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Professor Emeritus Benner passes away

James Benner

West Virginia University professor emeritus James Benner has passed away at the age of 92.

“We are deeply saddened to hear of Jim’s passing,” said Keith Jackson, interim dean of WVU’s College of Creative Arts. “He has been an important part of the cultural life of Morgantown since his appointment. His legacy will live on through the success of the hundreds of WVU alumni his teachings have impacted.”

Benner taught at WVU from 1967 – 85. As part of his commitment to creating a professional experience for WVU students, he developed undergraduate and graduate repertoire classes and performing seminars for singers. He established a two-year sequence of foreign language diction classes for singers and instituted a coaching and accompanying degree program for pianists. Under Benner’s directorship, the WVU Opera Theatre produced 38 productions of 34 different operas, fully staged, with orchestra. In 2003, Benner was given the WVU College of Creative Arts Deans Award for Distinguished Leadership in the Arts. 

“I was fortunate, when we came to WVU in 1977, to have a number of outstanding colleagues,” said C.B. Wilson, associate provost for academic personnel and former director of the School of Music. “At the top of that roster by any measure were Professor Benner and his wife, former leading soprano of the Metropolitan Opera, Frances Yeend. Professor Benner was passionately committed to providing for his students a thorough education which would prepare them for a professional career, and their successes attest to his achievement.”

After his retirement, Professor Benner headed the musical preparation staff for Sarah Caldwell and the Opera Company of Boston. During his season there, he conducted all of the tour performances of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly for Opera New England, the touring branch of the Caldwell operation.

Benner had been engaged for numerous residencies at universities in the United States where he gave master classes, conducted opera performances and directed opera productions. He filled numerous conducting engagements for the Pittsburgh Opera Theater in Pittsburgh during residencies at WVU. For seven summers, Benner was a member of the faculty at the Chautauqua Institute in Chautauqua, New York. Benner taught 15 Elderhostel courses, mostly on opera.

Before joining WVU’s faculty, Benner was a freelance coach and accompanist in New York City. He accompanied many of the leading singers of the day in extensive recital tours of North America. For nearly 15 years, he was pianist on all the major tours of the famed Obernkirchen Childrens Choir from Germany. He played more than 1,000 concerts for them in countries on five continents.

Professor Benner’s former students include many conductors, accompanists and soloists who are active on the professional stages of Europe and the United States. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Cornell University and a master’s degree from Columbia University. He studied piano with Egon Petri and Gaston Dethier.

Plans are underway for a memorial concert celebrating his illustrious career.