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Saturday, May 9, 2009

Lawrence Tibbett: Almost Great

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.


Jing said...

How fascinating! Tibbett has always been my sentimental favorite among baritones. You capture quite well the pathos of this "near great" singer. He was a prodigiously gifted artist, while very much a product of the artistic America of his day - for better, for worse. Well done!

I am especially fascinated by your comments about the toll taken by a career immersed in popular musical and dramatic (cinematic) culture, as well as the classical. Your advisories about Tibbett's acting found on YouTube are well-grounded. Yet, amazingly, he was nominated for an Oscar as "best actor" in "The Rogue Song" (1930). As you have noted before, there was a time when overly broad, melodramatic hamming passed for great art. Of course, had we been living then...

The vocal wear and tear resulting from trying to sing well in English (and Tibbett was noted for his pronunciation and dramatic performance)lead me to two observations that I'd appreciate your thoughts on. First, while Tibbett was extremely busy with opera, movies, radio, eventually TV (a sad display late in his life - including singing a popular song of the day on one breath!), he kept up an extremely rigorous concert schedule - as many, at one point, as four or five per week. I have heard more than one successful opera singer confirm that, in many ways, giving a recital is more physically, mentally, and vocally demanding than performaing in an opera (depending on the opera, of course). The recital circuit in the thirties and forties was very popular, and much programming consisted of a fair amount of singing in English, including numerous encores (often notably in Tibbett's case, a bizarre rendition of "The Glory Road" - an incredible feat of...I'm not sure what exactly - perhaps a kind of cross between minstrelsy and pulpit oratory). All that singing, shouting, (and yes drinking), had to have been, as you make clear, devastating.

And then, secondly, Tibbett was a great champion of opera in English. There are some great recordings from "The Merry Mount", "The Emperor Jones", "The King's Henchmen" among others. He must have seen all these roles as demanding of him the same wide-open, uncovered vocal production you indicate can be found on some of the YouTube videos. (I practically choked when heard his high F in "Going Home" (and twice at that!). The English, of course, have a much longer history of opera in English and song. But, from Purcell to Britten, the dramatic challenges are expected to be met without sacrificing beautiful (and safe) vocal production. The music hall stage was something else entirely, of course. (Interesting to compare the relationship between class and music in Britain and the US). So, Edmund, my thought is that you explore opera in English one of these days. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Finally (I know, I'm long-winded today), here is a bit of trivia. In Hollywood during the forties, Tibbett lived in a lavish mansion. It turns out that gangland legend Bugsy Siegel needed a nice place for his lover, the notorious mobster moll, Virginia Hill. So, as the story goes, Bugsy muscled Tibbett into selling (or maybe leasing it) to Ms Hill, and thereafter Busgy and Virginia took it over. In Warren Beatty's bio-pic about Siegel, there is a scene where Bugsy threatens Larry with "an offer he can't refuse." And an effete Tibbett, in a smoking jacket and ascot, knuckles under without hesitation. One can only hope that there was some artistic license taken by the film-maker. But, who knows?

Edmund said...

Absolutely superb comment. Your knowledge of all things Tibbett is impressive and I certainly appreciate your sharing them with us. As to the questions you raise, I would say first, as regards opera in English, the battle is largely won---against it. The kinds of things Tibbett tried to do did not prevail.

The technical and stylistic problems are huge. First of all, there is a musical syntax for each language that is based on the linguistic syntax of that language. They must correspond, or there is a stylistic clash between the two that makes any lyrics attached to them unconvincing if not out and out laughable. You cannot, for example, impose a syntax appropriate to the Germanic language onto a musical syntax that was developed to correspond to the linguistic syntax of something written in Italian. This is a long discussion, and perhaps I will take your advice and do a piece on it. It needs more space. As for singing in English, it is a very harsh language, and its nasal and gutteral aspects are death to a voice. What passes for singing on the Broadway stage is often perilously close to shouting or screaming. Think of the "A" in the American pronunciation of "can't." ("OH, you CAN't get a guy with a gun!") It is hard to imagine a nastier vowel. Spanish has a total of FIVE sounds to sing, and Italian SEVEN, if you count the open E and open O. The number of umlauted vowels in English is huge. Think of the O. How many sounds does that letter represent? "joke," "got," "off," of," "women." It's insane. English is one of the harshest languages in the world for a singer.

Cross-over is easy in Italian (witness Bocelli, Lanza, others) but close to impossible in English. You are right, it's going to take a whole piece. I'll do one soon.

When I was young, there were two raging arguments about opera singers and opera in general. First, why must so many of the high voice singers be so FAT, and second, why not opera in English translation? Both questions have been resolved. It turned out that nobody at all cared whether a singer was fat or not. The suspension of disbelief in the case of opera is so great anyway that it's only one more small step to accepting the spectacle of two lovers bouncing off each other as they attempt to get their arms into an embrace. It certainly did not slow Pavarotti down. Second, the opera in English question (leaving aside the multitude of technical problems)was definitively settled when the first supertitle screen was installed above the proscenium arch or on the backs of the seats. Now you can listen to the operas in their original languages and read the libretto off the screens. American technology to the rescue yet again.

