ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — James Earl “Jim” Bratcher had a successful solo career in New York City in the 1960s — singing tenor under Leonard Bernstein and other renowned conductors — but chose to give it up to pursue teaching.
He returned to Albuquerque in 1970 to influence music in the city for the next four decades: teaching at Eldorado High School, helping found Opera Southwest, forming the New Mexico Symphony Chorus, serving as assistant conductor of the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra and leading countless church choirs.
Bratcher died in August at the age of 77. A memorial service will be held at St. Chad’s Episcopal Church on Saturday at 10:30 a.m.
He grew up in Albuquerque and earned three degrees from the University of New Mexico, a bachelor’s in voice and organ, a master’s in education and a master’s of music in voice.
He then moved to New York City to continue his studies and to perform. In 1959, he performed 11 leading roles in contemporary operas with the American Opera Theater, according to an article written for the University of New Mexico’s John Donald Robb Musical Trust.
“When he was in New York, he was hired all the time,” said Justine “Sally” Opel, general director of Opera Southwest. “Conductors realized he would never let them down, because he could sight read anything.”
But Opel said Bratcher never particularly liked being the leading man and preferred to be the “comic, second banana.” He traveled and performed in Europe, then worked as a professor in Tennessee and Georgia before returning to Albuquerque.
Bratcher taught English at Eldorado High School for the next 14 years and worked with the school choir.
With conductor Kurt Frederick, Bratcher helped found Opera Southwest, which got its start in 1972 as Albuquerque Opera Theatre. Bratcher served as artistic/music director from 1979 to 1987 and again in the mid 1990s.
“In everything he touched, he demanded absolute perfection,” Opel said. “So much so that he got under people’s skins. They didn’t always want to work that hard.”
What was so noteworthy about Bratcher, said Ernie Sturdevant, music director at St. Chad’s Episcopal Church, is that he was accomplished in many different areas of music: He sang and accompanied singers professionally, played the piano and organ, arranged choral music and edited music.
“It’s pretty unique when one person even in the narrow field of music had so many skills that they’re really, really adept at,” Sturdevant said. “That was Jim. Most of us do one or two things. He could do it all, and did it with such ease and grace and generosity of spirit.”
Bratcher also served as a member of the UNM John Donald Robb Musical Trust board of directors from 2003 until his death. He served as tenor soloist, choirmaster and organist at churches and synagogues across the city.
“If we were to list all the churches where Jim played organ, conducted chorus or sang, it would just go on for pages,” said Jim Bonnell, chairman of the UNM Robb Musical Trust.