Richard Crooks, A Brilliant American Tenor
There are at least two American tenors who have not, in my opinion, received the general attention that their talent merited. The first, Eugene Conley, was the subject of a recent blog, and today I would like to deal with the second, the brilliant American lyric tenor Richard Crooks. It is of course true that if Mario Lanza had pursued an international stage career, instead of the movies, he could have been the great American tenor, but with a name like Mario Lanza, and being of immediate Italian ancestry, he would have been in the same situation as Roberto Alagna—a tenor whose name and childhood home language suggest a country and heritage different from the country and heritage into which he was born and raised. That isn't quite the same thing as the situations of Conley and Crooks.
Richard Crooks was born in 1900 in Trenton, New Jersey. By the age of 9 he was singing in church choirs, and soon went on to study with Sidney H. Bourne and Frank LaForge, in New York. He joined the Air Force in 1917 (although he had to lie about his age!) and served as a pilot for the remainder of WWI. After the war, he began giving concerts in 1920, and was immediately successful; so much so that by 1925 he undertook a concert tour of Europe and was very much acclaimed. He operatic debut was in Hamburg in 1927, as Cavaradossi. After singing and concertizing in Europe for the next several years, he returned to the United States, debuting first at Philadelphia, in 1930, and then, in 1933 at the Metropolitan Opera as Des Grieux. He was to spend the next 10 years at the Met, starring in the lyric tenor repertoire, most notably as Faust, Cavaradossi, , Pinkerton, Wilhelm Meister, Ottavio and Romeo. In 1936 and 1939 he made very successful tours of Australia and South America.
During the 1930's and 1940's, Crooks was increasingly heard on the radio, singing operatic favorites, along with popular and Broadway hits of the day. He underwent abdominal surgery in 1945, and was forced into an early retirement. He was greatly acclaimed by the time of his retirement, and was fondly celebrated and remembered. The great soprano Rosa Ponselle is reported by her biographer James A. Drake (Rosa Ponselle--A Centenary Biography) to have "admired Crook's distinctive lyric voice, his presence, and his overall musicianship." [See Mr. Drake's comment in the Comments Section at the end of this article.] That is of course one singer's opinion, but it is characteristic of the high opinion in which Crooks was held at the time. Why then, one might ask, is he not celebrated in memory as much as he was during his career? Largely, I think, because in America, at least before the present day, it was important to have the glamour of being foreign—usually Italian. Also, like Tito Schipa, he was a genuine high lyric, possibly leggiero, and the big, powerful Italian tenors were about to stake a very major claim on public attention, just about the time Crooks was retiring. Elegance—which Crooks possessed in abundance—was to take a back seat to bravura and heroic singing, and its stars were Italian. That is no longer the situation, and American singers are very much in evidence today, and it is possible to hear major operas in major houses where one can search almost in vain for a foreign name. This was not the case 40-50 years ago, certainly.
The beautiful voice of Richard Crooks tells its own story, however, far better than my modest appraisals. Here is the extremely beautiful "Ah fuyez, douce image," from Manon:
I feel it is perfectly reasonable to say that this is one of the better versions of this famous aria. It is a magisterial bit of singing—smooth, linguistically excellent, stylistically exemplary, and vocally near-perfect. I am filled with admiration when I hear it. This is world class, on a par with Schipa or Gigli. But of course those comparisons are simply not made, which is a shame.
Here is Crooks in a signature role, Romeo, from Gounod's Romeo et Juliette:
As I search for adjectives to describe the overall effect of this singing , the words "elegant," "genteel." "restrained," all come to mind, as does—compounding the adjective one degree, "deeply-felt." There is also something ethereal about it. To my ear at least, the line and clarity of enunciation are outstanding. They constitute the essential musical and stylistic qualities upon which the ethereal quality of which I speak is based. How many tenors can sing this with such elegant restraint? Even lyric tenors cannot resist the temptation for at least occasional bombast somewhere in the aria! Crooks never does. He sings like a young lover in quiet ecstasy would sing. What a singer!
Finally, a song in English. Crooks was not only an operatic tenor. Concert, and even semi-popular singing on the radio were a significant part of his career. Here is a song he recorded in his youth, "For You Alone," from 1924:
What can I say? This is a very young singer, already displaying a voice and technique which is best, and most honestly, compared to the great leggiero tenors of his day, including John McCormack. A brilliant tenor, without question! If you want to hear one of the most popular song he ever recorded, I would recommend The Holy City, of which there are many copies available on Youtube. I didn't put it here because it is 5 ½ minutes long, but it is easily found. It is extraordinary, as was he!