As to the Bugsy Siegel story, that's a new one. I had not heard that one. Tibbett was probably very smart, if the story is true. "Yessir, Mr. Siegel, your offer is most generous. I'll be out by noon tomorrow." Siegel was widely known to be completely insane. Good move for Tibbett.

J.D. Hobbes said...

You have described Tibbett well. His "Largo" and "Di Provenza" are as good as it gets. I can imagine him in full costume on stage effectively portraying any appropriate character. But then, as you mention, one finds YouTube clips of "Lawrence Tibbett Takes a Bath," and he is seen without a shirt in a small pond in a scene that Nelson Eddy might have done. (or not!) Not much "gravitas" there. It seems common that successful people lose focus and try to cross over to new areas. Perhaps they get bored? Is it an ego need? Loss of perspective? Or perhaps, as you suggest, there is a financial motive. It certainly is true that movies especially can be very lucrative, as long as reputations are not destroyed by dreadful acting!

Tibbett's singing was great. But, as you say, an overall appraisal of his career seems to be just that: "almost great."

Edmund said...

Good questions. As always, I suspect the answer is a little bit of "all of the above." I lean very heavily toward the financial motive. At one point in my life, I was a union representative for Actor's Equity. I would go to New York to argue cases, and I saw the statistics: Taking all American performing media into account, from tiny town halls to great movie careers, and everything in between, 97% of all the money made was made by the top 3% of performers. The remaining 97% of performers divided the remaining 3% of the money made. Simple translation: virtually nobody makes it. There is no middle. The few stars at the top make it all. Now this was about 1964. Things may have changed somewhat, but again, from my own experience as artistic director of an opera theater as recently as 1980, I would say not. Follow the money. It usually tells the tale.

J.D. Hobbes said...

Something else occurs to me: Tibbett was born in this country, so European music for him was a career,but perhaps Europe was not his home, his "heart." We can never know, but I wonder how much of his desire to perform in American art forms resulted from his comfort level with his own country? As people age, it seems they want to return to go home. And he does sing a
beautiful version of "Goin' Home" that can be found on YouTube.

Edmund said...

Now that is an original and interesting idea that had not occurred to me. And of course it is made more interesting by the fact that it might have a general application; i.e. to other singers singing in languages not their own, created in a country of which they have no primary knowledge. Yes, there must surely be some difference between singing in a language that is not your own, reflecting a culture that can never be yours, no matter how hard to try to adapt. The words just don't have the evocative power as do the the words one learns as a child, with all their emotional resonances and associations. Something to ponder. Thanks, excellent observation!

JD Hobbes said...

Thank you. Yes, I know from personal experience. I lived in Europe and studied there. But as the novelty wore off and time went by, I found my thoughts turning home. At one point I had to make a decision, and I came back to the USA. Home ties (and all that they entail) are extraordinarily hard to break.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the article; I didn’t know this singer. He certainly was great. Beautiful voice and very soulful singing. I saw his acting, and perhaps it was not that bad on stage; he was energetic, charming and had great “presence” . He bore slight resemblance to Clark Gable.( I wonder why he posed in the Georgian national costume for one photo.)

Perhaps sometimes criterions of operatic greatness are too strict. Or maybe everything depends on the quality of pop-culture. The Western pop-culture (movies , songs and promotion) always was very entertaining and “sexy”; the censorship existed, but the general spirit nevertheless was frivolous and opposite to the typical behavior and style of an operatic singer. In the USSR the censorship in the pop-culture was so strict during the 1930’s-60’s, that even love songs were patriotic:). Love songs were especially awful. Real pop-music, like jazz, existed of course, but it always was in danger .There were no tabloids, no interest to the artists’ personal life (though fans knew everything) Moreover, operatic singers HAD to sing pop-songs. Opera was considered too aristocratic, and they had to prove their unity with ordinary people. I imagine that in the USSR Tibbett would have been a great and respected People’s Artist.
Now our pop-culture is awful in general and any attempt to mix it with opera is a catastrophe.

Edmund said...

Thank you once again for a fascinating insight into the world of musical culture in Russia. Some things are similar to the way they are here. It is still necessary, if an opera singer wants a very big career, to somehow prove that he or she is "just a regular person," or "just one of the crowd," or "just like everybody else." Pavarotti was especially good at this. He was always on television, usually portraying himself in a silly way. He would go on to talk shows, along with country music singers, and generally try to be funny, etc. It worked for him. His name became a household word. Tibbett did similar kinds of things. My mother remembered him from the 30's, and she even remembered little incidents like the time he got wounded on stage by a sword whose sharp point had not been filed down, as it is required to be now.

Jing said...

I've enjoyed reading these comments, especially about popular, silly, and serious music. I recall a remark made by Tony Bennett. He was a great friend and admirer of Frank Sinatra. And Bennett was one of the very few other singers that Sinatra ever spoke favorably of. According to Bennett, Sinatra had this simple advice for him. "Never sing silly songs." I don't think that either of them ever did. Incidentally, in another context, I've heard it said of country music legend, George Jones, that a ready willingness to sing silly songs kept him from ever being taken truly seriously as a singer, and even contributed to his downfall (along with drink and womanizing, of course.)

