Commentary Magazine


In Memory of Richard Tucker

In our house, during the war, we listened to the radio on Saturday nights, and at ten o'clock, nine o'clock Central Time, on Mutual, there was the Chicago Theater of the Air offering condensations of the great operas and operettas in English. I remember that every week at the beginning of the program the publisher of the Chicago Tribune, Colonel Robert R. Mc-Cormick (“a notorious reactionary,” my father said) would deliver a boring history lecture and that the regular soprano, Marion Claire, sang dreadfully (but was, according to my mother, “very beautiful and a very good friend of the Colonel's”). A reactionary, I gathered, was a menacing person (“certainly no friend of the Jews”), and mistresses, while perhaps not potential anti-Semites, were people a Jewish tenor and “family man” should approach with great caution. So that when I first heard Richard Tucker, as Rudolfo, on that program in 1944, when I was nine, and wept real tears when he sang the final “Mimi, Mimi,” with that pinched poignance which was his characteristic sound and dead center on the G sharp with only a hint of a sob, he came to me under the sponsorship not only of the Chicago Tribune, but, as it were, my parents, who prompted me to take pride in a Jew's achievement (“he's a hazzan, you know, Reuben Ticker”), and to ponder, not for the last time, whether there is something vaguely unkosher in the idea of a Jewish opera star.

We were a house of hero-worshippers, singers, and lovers. My father sang the classics and my mother, the blues. (My brother and I both had “beautiful voices” and “still do.”) Somewhere along the trail I learned that it was expected of a growing man that he find a great singer and love him for life. They said of my mother's uncle, Sol, a tailor (and a “Communist,” according to my father) that he loved Caruso so much that after the great tenor's death in 1921 he refused to go to the Met or so much as listen to another tenor, a story which I later learned was not precisely true though Sol went along with it. Once when he visited our house in Somerville, New Jersey, I begged him to break his vow and listen to Tucker, if not the cantorial jewels at least to “Vesti la giubba.” To me, he surrendered, and to this day his evaluation (“Not bad. Not Caruso, but not bad.”) strikes me as having contained the ideal proportions of objectivity and loyalty.

Sol was right. In some respects the voices were strikingly similar, but judging from scratchy recordings and contemporary accounts, Caruso was a little better. Technically. They even looked alike: graceless but vigorous; large, dark heads set on squat frames, Tucker fleshier through the jowls and wider in the middle. Both commanded a fabulously even scale, unfailingly well-placed on every vowel and perfectly in tune, with a rich and full-bodied lower and middle voice, rare in lyric tenors, which soared without audible scar through the dreaded passage to the upper register, where the high tones, daring mixtures of chest and head, seemed to gain in plangency and thrust with each further ascent. Those high tones, with their dazzling ping, are the Caruso legacy and have been the death of would-be emulators who would have been better advised to shun the chest and suck the topmost notes into the head in the prescribed bel canto manner. Seizing the gauntlet Caruso hurled at succeeding generations of tenors, Tucker returned it with high notes perhaps a bit more bottom-heavy, but brilliant nonetheless.

It is said of Caruso that early in his career his voice would crack above an A but that with an iron will he had expanded his range to include the secure high C needed in the great tenor arias of Trovatore, Bohème, and Faust. Lacking not an ounce of Caruso's will, Tucker lacked the C, and prudently transposed downward those arias which required it.1 While he was a thoroughly secure singer, Tucker worked closer to the limits of his vocal resource than Caruso, who always sounded as if he had ample breath and power in reserve, even in the most taxing passages. More seriously, Tucker lacked Caruso's command of the messa di voce, the seamless expansion of the tone from piano to forte and back again, and sometimes when he tried to sing softly in the upper register it sounded as though he were squeezing down on the tone rather than letting it float free. Both voices darkened somewhat in the course of their careers but retained great tonal variety—now dramatic, now lyric, now silver, now bronze—but when I am most my uncle's nephew I concede that Tucker lacked the liquid gold of Caruso or the cooler white gold of his rival, Jussi Bjoerling, at their most lyrical moments.

And yet, to me, Tucker was the supreme operatic tenor and not only because of the special way he sang to me and my family, though that's part of it and not without aesthetic relevancy either.

