Bette Hankin, opera singer who taught at Towson University, dies

Bette Hankin, a mezzo-soprano who sang with the old Baltimore Civic Opera Company and later taught at Towson University, died Dec. 25 at Gilchrist Hospice Care in Towson.

She was 94 and lived in Bancroft Road and Red Cedar Place in Northwest Baltimore. No cause of death was reported.

Born Bessie Jane Goodman in Baltimore, she was known as Bette. She was the daughter of Abraham Goodman, a contractor and architect, and his wife, Anna.

Raised on Whittier Avenue near Druid Hill Park, she was a 1941 graduate of Western High School and obtained a bachelor of arts in French at the Johns Hopkins University.

“As a child she would sing at the drop of a hat,” said her daughter, Sally Jane Hankin of Baltimore. “She appeared on the Hippodrome stage as a member of Uncle Jack’s Kiddie Club when she was 7.”

Her son, Wayne Hankin, who lives in Newport, Vt., said his mother appeared on the stages of downtown theaters and saw vaudeville performers of the late 1920s and 1930s.

He recalled that during one performance her music sheets fell off the stand while she was singing a romantic love song, and she continued to improvise the number. “On the bill were [comedians] Jack Benny and Mary Livingstone, who said, ‘That girl is a trouper,’ ” he said.

She taught French and at Baltimore City junior high schools before joining the the faculty at Baltimore City College.

In 1947 she married Sheldon James Hankin, an official of the Maryland Paper Box Co.

By 1951, she had debuted in the Baltimore Civic Opera production of “Carmen,” playing Mercedes, a gypsy girl.

Baltimore Sun critic Weldon Wallace wrote in 1954: “As the gypsy woman, Azucena, Bette Hankin easily took top honors among the cast of ‘Il Trovatore’ at the Lyric. … Miss Hankin’s tones were of high quality and well produced.”

“Bette was was perfectly gorgeous,” said Gilda Sherman, a friend for many decades. “She was warm, talented, humble and communicative.’”

She went on to appear with the opera company on numerous occasions in the 1950s and 1960s. In a memorably cast production, she appeared with Beverly Sills and Placido Domingo in “The Tales of Hoffman” in 1967. She also sang alongside Licia Albanese in a 1966 Baltimore production of “Madame Butterfly.”

“She was in virtually every performance of the opera at the opera company in the 1950s and 1960s,” said James Harp, former staff member of the company. “She was a vivid stage actress and she judged the vocal competition for the Baltimore Opera. She always offered very astute comments about the singers. She was a pillar of the opera community in Baltimore.”

In 1976, she made her final appearance, as Anna in “Maria Stuarda.”

Mrs. Hankin also sang with opera companies in Philadelphia, Hartford, Pittsburgh, Rhode Island and New York State. She served on the boards of Baltimore Choral Arts Society and the Women’s Board of the Peabody Conservatory.

She was also a soloist at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation and performed with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and at the Hilltop Theater.

Soprano Rosa Ponselle, who then resided in Baltimore County and was in retirement from the Metropolitan Opera Company, befriended Ms. Hankin and worked with her as a coach. The Ponselle Archives at the Peabody list Ms. Hankin as her first student. The renowned diva became a close friend of Ms. Hankin, who sang at a 1981 memorial service for Madame Ponselle.

“She had a rich, warm, beautiful mezzo-soprano voice,” said Ruth Drucker, a fellow Towson University faculty member. “In her later years, she gave lectures about Rosa Ponselle and she had wonderful stories to tell.”

In the 1970s she joined the faculty of what is now Towson University, where she taught students for 28 years.

Stephen Holmes, a former student who now directs the Maryland State Boychoir, recalled Ms. Hankin: “She was old-school and taught in the bel canto Italian style. You had to master it first and she would then let you go out on your own.

“As an 18-year-old freshman, I was amazed by her,” said Mr. Holmes. “She was a classy lady and had all those stories to tell. I realize today, from my own teaching, how much I learned from her.”

“Betty was charming and dedicated to music,” said James Anthony, a Towson University associate professor emeritus. “She wanted her students to do well. She had a grandmotherly presence in the music department. She had a distinguished local career.”

Mrs. Hankin also sang at numerous religious and social gatherings.

Family members said she often stated: “I am the only woman I know who sang at her own wedding.”

Plans for a memorial service at Towson University are incomplete.

In addition to her son and daughter, survivors include two nieces and two nephews. Her husband of 41 years died in 1988.

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