On Wednesday, August 28, the operatic world will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Richard Tucker. For this very special occasion, I am privileged to feature a commemorative article by Henry R. Tucker, one of the legendary tenor's three sons. I have also invited Dr. James A. Drake, the great tenor's authorized biographer, to introduce Mr. Tucker to our readers.
"Henry R. Tucker, an attorney-at-law and insurance broker, has a formidable knowledge of his father's recordings, roles, and artistic legacy," writes Dr. Drake.
"With his two brothers, Barry Tucker (a Manhattan stockbroker and the longtime president of the Richard Tucker Music Foundation) and Dr. David Tucker (an ophthalmologist and adjunct professor of medicine at New York University), Henry Tucker is able to speak about his legendary father from an enviable perspective.
"Among his many priceless memories is being with his brother Barry in their father's dressing room between acts during a 1973 Metropolitan Opera radio broadcast of 'La Boheme,' when Luciano Pavarotti telephoned the dressing room to say, 'You have shown us again, Richard, that you are still the king!'
"It is especially fitting that the blog 'Great Opera Singers,' through its creator Edmund St. Austell, will enable Henry Tucker to share with readers around the world not only his thoughts and perspectives, but also an array of audio and video recordings that illustrate the evolvement of Richard Tucker's voice from a youthful lyric tenor into a lirico-spinto voice of dramatic intensity."
As the youngest of the three sons of Richard and Sara Tucker, there is a sense in which I grew up with my father. I was born during his second season at the Metropolitan Opera, when my father was only thirty-two years old. In fact, my birth on January 30, 1946, occurred between performances: three nights before I was born, my father sang excepts from "Rigoletto" and "La Forza del Destino" in a gala concert at the Met; and a few days afterward, he sang parts of "Traviata" and "Rigoletto" in another Met concert. The opera season doesn't stop for newborns.
By the time of my Bar Mitzvah in 1959, when I turned thirteen, my father's voice had matured into a lirico-spinto tenor, and he had reached what most critics regarded as the apex of his career. He was then forty-five. He was internationally known, his photo had appeared on the cover of national magazines, and he had already been labeled "the American Caruso." My father, however, had a different view of his career at that point. He believed that he was just getting started.
Except for a ten-year period in which he made no commercial recordings (there were contractual reasons involved), most of my father's career and the steady, progressive maturation of his voice are reasonably well documented, thanks to the emergence of magnetic tape recording and the affordability of portable audio-recording equipment in the 1950s.
Fortunately too, some of his televised performances were captured by "kinescope" (a late-1940’s technology in which a motion-picture camera was used to film whatever appeared on a television screen), and several years later on videotape, a technology that had not even been conceived when my father made his Met debut.
Only four years after his debut (as Enzo in "La Gioconda" on January 25, 1945), my father co-starred in one of the milestones in the early history of network television. This milestone event took place on two consecutive Saturday nights in the spring of 1949, when the NBC network televised a concertized performance of Verdi's "Aida," under the baton of the incomparable Arturo Toscanini. For the principals in the cast, Toscanini had chosen mainly American singers, each of whom he had meticulously coached and rehearsed.
Although the Maestro chose my father for the telecast, it took his skills as a salesman (earlier, my father had sold silk linings in the Manhattan fur market) to persuade Toscanini to cast him as Radames. During my father's audition, Toscanini asked him to sing "Celeste Aida." When no notes of the famous aria were forthcoming, he had to confess to the Maestro that he had never sung "Celeste Aida" and didn't know any of the other music in the score.
"Tell me, Tucker," Toscanini indignantly exclaimed, "Why should I bother with you when you do not even know one note of 'Celeste Aida,' and not one note of the entire opera?" My father's reply was what earned him the role of Radames: "Because you, Maestro, will teach me 'Aida,' and then it will be 100% correct!"
That was precisely what Toscanini needed to hear in order to convince him to give my father the role. In the young Richard Tucker, the Maestro had found a young tenor for whom "Aida" was a blank slate, who had no pre-conceived interpretation of the role and music of Radames, and who would have nothing to "un-learn" in order to meet Toscanini's exceedingly high standards.
Because "Celeste Aida" is the first full aria in the score of "Aida," most tenors find it very unsettling because its range is extensive (the climax of the aria is a high B-flat), and the tenor has no opportunity to "warm up" the voice before launching into such taxing, intense music.