Consider the basic Tucker sound and musical impulse. As every experienced listener knows, Swedish, French, Slavic, German, Italian, or American singers each seem to have a distinctive cast to their voice and some distinctive musical mannerisms. Bjoerling and Nillson, Jobin and Crespin, Christoff and Vishnevskaya, Wunderlich and Gueden, Del Monaco and Tebaldi, Tucker and Price: the cultural linkages between these otherwise very individual and cosmopolitan singers are quite clear. Why this should be so is a fascinating question. Perhaps the physical habits required to pronounce and intone the mother tongue leave a lasting mark on the singing voice. Or perhaps we are hearing an echo of the peculiar timbre and melodic inflection with which basic emotions were expressed in the singer's home. The songs and poetry of the street must also play a part in addition to the singer's more formal musical exposures. Whatever the source, the phenomenon is plain: great singers, even great stylists, sound as if they are rediscovering the natural music of their nurture in everything they sing.

In this broad sense, Richard Tucker, Brooklyn bred and American trained, was first of all an American singer, our greatest tenor, sharing with Tibbett, Farrell, Warren, Merrill, Stevens, Peerce, Kirsten, Price, Milnes, America's most attractive musical characteristics: open, vigorous sound; straightforward, clean musicality; and a sense of style which makes up in adaptability and expressive candor what it lacks in ultimate finesse. I believe that close analysis of the high art of all these singers would disclose the low-down influence of American popular music and particularly the blues. Certainly it is there in Jan Peerce, and in Eileen Farrell, our greatest soprano and a terrific blues singer, and it's there in Tucker as well.2 Early in his career he recorded on 78 rpm a long-forgotten pop song called “The Loveliness of You” in which he comes on like a Bing Crosby with high notes. Franz Lehár, in his hands, sounds as if he were writing for the Broadway stage; and while his later recordings of popular music are marred by acrobatic displays, they contain enough just plain crooning to demonstrate how fundamentally Tucker's musical sensibility remained in this area.

These musical values showed up in his operatic performances with magical effect. A case in point is from the second act of his recording of La Bohètne under Leinsdorf, who for some reason always seemed to bring out the American in Tucker.3 Singing softly beneath a plaintive clarinet, Rudolfo tells his new-found love, Mimi, that he could never forgive her if she treated him as cruelly as, at that moment, the tempestuous Musetta is treating her escort (“Sappi, per tuo governo, che non darei perdono in sempiterno”). The tenderness and vulnerability which Tucker projects in rendering these words—seductively insinuating the lyric into the melody, caressing “sempiterno” with a feather-light slide—is worthy of a Sinatra and, to me at least, an unanswerable demonstration of how Puccini should be sung.

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But if he was an American singer he was also, like so many Americans, something else. Leontyne Price, an all-American girl from Mississippi, brings the ravishing intensitv of the black gospel singer to her operatic art, and Tucker, as my father kept reminding me, remained a hazzan. No tenor with a voice of comparable size could execute the trills needed in Trova-tore and the Verdi Requiem as crisply or toss off the rapid passages at the end of the first act of Così fan tutte with such agility and precision: a consequence, no doubt, of his cantorial training. I have mentioned the poignant little pinch in Tucker's voice, an effect he reaches for when he wants to sound beautiful. It is a tender, intimate sound, and yet somehow it sounded almost detached from the singer. Sometimes, listening to it at the Met, I got the distinct sensation that it was not being delivered from the stage at all but from a tar greater distance. It is, of course, a sound that resonates off the walls of synagogues all over the world and one to which I was personally attached, never quite understanding how people I respected, like the critic B. H. Haggin, could fail to respond to it.

The reader who is interested in hearing Tucker's cantorial sound in opera might listen to his opening notes, repeated on B, in the last scene of Aida (‘La fatal pietra sovra me se chiuse,’ etc.) and then note the cantorial inflection he gives the delicate alteration to C as he sings the “ee” of “Ah-ee-duh” (“non rivedrò più Aida”). (It's enough to make one reconsider my father's theory that Verdi was a Marrano sending signals to the Jews of the world.) Or, listen to his rendition of Des Grieux's gorgeous aria in the second act of Manon Lescaut (“Ah! Manon, mi tradisce”). There were times at the Met when Tucker's version of the final despairing lines of that aria (‘Nell'oscuro futuro di che farai di me’), with their series of portamenti, was so egregiously cantorial as to risk stylistic distortion. I myself heard it as a higher synthesis. By replacing the ululant caterwauls of the Italian tradition with the dolorous lamentations of his own, Tucker was simply showing future generations of tenors how to cry more musically.

