Celebrating Tenor Richard Tucker

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Richard Tucker would have turned 100 on Aug. 28, 2013. To honor the occasion, the Operavore stream presents his recordings every hour through 6 pm. Below is an appreciation of Tucker which first ran on his 99th birthday in 2012.

• Listen to the Operavore stream

• More on Richard Tucker Day at NPR Music

Quite a while I ago I circled August 28 on my calendar to write an article for you about Richard Tucker (1913-1975), who would have turned 99 today. I decided to acquaint myself anew with the great American tenor whose last years as a performer coincided with my opera-going youth. Part of my research relates to the fact that I am scheduled to lead a panel discussion about Tucker at NYU’s Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò on Oct. 24 as part of the many observances that are leading up to the centennial of his birth.

Apparently, I was far from the only New Yorker who had circled this date. My colleagues at WQXR and Operavore will be presenting a lot of Tuckeriana on Tuesday, including performances by and interviews with the tenor as well as tributes from singers who revere him. In addition, he will be celebrated around New York City. You can find highlights here.

I only heard Tucker live on a couple of occasions, when I had not had enough experience to understand what made him great. But I did know that, even when he was 60, his singing was fresh, musical and expressive and audiences loved him.

Tucker was part of a wonderful generation of Jewish-American opera singers, many of them from New York City, who grew up with at a time when Jews were not yet fully assimilated. Think of the Oscar-winning film Gentleman’s Agreement from 1947 to understand the context. These singers included Evelyn Lear, George London, Robert Merrill, Jan Peerce, Roberta Peters, Judith Raskin, Regina Resnik (who turns 90 on August 30), Beverly Sills, Jennie Tourel, Leonard Warren and Tucker.

While Jews were part of the Metropolitan Opera audience since its beginnings (with wealthy Jews attending on Monday nights and working-class ones attending on Saturday night after sunset), a significant Jewish presence on the stage only came in the years during and right after World War II. Sills had a long career at the New York City Opera but did sing at the Met until 1975. There is a great book to be written about the first wave of American Jewish opera stars.

Tucker's Met debut was on Jan. 25, 1945 as Enzo in Ponchielli’s La Gioconda. The title character was played by Stella Roman and the Laura was Bruna Castagna. Would that we had such a cast today! That said, Noel Straus in the The New York Times did not care for the women and here is what he said about Tucker:

“Special interest naturally centered in the company's new tenor, Mr. Tucker, who had the misfortune to make his initial appearance in a formidable role too heavy for his essentially lyric type of voice. Nevertheless, he made a definitely favorable impression and was enthusiastically received by the large audience. Although inexperienced in opera, he sang Enzo's music with poise and assurance. His tones were steady and of pleasing quality, boasting special richness and resonance above the staff, where the sounds produced were more 'forward' than in the thinner lower half of the scale. He sang with warmth and expressiveness and his acting was natural and easy. Besides these virtues he had an agreeable stage presence. But he must be heard in a part more congenial to him before final judgment can be made of his capabilities.”

Tucker had such an opportunity on Dec. 15 of the same year when he stepped in for Jan Peerce (Tucker’s brother-in-law) as Alfredo in La Traviata, with Licia Albanese as Violetta and Robert Merrill making his debut as Giorgio Germont. Straus in the Times called the performance “engrossing” and had grudging praise for Albanese and Merrill, who became one of Tucker’s most constant companions on the Met stage for decades. Straus was pleased with Tucker: “His tones were invariably fresh, firm and vibrant, sympathetic and rich in quality, and true to pitch. There was real fervor and poetry in his singing, and in every respect his manly impersonation, with its fine sense of restraint and its unfailing taste, was of a highly praiseworthy order.”

Here is a recording of Tucker singing ‘Lunge da lei” from Act Two of La Traviata in 1946. Note the ardor as well as the security with which he sang.

Now enjoy a lovely, rare view of Tucker and Albanese from 1969 as they sing “Libiamo” from La Traviata at conductor Wilfred Pelletier’s birthday party. I think this video says so much about Tucker’s warmth and humanity.

He had a very strong work ethic and was most attentive to study, and being prepared and professional. Listen to this portion of a radio interview from, perhaps, 1970. I am guessing his interviewer is Martin Bookspan. He was among first to appear on television performing an opera, Aïda, under the baton of Arturo Toscanini in the late 1940s.

From his Met debut in 1945 to his final performance as Canio in Pagliacci on Dec. 3, 1974, countless tenors came and went but Tucker was a constant presence, securely and passionately singing most of the great roles of the Italian lyrical and dramatic repertory and selected parts in other languages. He continued to sing at Jewish religious services for his whole life.

He sang Rodolfo in La Bohéme on the afternoon of April 16, 1966 and returned that evening to partner Zinka Milanov in the farewell gala to the old Metropolitan Opera House. They sang the final duet from Giordano’s Andrea Chénier. It was Milanov’s Met last performance. Here they are singing the same music in 1957. You will notice that the audience started applauding, and kept applauding, well before the music came to an end.

Soon after his death, his wife and sons established the Richard Tucker Music Foundation to assist in the development of the careers of young American singers. Many of the finest opera singers on stages the world over were recipients of the Richard Tucker Award, one of the most important recognitions anywhere of the talent and potential of a young artist.

In addition to all of the remembrances of Richard Tucker, here is mine. The Met did a gala concert on April 11, 1970 to honor the tenor’s 25 years with the company. I sat way up in the Family Circle. I confess that I went because of the stellar line-up of sopranos but my enduring recollection is of being stunned by the beautiful and clarion sound of Tucker’s voice. He sang with such heart and evident love of his colleagues.

The program began with Act One of La Traviata, with Joan Sutherland as Violetta. Then came Act Two of La Gioconda, with Renata Tebaldi in the title role, Rosalind Elias as Laura and Cornell MacNeil as Barnaba. Here is his performance of  “Cielo e Mar” from that gala:

The evening concluded with Act Three of Aïda, with Leontyne Price in the title role, Joann Grillo as Amneris, Merrill as Amonasro and Tucker as Radamès. It occurred to me that Tucker, on his big night, could have asked to do a different act of the opera, perhaps the fourth, that would feature more of him, but he generously chose the one that included Price singing her glorious “O Patria Mia.”

About 15 years ago I had the honor of interviewing Miss Price. I told her that my favorite opera recording of hers was not by Verdi, as one might expect, but the 1962 Madama Butterfly that she did with Tucker in Rome. Her eyes welled up a bit and she told me that it was a very tender memory for her. She was alone in Rome while Tucker was with his wife and sons. "I became entirely a part of that family in every way and was embraced by their love,” she said. I think that this definitive recording is suffused with that love, as you can hear in the Act One love duet part one and part two. Opera singing simply does not get better than this.