My father, however, relished the challenge. To him, the opportunity to perform "Aida" in front of the cameras for millions of television viewers, made him feel like Ted Williams stepping into the batter's box. In fact, the phrase "home run" was how my father often described his mindset when he was ready to go onstage. As this kinescope from the 1949 "Aida" telecast will attest, he hit the ball out of the park in "Celeste Aida":
Although my father's performance in the "Aida" telecast was uniformly praised at the time, he waited until January 1965 before he added Radames to the roster of his Metropolitan roles. He was acutely aware that singing the role in two consecutive concerts in a television studio was not at all like performing "Aida" as a complete opera in the cavernous Metropolitan Opera House.
Even by 1949, however, my father's voice had matured noticeably, compared to his timbre before he made his Met debut. This undated recording of Rachmaninoff's "In the Silence of the Secret Night," which he apparently sang in a broadcast on the WEVD radio station in New York in the early 1940’s illustrates the lyrical quality of his youthful voice and his early mastery of mezza voce technique. The Rachmaninoff song begins at 3:10 in this video:
Whenever my father was asked where he had learned his impeccable vocal technique, he always credited his teacher, Paul Althouse, the first American-born tenor to be engaged by the Metropolitan Opera without any prior European experience. (On the subject of teachers, Paul Althouse was the only teacher my father ever had. Any mention of other alleged "teachers" is nothing but unfounded speculation.) Until Paul Althouse's death in 1954, my father went to him for a lesson immediately before each of his performances at the Metropolitan.
As those who are familiar with Richard Tucker’s career will know, he had served as the cantor for three prestigious synagogues in the New York area before he began studying with Althouse. Unquestionably, the cantorate was the foundation of his eventual success as an opera singer. In his boyhood, when he was known as Ruby Tucker (his birth name was Rubin, and he was always called "Ruby" by his family and close friends), he had been taken by his father to cantor Samuel Weisser, who heard much promise in the soaring alto voice my father possessed as a boy.
When his voice changed after puberty, my father was accepted into the Zavel Zilberts choir, which performed Jewish music throughout the New York area. After that, he became a part-time cantor and was supplementing his main income as a salesman when he married my mother in February 1936.
It was my maternal grandfather, Louis (Levi) Perelmuth, who helped my father develop as a cantor by arranging for Joseph Mirsky, another young cantor, to teach my father the intricate stylistic nuances of "chazzanuth," the Hebrew term for cantorial singing. As with Paul Althouse, his teacher, and Joseph Garnett, who coached my father in his operatic roles, Joseph Mirsky became an integral member of the Richard Tucker "team." Another vital influence in his cantorial singing was the composer Sholom Secunda, whose liturgical and folk music my father sang on radio, in concerts and on recordings.
It was at the Brooklyn Jewish Center, which was then the largest synagogue in the New York area, that Edward Johnson, the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, came to hear my father sing a Shabbos Eve service on a Friday evening, and another service at 9:30 on Shabbos, the next morning. After the second service, Edward Johnson and Frank St. Leger, one of his assistants, knocked on the door of the closet-size room that my father used as an office. When he opened the door, my father was so surprised by their presence that he could only manage to say, "What are you gentlemen doing here?"
Johnson explained that for several months Wilfrid Pelletier, one of the Met's long-time conductors, had been urging Johnson to hear this phenomenal young cantor at the Brooklyn Jewish Center. Johnson did so, and immediately promised my father an audition at the Met, which was arranged soon afterward. A contract for the 1944-1945 season was then drawn up, and my father began preparing the role of Enzo for his upcoming debut. From then until Edward Johnson retired as general manager in 1949, he and my father maintained a close and mutually beneficial relationship.
When he signed his first contract with the Met, it was not easy for my father to resign as cantor of the Brooklyn Jewish Center, even though he had now reached the goal that he had confided to my mother when they became engaged. "Someday I'm going to make it big as an opera singer," he had told her confidently. "And I promise you, Sara, that like a rosebud, I will grow and blossom every year."
Although it was a foregone conclusion that he would have to leave the pulpit, he continued to officiate during the Jewish High Holy Days and on Passover in the cotillion room of the Concord Hotel in the Catskills, and later at the Park Synagogue in Chicago. At the Concord, from age ten to fourteen, I had the privilege of standing next to my father, with Sholom Secunda conducting the choir, singing one of the final prayers of the service, “Ein Keloheinu.”
Additionally, every other summer my father and mother traveled to Israel for him to sing concerts with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Because of his close association with the Israeli musical community, he also played a role in securing an appointment in 1969 for a young Zubin Mehta to become Music Advisor to the Israel Philharmonic.
At the Metropolitan Opera, when Rudolf (later Sir Rudolf) Bing succeeded Edward Johnson as general manager, my father was one of the very first singers to be re-engaged by the new administration. As Sir Rudolf later wrote in his autobiography, he immediately re-engaged my father "out of fear [that] someone in Europe would hear this remarkably beautiful voice and steal this man away."
