, she was invited to become chair of the Manhattan School of Music’s Voice Department by John Crosby, president of the school’s voice department and also founder and director of New Mexico’s Santa Fe Opera.

Fortunately for St. Kate’s, distance made the heart grow fonder, and Vanni made a number of visits to her alma mater from the 1950s through the 1980s. St. Kate’s was the beneficiary of several performances and vocal master classes by Vanni, in addition to one notable address that she delivered at the 1980 Honors Banquet—all of which were noted with pride and affection in various publications of The Wheel. At a particular concert she gave in Jeanne D’Arc auditorium in 1958, tickets were sold at $1.50 apiece.

Vanni featured in a 1959 edition of The Wheel.

Not only did she return several times to perform and teach, but Vanni was a dedicated and generous supporter of the arts at St. Kate’s. In 1979, she and her sisters established the Spaeth Family Scholarship fund to “assist a student or students in the arts” and in 1998 she offered vocal coaching to a St. Kate’s student who was in need of more advanced teaching.

The third of her family to graduate from St. Kate’s, Vanni comes from a line of Katies that includes her five sisters — a tradition continued through several of Vanni’s nieces who have attended St. Kate’s. The Spaeth family, originally from Davenport, Iowa, has been a devoted supporter of the university and contributed greatly to its reputation.

“The Spaeth sisters and their families were enormously proud of their links to St. Catherine and loyal to the CSJ sisters and the university,” says Alumnae Liaison Ruth Brombach ’60, who attended St. Kate’s with the younger Spaeths.

Vanni still lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Editor’s note: Helen Spaeth Vanni `46 is among St. Kate’s faculty, leaders and alumnae profiled throughout March as part of Women’s History Month.

By Michelle Mullowney '17