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I will never forget a gala performance given at the Metropolitan on March 3, 1956 in honor of the President of Italy. The company offered scenes from several operas and then a program of arias by its principal artists, including Bjoerling and Tucker. It was the only time, to my knowledge, that the two greatest tenors of their time met face to face and the evening had something of the excitement of a championship fight. Jimmy the Greek would have installed the imperious Swede as an odds-on choice, and he was also the personal favorite of the standees downstairs. I was upstairs with Tucker's crowd, in the family circle.

Bjoerling came first, his jacket resplendent with medals—from the crowned heads of Europe, no doubt. He sang the majestic “Cielo e mar” from La Gioconda, the opera in which Tucker had made his debut at the Metropolitan in 1945. And he sang it as only he could: effortlessly, the great arching phrases shaped with unfailing musical taste. One heard the inimitable Bjoerling sound, so familiar from records: a narrow thread of white gold unbroken by sob or gasp or anything but the purest musical effect, chilling the hearts of the scholarly Jewish camp counselors and hotel waiters standing downstairs, who, seeking respite from excessive sentiment, adored him. After the final, shimmering B flat, the house exploded.

Tucker followed immediately, warmly greeted. A former athlete at New Utrecht High School, with a gambler's heart, he was at his best in competition. He would sing the “Addio” from Cavalleria Rusticana, Turiddu's farewell to his mother, which, as it happens, was one of Bjoerling's specialties and is one of opera's schmaltziest numbers. After only a few phrases it was obvious, as it never had been when the men sang separately, that Tucker's voice was much larger than Bjoerling's and his dynamic range much broader. The voice resounded through the house like a great bronze bell. Bjoerling's artful phrasing and soaring lyricism were matched by Tucker's exquisite coloration and towering passion. At the repetition of the aria's grand theme, Tucker executed two mighty crescendos and he delivered the climax of the piece with unabashed fervor. The number is always a show stopper, but there seemed to be acknowledgment in the great applause that the contest had been, at least, a heroic standoff. I scored it a close decision in favor of the big voice and the honest sentimentality.

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Passion is the lifeblood of the operas comprising Tucker's basic repertoire and passion was his stock in trade. For years I was tempted to write Columbia Records with a suggestion that they put out a record called “The Essential Tucker: Fulminations, Imprecations, Renunciations, and Supplications from Italian and French Opera,” a collection not of the arias and set pieces but of those cameos of ardor and rage at which Tucker so excelled. As well as he delivered the Flower Song from Carmen, Tucker was absolutely riveting in the third act of that opera when Don Jose\ taunted by Carmen to leave her and visit his dying mother, warns Carmen that they will meet again and that he will permit her to love no other man. Jose' takes his leave on a high B flat (“Ah, partons”) and Tucker, under Tyrone Guthrie's direction, would begin the note at stage left in the old Met and hold it, increasing the intensity, as he walked slowly, menacingly toward Carmen the entire width of the great stage (expanding the beat-and-a-half indicated in the score to a full eight or more). At such times, his voice seemed to gain breath not from its usual resource (which in truth was not remarkable) but from a great bellows of passion he could call upon when needed. Normally clear and precise in his diction, in these moments he would positively relish the words. The very pronunciation of them became a means of emotional insinuation; consonants were hurled out like thunderbolts (“O, tentatrice,” “Infamia,” “Maledizione”). Margaret Webster, who directed him in Don Carlos and Simon Boccanegra, once questioned whether he always understood the literal meaning of the words he was singing. If he didn't understand them literally, he certainly understood their emotional significations.

“The Essential Tucker” would have included moments from the final scene of Carmen (Tucker contrite after murderous rage); the harbor scene from Manon Lescaut (Tucker as pathetic supplicant); “Vittoria, Vittoria” from Tosca (Tucker triumphant); renunciations of faithless lovers in Traviata, Lucia, and Pagliacci (Tucker unforgiving); Turiddu's brief scene with Alfio in Cavalleria (Tucker begging forgiveness); and the final duelling scene from La Forza del Destino with its hair-raising cry (“un brando, un brando”) which demonstrates what Tucker could be when raised to a fighting fury.

There are great singers, Bjoerling for example, who would stint on these scenes, perhaps to save themselves for the arias, or, as I sometimes imagined, out of some Protestant incapacity or unwillingness to meet their emotional demands. Other singers, Mario Del Monaco comes to mind, will shout so in these moments that they lose the concentration needed for the pure music. But Tucker always sang these scenes, albeit with awesome intensity, and always musically. More successfully than any other tenor of his era, he was able to move from aria to dramatic outburst and back again. No other tenor, for example, could so well encompass the very different demands of the cavatina, “Ah si ben mio, coll'essere,” and the ensuing cabaletta, “Di quella pira,” from II Trovatore. In operas demanding pure song (I would cite Don Carlos and his little remembered triumph in The Tales of Hoffman) he could rein in his stentorian flair, but he never curbed his zest for passionately expressive singing.

