SALT LAKE CITY — Ariel Bybee — Utah resident, opera singer, soloist, university professor and opera director — passed away at the age of 75 on March 20, due to myelodysplastic syndrome, a rare blood disease.
A queen of mezzo-sopranos, Bybee was renowned for her 18 seasons and over 450 performances at the Metropolitan Opera as a principal artist. Recognized for singing roles such as Annio in “La clemenza di Tito” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Suzuki in “Madama Butterfly” by Giacomo Puccini, critics lauded Bybee for her technical finesse and commanding stage presence.
But while Bybee sang on stages that most aspiring artists only dream of, it wasn’t her success that meant most to her colleagues, friends and family. For them, it was Bybee’s dedication to inspire, her natural empathy for others and her strong commitment to her craft that made her an artist in the truest sense of the word.
After earning her bachelor’s degree from Brigham Young University, Bybee was off to the San Francisco Opera where she performed for five seasons, including the title role in Georges Bizet’s “Carmen.” Looking for an accomplished accompanist to rehearse with, she came across Judy Billeter-Dunford, and the two quickly became fast friends.
“She was just dynamic” said Billeter-Dunford, laughing at Bybee’s flair for fashion and propensity to throw fabulous parties. “She’s one that you would definitely notice in a room.”
Rehearsing together weekly on Friday afternoons, Bybee would practice her arias while holding Billeter-Dunford’s newborn baby. And while the pair thought their days together were over when Bybee landed her gig at the Met, they kept in touch, performing well over 100 times together over their 47-year friendship. From nightly shows on the Queen Elizabeth cruise ship in the 1970’s to touring China together in 2006, performing felt effortless — almost as though they breathed together — Billeter-Dunford said. And even when Bybee moved back to Salt Lake City and her condition worsened, the friends still bonded weekly over music as they had earlier in their careers.
“I would always play her music when I went to see her," Billeter-Dunford said. "Even the day she died I played some of her arias.”
Bybee’s daughter, Utah resident Neylan McBaine, really had two homes growing up — the one that she slept in and the other where her mother performed. The Met became her home away from home — the place where she learned to knit outfits for her Cabbage Patch dolls with help from the crew — and where she truly fell in love with opera.
“I got exposed to that level of professionalism and expertise at a really young age," she said, "and (my mom) really felt like part of her mothering responsibilities were to show me how she was developing her talents and contributing to her art form and her industry.”
And contribute to the industry she did.
As a soloist, Bybee has also been widely remembered for her performances of “How Great Thou Art” in front of President Bill Clinton in 1996, solos with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir — including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints President Gordon B. Hinckley’s 90th birthday celebration — and singing a concert performance of “Elektra” with the Vienna Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall.
But whether performing on world-famous stages, at her local LDS chapel or during soirees at the homes of her friends, her goal was always perfection.
“It was about the quality of the technique and really careful world-class preparation,” McBaine said. “She always felt like unless it was good enough to sing with her professional colleagues, then it wouldn’t be good enough for church.”
It’s a standard which McBaine believes has shaped the future of many professional young artists — particularly younger LDS opera singers, many of whom may have had their way to the Met paved by Bybee's stellar reputation.
Additionally, Bybee would also rehearse and perform with her daughter, who attended both the Juilliard School and Yale as a solo pianist. Calling her the “accompanist in residence,” the two performed together in the BYU Jerusalem Center in front of President Hinckley — a highlight for the pair, McBaine said. Her mother’s commitment to her beliefs is something that continues to inspire her.
“She had great faith,” McBaine said. “She also … had an emotional steadfastness to her that I really admired.”
But it wasn’t all work and no play, said McBaine. In addition to being a devoted wife and mother, Bybee was also an accomplished cook, had a refined taste in clothes and loved to travel — particularly to Italy. And when she wasn’t onstage, she revelled in her time with her students, helping them to refine their tone and instilling in them her high standards of excellence.
After retiring from the Met in 1998, Bybee created music programs with her second husband, Professor James E. Ford, while at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. During her time as an artist-in-residence and associate professor there, she taught voice and directed operas.
“I had the honor to sing with Ariel on several occasions,” said University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor and director of opera William Shomos. “She brought a contagious, electrifying energy with her to rehearsals and performances. When I sang with Ariel, I felt any sense of self-consciousness fade away — performing with Ariel was always about the music, the drama, and the expression of the emotional core.”
Her students felt the same way. Utah Valley University adjunct professor Demaree Brown, who studied under Bybee for 12 years, followed her instructor when she moved from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to the University of Utah in 2008. While it was a big move, Brown said it was worth it because Bybee was one of the few in town who truly knew how to improve a singer’s sound and was patient enough to work for it.
“She was very demanding,” Brown said of her mentor. “She didn’t let me get away with much. She worked me very hard, but I knew that’s what I needed, and there were moments where I remember getting frustrated and she would say, ‘Why are you so frustrated? You’re doing great!’”
Professor Robert Breault, voice and director of opera at the University of Utah and Bybee's friend and colleague, described her voice as neither especially high nor low — a true mezzo-soprano — which made her a versatile performer. But even more importantly, he said, Bybee cared about her audience.
“She knew how really incredibly important music was,” Breault said. "Through her whole life she could see the profound positive effect it had on society.”
In addition to her influence as a teacher, Bybee also helped start the group Friends of Opera at both the University of Utah and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to support opera productions in the schools. Her commitment to her art and dedication to those she loved, Breault added, will always be remembered.
“She was a beautiful woman with a beautiful heart,” he said. “Her beauty will carry on in her students in the memory of her art. … The energy that goes out that is beautiful and positive — you can’t kill that. The mortality that we have as human beings is final, but there’s going to always be that beauty that will continue with her.”
Funeral services will be held on Friday, March 30, at 11 a.m., Ensign Stake Center, 135 A St. East (between 2nd and 3rd Avenues). Interment will take place at the Salt Lake City Cemetery after the service. Flowers may be sent to Larkin Mortuary on South Temple, or donations may be made in Bybee's honor to the Ariel Bybee Vocal Scholarship at the BYU School of Music or to Friends of Opera at the School of Music at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln or the University of Utah School of Music.