Early in his tenure at the Metropolitan's helm, Bing recruited notable theater directors from the New York stage to create imaginative new productions for the Metropolitan Opera. Among these was a new production of Mozart's "Cosi fan tutte," conceived and directed by Alfred Lunt in collaboration with set designer Rolf Gerard and conductor Fritz Stiedry. Although the production was given in English rather than Italian, my father's performance of "Un' aura amorosa" (or "My Love Is a Flower" in English) displayed his affinity for Mozart, whose vocal music he often described as " jelly for the throat":
One of the most successful productions of the new Bing administration was the revival and re-conception of Bizet's "Carmen" by the London stage director (Sir) Tyrone Guthrie, which Met audiences saw and heard for the first time in January 1952. In this "live" recording from the first radio broadcast of the revival, my father sings the plaintive "Air de la Fleur":
Throughout the 1950’s, my father continued to add new roles to his repertoire at the Met. Because he was not a formally educated musician, he learned all of his roles by memorizing the music and libretto under the guidance of Joe Garnett, his coach. One of the many operas in which Garnett prepared him was Giordano's "Andrea Chenier." In this September 1958 excerpt from Ed Sullivan's then-popular television show, my father and one of his favorite sopranos, Renata Tebaldi, sing the climactic duet "Vicino a te":
As he added newer roles to his repertoire, he retained a special fondness for his debut role, Enzo in "Gioconda." As this "live" recording from a 1959 radio broadcast confirms (and personally this is my favorite rendition of this aria), his singing of "Cielo e mar" was just as poetic but much more clarion, especially his high notes, than when he made his debut fourteen seasons earlier:
The title role in Gounod's "Faust" entered my father's repertory at the Met in January 1951. It was not a role that he sang regularly, however; it was eclipsed by his much more numerous appearances in such operas as "Rigoletto," "Cavalleria Rusticana," "La Traviata," "La Boheme" and others in the early 1950’s. But in concert, and in this case on network television, he occasionally sang the demanding aria "Salut, demure chaste e pure":
Although he sang a number of roles in the French repertoire, it was the operas of Verdi, Puccini, Leoncavallo, Giordano and Mascagni that became the mainstays of my father’s long and distinguished career. One of his favorite Puccini roles was that of Mario Cavaradossi in "Tosca." When he sang "E lucevan le stelle," he always infused the aria with fiery intensity:
The verismo tradition in the Italian repertoire gave my father many of his memorable roles--but he was very prudent about not taking on a particular role until he and his coach felt that his voice was mature enough for weightier operatic parts. In addition to his coach, my father also relied upon my mother's keen sense of what was right for him as his voice grew in power.
Although she was not a musician, my mother had an unerring ear for my father's singing. She also knew how he relished new challenges, especially new roles. But if she sensed he was considering a role that she thought was not appropriate for him, she would merely say very calmly, "It's not for you, Ruby." Never once did I hear him question her judgment.
The role of Canio in "Pagliacci" was another example of an opera that my father did not add to his repertoire until much later in his career. When he finally felt ready to sing the role in the opera house, his searing portrayal of the tragic clown became his signature role in the early 1970’s, when the Met unveiled new productions of "Cav" and "Pag" by the renowned theater director and filmmaker Franco Zeffirelli, with Leonard Bernstein conducting.
Although a network-quality video recording of a complete performance of my father singing "Pacliacci" exists, it has never been shown publicly for legal reasons. Fortunately, however, there are videos of him singing "Vesti la giubba" from a television program in which he performed the aria several years earlier:
The date of April 11, 1970 marked the gala celebration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of my father's Metropolitan Opera debut. For his anniversary, he was given carte blanche to choose whatever he wanted to perform on that historic evening. He chose specific acts from three operas, in each of which he was paired with a different soprano of his choosing: the first act of "La Traviata," with Joan Sutherland; the second act of "La Gioconda," with Renata Tebaldi; and the third act of "Aida" with Leontyne Price. Each act was conducted by three of his favorite maestri: Richard Bonynge (for "La Traviata"), Kurt Herbert Adler (for "La Gioconda"), and Francesco Molinari-Pradelli (for "Aida").
Alfredo in "La Traviata" was always one of my father's favorite roles. He sang it at the Met for the last time in September 1967, when he put it aside as he took on heavier roles. Fortunately for posterity, a video recording exists of an impromptu, playful rendition of the "Libiamo" duet, with my father singing Alfredo to the Violetta of Licia Albanese at the 75th birthday party for the conductor Wilfrid Pelletier, whose encouragement had meant so much to my father decades earlier. Maestro Pelletier accompanies them at the piano--and the lady in the pink dress standing next to Licia Albanese in the bend of the piano is Sara Tucker, my mother:
One of the most memorable events in the twentieth-century history of the Metropolitan Opera was the star-studded gala performance honoring the leadership and legacy of Sir Rudolf Bing when he announced his retirement as general manager. The gala was televised world-wide, and most every notable Metropolitan artist was featured in the ensembles that Sir Rudolf had selected for his gala.