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Where did this bridled passion come from? Surely we are dealing here with aspects of performance which go beneath individual personality to the cultural roots of the artist. I don't know what kind of family life this conspicuous family man had when he grew up in Brooklyn, but if it was anything like my own, it was positively operatic in its kaleidoscopic outpourings of love, jealousy, posessiveness, denunciation, forgiveness, indignation, and contrition. At the time, I thought the acting in our house was terrific, but now I realize that it was not so much acting as singing. Melodies of emotion. Not words, literally understood, but words as caresses, curses, and oaths. Mighty streams of consonants and vowels projected to the rafters as though the Almighty would miss their momentous drift if they were understated. Sometimes I think I love opera so much, more than the lieder and string quartets I spend so much time with, because it provides a culturally respectable place for an American Jewish man with “a beautiful voice” to express and honor his roots. Maybe that's where the audiences for the Yiddish theater went, uptown to the family circle to get culture, but familiar culture. Maybe that is the true source of Richard Tucker's greatness: that he transmuted this sociology I hint at into art.

His epitaph should say that he was an American Jewish opera singer. Yes, he was a famous hazzan too, but my opinion, strongly documented in the recordings, is that for all the conviction with which he delivered his cantorial jewels and Goldfaden songs, he sang with greater abandon and natural impulse in grand opera and the Neapolitan canzoni. Jan Peerce, with less voice, is more persuasive in the Yiddish songs and even the hazzanisch.

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I never met my hero. His public personality like his physique was unprepossessing, a contrivance of guileless vanities and inauthentic postures. Publicly he gave no hint of the playful little boy he revealed at the Met in Così fan tutte or Fledermaus. In one moment of uncharacteristic éclat he sang the famous aria “M'appari” in Italian during an English-language performance of Martha. But such moments were infrequent. Articles would speak of his thorough professionalism, his businesslike manner (he demanded top dollar), and then dote on his devotion to family and religion. He liked to say that he refused a recording contract with von Karajan because of the latter's former Nazi affiliations, and if that's true, I admire him for it. I have no doubt that he deserved my family's highest accolades: “He was a real friend of Israel.” “He was a terrific giver.”

However, when I remember the private Tucker, I shall think most of all of a worker, like my father. He sang at the Met for thirty years, remaining close to the top of his form. Critics were not being polite when they praised the force and eloquence of his final performances as Canio. To have sung that long demands sound technique but also unrelenting concentration and discipline. As every singer knows, the sheer physical and mental will to sing wears out long before the voice does. Tucker sang as long as he did, I imagine, because someone taught him that a man's portion in his life is to work hard at his trade and thereby sing praises unto the Lord.

News of his death reached me in a hotel in Miami Beach. All around me in the lobbies and streets of that condominium paradise I saw Reuben Tickers. Successful men over sixty, good Jews, family men, workers, terrific givers, with guileless vanities, inauthentic postures. I remembered then what I too often forget: that beneath the clothing of these men beats the heart of a Rudolfo, a Radames, a Des Grieux, and Richard Tucker lived to prove it. In the distance I heard an ambulance crying “Mimi, Mimi.” And I thought to myself, as long as I live I shall never listen to another tenor but Richard Tucker and when I do, none will ever touch me as deeply or lend such eloquent expression to my life as he did.

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Footnotes

1 And did so throughout his career, the eulogy in the New York Times notwithstanding. In his early recording of La Boheme, with Bidu Sayao, both the first-act aria and love duet are transposed down a semitone, as are four subsequent recordings of the aria. Later, in a full-length recording of the opera under Leinsdorf, he sang the C but with considerable strain. (He even transposed down the aria “Fra poco a me ricovero” in his recording of Lucia with Lily Pons, though that aria only goes to a B flat.) At the Met he occasionally ventured an optional high C in a duet or ensemble, for example at the end of the love duet in Un Ballo in Maschera or at the end of the second act of Carmen, but the note was always touch and go with him.

2 A recording Farrell and Tucker made of Verdi duets and one he made with Dorothy Kirsten of the love duet from Tosca are fine examples of the Ameriican operatic style.

3 I am thinking of Tucker's charming characterization of Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton in his recording, with Leontyne Price, of Madame Butterfly.

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