Edmund said...

Yes, Sinatra was flat-out right about that. I remember when Helen Traubel would appear on the Ed Sullivan show and generally disgrace herself by making fun of her size, and singing silly songs. Pity, because she was a fine soprano, with a mighty voice.

Yes, George Jones could sing some silly stuff (White Lightnin' might qualify) but the problem in his case was that some of the serious songs were so sentimental that they were not easy to listen to (She quit loving him today). That song needed to be dispensed with a prescription for anyone who was diabetic.) But then to be fair the same could also be said of Puccini, ha!

JD Hobbes said...

What you say about American country music reminds me of earlier comments about singing outside of one's own culture and country. Most Americans cannot even approximate southern country music. There is a sound, a twang that is distinctive. It is a part of that culture. So one can imagine the challenge of Americans trying to sing and/or be part of something European.

Anonymous said...

I can add only that Lemeshev was mostly operatic , folk- and chamber singer. He was very successful with pop-songs and the Musical story, but in fact, the number of pop-songs was not that big in his repertoire. Besides, in the 1930’- 50’s the Soviet audience loved folk-songs and “romances” by Gurilyov and Tchaikovsky no less than pop-songs.

Jing said...

Lawrence Tibbett was a great favorite of George Gershwin. The composer had always stipulated that whenever Porgy and Bess was performed, it was to be with an all-black cast. Though composed as an opera, it was reduced in scope to a Broadway musical for its original production, with Todd Duncan as the first Porgy. Yet it was Gershwin’s desire that, if and when the full operatic version would find its way to the Met, Tibbett would play Porgy. In fact, at the composer’s personal request, within days of its opening in 1935, Tibbett and the excellent soprano Helen Jepson recorded selections from Porgy and Bess. Tibbett sang music from three different male roles, and the recording was sensationally popular, Tibbett’s first real international recording success.

Years later in 1953, with the encouragement of the US State Department, it was determined that a production of Porgy and Bess would tour internationally, including the then USSR , as part of an American cultural outreach program. By then Tibbett’s struggles with alcohol were well-known and many regarded him as washed up. However, Tibbett was invited to sing the role of Porgy in this production. He readily agreed and signed a contract, understandably seeing this as a chance to revitalize his career and reputation. He had recently emerged from three weeks of alcohol rehabilitation, and immediately went into strict vocal and physical training for this strenuous role. He made great progress and was very encouraged. Unfortunately, his then wife, Jane, offered little support and encouragement for his recovery. While Tibbett practiced and studied his role in one room of their Manhattan apartment suite, she continually partied in another. Soon the laughter, tinkling of glasses, temptations of drink proved too strong for his fragile recovery, and Tibbett “fell off the wagon”. His contract was cancelled and, tragically, he lost the chance to play Porgy in what became a legendary tour, with William Warfield and Leontyne Price in the starring roles. Jane pronounced her husband a “hopeless drunk” and they split for good.

During World War II, Tibbett, though he never went overseas, between 1941 and 1946, gave a total of 48 war-related benefit concerts, throughout the US and Canada.

Edmund, you are certainly correct that an American matinee idol in the early days of Hollywood was generally expected to wear a moustache, and Tibbett longed for such fame. His was usually neat and trimmed - sometimes slightly turned up at the tips, sometimes straight. He sported a variety of styles of facial hair for his film and operatic roles. Later in life, the moustache came and went, and during his last years he did not wear one at all. Charlie Chaplin’s moustache as “the Little Tramp” was far more Hitler-esque than anyone else’s. With the rise of the Third Reich, at first Chaplin was criticized for this apparent imitation of Hitler. Later, however, Hitler was himself criticized for being such a poor imitation of Chaplin. It all came together, of course, in the film “The Great Dictator.”

Tibbett sang from time to time on “Your Hit Parade” and the “Voice of Firestone Music Hour.” I am aware of no surviving videos of those appearances.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for information.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Here is a very good site that lists several of his recordings:

RAPman said...

In response to Jing and Edmund (May 10, 2009) regarding Bugsy Siegel intimidating Tibbett into selling his house to Siegel, this link: Bugsy
relates that fictitious story as told in the Warren Beatty movie, Bugsy. The fourth paragraph of the article states that the scene has its origins from a true story where Clark Gable tried to buy Lauritz Melchior's house. It seems that the story has attained urban legend status.

In the movie, Siegel gives Tibbett the proceeds from the sale in cash. Siegel then tells his compatriot that a bank will spot the money as counterfeit. I don't think that even a mobster with a reputation like Siegel would be able to get away with paying for a house with counterfeit money and avoid prosecution.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much for a very knowledgeable comment. That is an important factual contribution to the discussion, and I appreiate it. Thanks again.

Robert said...

Weede never abandoned opera at all. I have recordings of live operas with him as late as 1960. I associate names like Lawrence Tibbett and
Grace Moore with their operatic careers whether they were in movies or not. Tibbett was still with the Met until at least 1950 and Moore spent nearly 20 seasons performing at the Met.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Good comment! Most informative, and I appreciate that!