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June 4, 2015
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Ethel Frey Semser, 98, of Philadelphia, an international opera singer and linguist, died on Thursday, June 4, 2015 of complications from pneumonia.  She was surrounded by her loving family.  

Born in 1917 and raised in Philadelphia, her father, Nathan Frey, was a violist for the Philadelphia Orchestra. She graduated from Germantown High School, and received a Bachelor of Arts from Temple University and a Master of Arts in foreign languages from the University of Pennsylvania.  She also trained privately as an opera singer.  Fluent in French, German, Italian, and Spanish, she worked as a translator during World War II for Robert Kempner, a German Jewish attorney who had escaped the Nazis and moved to Philadelphia.  She obtained a high level security clearance which enabled her to assist Kempner in his work in combating the Nazis on behalf of the U.S. Government, and after the war when Kempner was Assistant U. S. Chief Counsel during the Nuremberg Trials.  During this period Ethel also gave concerts and performed in Philadelphia.   

In 1949 she moved to Paris with her husband, the painter and sculptor Charles Semser, where she lived until returning to Philadelphia in 2015. 

In Paris, her language skills and high security clearance resulted in her obtaining a job first as assistant to the U. S. Ambassador to France in the public health area, and then as assistant to the U. S. Ambassador to the OECD.  In addition, her career as an opera singer soon blossomed.   

A lyric soprano, Ethel Semser became renowned both for the warmth and beauty of her voice and for her exceptional musicianship. Her repertoire ranged from Mozart, Verdi, Gluck, and Schubert to Wagner, Strauss, Duparc, Schoenberg, and Berg.  Between 1950 and 1974, she recorded Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera (Amelia), Gluck’s Alceste (as Alceste, with flutist J. P. Rampal), and both the Gurrelieder and the Pierrot Lunaire of Schoenberg, all with the well-known conductor Rene Leibowitz.  On stage in Paris, she starred in Menotti’s The Consul, among other lead roles, and gave numerous concerts. She also toured widely across Europe, giving concerts under the auspices of the American government. 

Ethel and Charles Semser came to France so that both could pursue, side by side, exceptional individual artistic careers, while totally united as a couple for 64 years. Charles Semser’s large sculptures are in public squares and parks in Paris and across France.  His monumental sculpture, The Human Ladder, six meters in height, located near Mont Blanc in the French Alps, is owned by the French government and is part of the French patrimony.  Charles Semser died in Paris in 2011.

In 2012, Ethel Semser became the oldest adopting parent in the State of Pennsylvania by adopting her nephew, Anthony R. Gross, and her niece, Majorie Samoff.

A website about Ethel and Charles Semser including their biographies, many photographs, a catalogue of Charles' work, and musical samples of Ethel’s singing may be found at

Ethel is survived by her (adopted) daughter, Marjorie Samoff, her (adopted) son and daughter-in-law, Anthony and Madeleine Gross, and nephew, Joel (Rachel) Samoff; grandchildren Tereza Olson, Caleb Olson, Leda Mareth and Joanna Valeri, four great-grandchildren, Ruby, Tessa, Nina and Mark, and cousins Donald Bean, Henry Bean, George Bean, and Donald (Skip) Bean, Jr.

A memorial service will take place at Rodeph Shalom Synagague, 615 N. Broad Street, on Monday, June 8, 2015 at 3 PM, followed by a gathering of friends and family.  Contributions in her memory may be sent to the Music Matters International, a non-profit providing music programs for people with disabilities in which she was involved, 2120 Green Street, Phila. PA 19130.   BERSCHLER and SHENBERG


 Service Information

Memorial Service
June 8, 2015

3:00 PM
Congregation Rodef Sholom
615 N. Broad Street
Philadelphia, PA 19123

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