For one of these selections, my father was paired with his long-time friend Robert Merrill in one of the duets from "La Forza del Destino." Merrill, by his own admission, was very nervous while he and my father waited in the dressing they shared during the gala. My ever-confident father, on the contrary, exhorted Merrill to join with him in a rendition that, in his words, "will make the mothers of the rest of these singers forget their names."
When their moment in the gala finally arrived and they were waiting in the wings, my father kept prodding Merrill to give the performance of his life. To add to his prodding, he grabbed Merrill by the shoulder as they were ready to walk onstage. "Remember, Merrill, no goddamned bunting tonight!" he barked. "It's gotta be a home run! Nothing less!" The videotape of the dramatic duet, "Le minaccie i fieri accenti," went so spectacularly that my father can actually be seen skipping off the stage:
While there are several videotaped performances of my father in his various signature roles, that of Des Grieux in Puccini's “Manon Lescaut" was his personal favorite throughout his Metropolitan career. I can vividly remember the emotion he showed when he described to my mother and my brothers how much Des Grieux meant to him, and how deeply he identified with the music and the character. When he was invited to perform one of the arias on television, he sang "Guardate! Pazzo Son!" with a vocal and dramatic intensity that can only be described as white hot:
At the Metropolitan Opera House and on tour, my father not only sang more performances than almost any other leading tenor, but he also helped secure opportunities for younger tenor colleagues like Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo, who were then beginning their Metropolitan careers. He also became friends with some of his supposed rivals such as Franco Corelli, and earlier Mario del Monaco.
For a career that began in the 1930’s with little more than the unshakable self-confidence my father had, his life ended just as he was in the midst of a new dramatic period in his thirty-year career. As in-house recordings from the 1970’s confirm, he continued to pour every ounce of himself into every performance he sang.
What he did his best to repress, however, was that he had already had a major heart attack earlier in his career--a diagnosis that he had categorically denied. But on January 8, 1975, while he was on tour with Robert Merrill in a series of joint concerts, my father had a massive, fatal heart attack. He was only 61 years old, and was still at the peak of his career.
The day after his sudden passing, my mother and my eldest brother Barry went privately to meet with Schuyler Chapin, who had recently become the Met's new general manager. They asked for an unprecedented favor from the Met administration: to be able to hold my father's memorial service on the Metropolitan Opera stage. Mr. Chapin quickly polled the Met's board of directors, who gave their permission for the memorial service. Afterward, my father was laid to his rest in the family plot in the Mount Lebanon Cemetery in the New York area.
Soon after the funeral, my mother, my brother Barry, and Herman Krawitz of the Metropolitan administration, formulated tentative plans to create the Richard Tucker Music Foundation in order to perpetuate my father’s legacy and to offer substantial financial grants to promising young singers in the future. Under the visionary leadership of my brother Barry, the Foundation has now become one of the largest and most prestigious music foundations in the world. Numerous singers who are now internationally famous can trace the roots of their success to the support they received from the Richard Tucker Music Foundation.
For my part, and I feel confident that I can speak for my brothers on this subject, it seems impossible to envision my father at the age of 100. I prefer to remember him in the full bloom of his life, when his energy, vitality, and self-confidence permeated everything he undertook. One of the finest tributes he received was from the late Francis Robinson, who said in a tribute that my father’s voice “had incomparable beauty, sweetness and lyricism coupled with an extraordinary upper register that punished B-flats and B-naturals as they echoed from the parterre boxes of the Old Met.”
Many stellar tenors have been deservedly praised for their artistic contributions to operatic history. There have been tenors who had incredibly beautiful voices and formidable techniques that enabled them to add impressive ornamentations and embellishments to the music and roles they sang. But in my personal opinion, none of them could match Richard Tucker for his consistency and longevity in such operas as “La Forza del Destino,” “Pagliacci,” “Manon Lescaut,” “La Gioconda,” "Andrea Chenier," “Un Ballo in Maschera,” and in such memorable scenes as the third act of “La Boheme.”
What I consider the most important attribute of my father’s legacy, and a point that is beyond dispute in my judgment, is that he is the finest Italian tenor that America has ever produced, and will be included in the pantheon of opera singers as one of the greatest tenors ever.
Henry R. Tucker