I remember picking up a copy of Opera News some 50 years or so ago, and being struck by the title of its leading article. It read, as best I can now recall, "I Hear America Singing Abroad; Why Not At Home?" Why indeed? This is a question that plagues not only me, I assure you, but nearly all American opera lovers. With the relative objectivity provided by (eternally evoked) hindsight, it becomes a curious matter indeed why some singers attain international stardom and others, equally gifted vocally, do not. Many things come into play, I know; thing such as looks, acting ability, musicality, stylistic intuition, and so on. Then we get down to those very hard to define things such as timing, luck, talent, drive, competitiveness, and so on. And then there is just plain prejudice. I cannot help but feel that the latter, sadly, plays a part.
Opera was founded in America as an exotic plant; an Italian art form that was oh-so-much more sophisticated that what the new and up-coming country could supply on its own. It became the darling of New York High Society, and almost all the big stars—and certainly the big attractions—were foreign, mainly Italian. Mercifully, the situation is now much more balanced, and Americans are now reasonably represented world wide. But a lot of good singers got trapped in the no-man's-land of the early years, when it would have been a decided advantage to have a name that ended in a vowel.
One such case was Eugene Conley. Born in Massachussets, in 1908, Conley made his debut as the Duke in Rigoletto in 1940, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. He joined the New York City Opera in 1945, debuting in the role of Rodolfo in La Bohème, and from there it was off to a European career embracing the Opéra Comique, La Scala, and Covent Garden. It was in Milan, at La Scala, that he sang opposite María Callas in I Puritani (one of his signature operas) in 1949. He returned the following year to the States, and made his Metropolitan Opera debut in 1950, as Faust. He was to appear at the Met in many performances for the next six years.
Conley was a handsome man, and an attractive figure on the stage. Most importantly, he was a real, vibrant vocal presence, with a lirico-spinto voice that soared above high C with seeming ease. Possibly the best introduction to Conley is his singing of "A te, o Cara," from I Puritani, the role he sang opposite Callas at La Scala: Notice, please, that he sings this demanding aria in the original key, which many tenors cannot manage, as the high note is a Db above high C:
This is first rate tenor singing! The voice is amazingly consistent, all the way to the top. The essential quality of the voice can be called lyric, although there is certain spinto edge there that, while it does not become harsh, does introduce a certain dramatic touch to the phonation.
A slightly more lyric and less dramatic Conley reveals itself in the eternally popular Che Gelida Manina":
This is the quintessential Conley voice—high, lyrical but virile, with squillo in abundance. To my ear, this is not a voice I would characterize as "French," "Germanic," "Anglo-Saxon" "for Mozart," or any other commonly applied term. If anything, I would call it Italianate. It is in every way an excellent tenor voice, absolutely suited to the popular Verdi and Puccini favorites.
Finally, because he was an American tenor, and native English speaker, we owe it to ourselves to hear him sing in English. Here is the very popular "Because," composed by Guy d'Hardelot in1902, and recorded by very many tenors in the early to mid-20th century:
What a top voice! Why this wonderful tenor is not a household name among opera lovers is not entirely clear to me. I know there was at that time an unspoken and seldom-articulated prejudice against American tenors because they just somehow weren't "the real thing," weren't exotic enough and so forth, yet there were some who escaped that classification, such as Richard Tucker. Jan Peerce did well also, albeit not so much on stage. But that's about it. The case of Richard Crooks is just as striking as that of Conley. Perhaps James Melton also, although to a lesser degree. Maybe it's just a simple matter of luck, but it seemed to happen with a little too much consistency to be purely coincidence.