Some opera singers are called great, and one is never quite sure why. Others perform extraordinarily and are not singled out for great praise. One of the reasons many are called “great” is that hyperbole abounds in fine arts criticism, simply because music and dance directly engage the emotions, and a positive affective reaction to something is usually strongly defended. It is hard to say why we fall in love, and even harder to say with whom or with what. Lawrence Tibbett is an American original. Blessed with a magnificent voce—lyric, powerful, wide-ranging and remarkably flexible— he quickly rose to the top of the operatic world. At the time of his Met debut in 1923, he was a mere 26 years old. He sang an astonishingly wide range of roles, from the French, German and Italian repertoire, all to general acclaim. His ability to pronounce foreign languages was extraordinary. By the early 30’s he was appearing in movies, lighter operettas, and was commonly heard on the radio. I think one does not have to look much further than the wide degree of exposure in the popular media to answer the vexing question of why he is not called “the Great Tibbett.” When we look at other famous American baritones and basses—Merrill, Milnes, Warren, London—we do not associate them with musical comedy or film. In fact, I know from personal experience that Merrill went to the opposite extreme. Gordon MacRae once told me that Robert Merrill was constantly after him to have a go at opera, but MacRae said that he just never felt he could deal with the foreign languages. And, not coincidentally, he did not need the money. Robert Weede was in a similar situation. He did a Rigoletto, in his youth, that was widely praised, but one long stint in Most Happy Fella was sufficient for him to abandon opera altogether. Money is usually the reason. Opera is demanding and requires great discipline, a lot of travel, a decided gift for languages, and great physical stamina. After the proliferation of the popular media, especially the movies, it was just so much easier to make money, doing much less, that the temptation was enormous. But it can come at a terrible price, Mario Lanza being one of the most prominent tragic examples. But that is another story for another time.
There are a large number of videos of Tibbett on the Web, and it is easy to consult them. Figaro was one of his most acclaimed roles, and it is not hard to see why. The following video features both Tibbett and Milnes doing Largo al Factotum, and fortunately Tibbett is first. His section is only 4:20 long, and well worth listening to, because it is the essential Tibbett: many shades of color, comedy in the voice, excellent Italian (listen to the closed ‘e‘ on “verita.” Only someone who has studied Italian stage diction seriously will do this.) As for high notes, we hear an A natural and a final G. But it is the extraordinary flexibility that stands out. At 3:50 he does the very high-speed “Ah, bravo Figaro, bravo bravissimo….” faster than anyone I have ever heard, including Italians. An amazing recording:
Just a few lines from “Il Balen” will tell the story of Tibbett the singer of dark and heavy roles:
Some problems are beginning to show up here. It’s a wonderful rendition, but he is uncovering the voice and starting to belt some notes around f# and g natural. Bad habit, and almost certainly related to all the singing in English he was doing. Covered vowels in English annoy the musical comedy audience. They sound foreign. I’m willing to bet that it was taking its toll on his opera singing. As was alcohol. Sadly, Tibbett was a two-fisted drinker of near legendary proportion. That does not conduce to longevity in opera. The Tibbett that most Americans knew, from the radio, can be heard here:
That is simply beautiful. Such vocal talent! I wonder if anyone noticed the open F natural at 1:29. That’s what you have to do in English. It will destroy an opera voice eventually, but there is no choice if you are going to make a serious career of singing to a popular English speaking audience. You will lose them altogether if you don’t open up and belt the notes out at that level.
There are examples of Tibbett in movies on the web also. They are perhaps best avoided. His movie acting, like that of most American and Italian opera singers, ranged from the unimpressive downward to the execrable. Opera singing is simply too expansive an art; film is merciless to the degree it narrows in on the smallest gestures. Movie actors act mainly with their eyes….anything else quickly becomes too broad. Tibbett was hardly the only one to embarrass himself on film. Lanza’s acting was laughable, as was Gigli’s. Today we have the dread example of Anna Netrebko, a lovely woman with a lovely voice, and next to no discretion as far as presenting herself in public.
No one questions Lawrence Tibbett’s talent or natural endowments—they were extraordinary—but sometimes even a great voice and stellar musicianship aren’t quite enough. There is an ineffable quality most often called “star quality” that has to be there for the reputation to endure, and it very often revolves around the issue of discretion.