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Saturday, October 12, 2013

James A. Drake - After The War: Six American Tenors of the 1920's

James A. Drake:      After the War:  Six American Tenors  of the 1920's


I am both honored and pleased to be able to once again present Dr. James A. Drake as our guest author today.  A recently retired college president, James A. Drake is a distinguished author of seven books, four of which are biographies of great opera singers of the twentieth century.  Although not a musician (he earned a doctorate in philosophy and taught primarily in social-science disciplines before he became a university administrator), Dr. Drake earned the confidence of the legendary soprano Rosa Ponselle, with whom he collaborated on her autobiography for Doubleday and Company. With a foreword by Luciano Pavarotti, the Ponselle-Drake collaboration yielded excellent reviews and was named "Music Book of the Month" by the National Book Clubs of America in 1982.  The book was also promoted during a Metropolitan Opera broadcast in the 1982-83 season. By that time, Dr. Drake had been selected by Sara Tucker, widow of the celebrated tenor Richard Tucker, to write an authorized biography of the great singer, who had died in 1975 while at the peak of his career.  For the Tucker book, Luciano Pavarotti again contributed a foreword, and the biography was officially released at a special event hosted by maestro James Levine at Lincoln Center.  Once again, Dr. Drake's newest work received a "Music Book of the Month" award.

As the United States settled into a period of tranquility and prosperity after World War One, a new phenomenon emerged in the nation's major opera houses:  the rise of American-born, American-trained singers who were engaged to perform leading roles without any significant experience in the operatic capitals of Europe.  This new phenomenon had been predicted by Giulio Gatti-Casazza, who was then the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera Company.

"Before the war," Gatti-Casazza told a New York Times interviewer in April 1918, "all aspiring young artists and students went to Europe ...  But that is finished now, for a long time [and] I doubt if such a state of things will ever return."  Acting on his prediction, Gatti-Casazza soon made an overnight star of Connecticut-born Rosa Ponselle, whose only experience had been in vaudeville, whom he cast with Enrico Caruso in the 1918 Metropolitan premiere of Verdi's La Forza del Destino.

From November 1908, when Gatti-Casazza began his tenure as the Metropolitan's general manager, and until his retirement at the end of the 1935-36 opera season, his administration engaged steadily increasing numbers of American-born singers, and featured them in both major and minor roles.  This was a far cry from the 1890s, when the Pennsylvania-born baritone, David Bispham, was described by the New York Times as  "the only American man singing upon the stage in either continent in grand opera."  The rise of the American-born opera singer coincided with the refinement of the phonograph and the growth of the sound-recording industry.  In turn, the recording industry owed a good portion of its initial commercial success to an opera singer--Enrico Caruso, the superstar tenor whom Giulio Gatti-Casazza had the good fortune to inherit from his predecessor at the Metropolitan Opera House.  If the long shadow of Caruso eclipsed the careers of any American-born tenors of the World War One era, the phonograph captured their singing--and from their recordings, some of which were made 100 years ago, we can experience and appreciate the uniqueness of their voices and their mastery of vocal technique. 

Riccardo Martin

 More than any other American tenor of the Gatti-Casazza era at the Metropolitan Opera, it was Kentucky-born Riccardo Martin (1873-1952) whose repertoire most closely approximated that of Caruso.  Like him, Martin sang the principal tenor roles in Aida, Il Trovatore, Cavalleria Rusticana, Pagliacci, Mefistofele, Manon Lescaut, La Boheme, Madama Butterfly, Tosca, Carmen, Faust, L' Elisir d' Amore, Lucia di Lammermoor, Martha, La Gioconda, and La Fanciulla del West. As a youth, Martin (whose birth name was Hugh Whitfield Martin) had studied violin and had sung in a local church choir, but was increasingly attracted to composing rather than performing music.  He left Kentucky in the mid-1890s to attend Columbia University, where he studied composition, counterpoint, and orchestration until his singing voice was discovered by one of his professors.  

By 1901, Martin had gained a sufficient reputation as a concert singer to persuade Henry Flagler, the railroad magnate, to award him a grant to study with prestigious voice teachers in Paris, Florence, and Naples.  In Paris, his principal teacher was Jean De Reszke, the tenor luminary of the late nineteenth century.  In Naples, Martin studied and coached with Vincenzo Lombardi, who had figured prominently in Caruso's early career.  On November 20, 1907, Martin made what should have been an acclaimed debut at the Metropolitan Opera House, singing the role of Faust in Boito's Mefistofele.  The timing of his debut, however, could not have been more unfortunate for Martin:  the title role inMefistofele was sung by the incomparable Russian basso, Feodor Chaliapin, who was also making his Metropolitan debut that evening.  

Although Martin received generally good reviews in the major New York newspapers the next day, it was Chaliapin's stunning performance that led the New York Times critic to write, "One was reminded of Caruso nights, so boisterous were the demonstrations of approval ...."  For the remainder of the 1907-08 season, however--and for the duration of Martin's singing career, which ended when he decided to return to the study of composition in the early 1930s--his "pure and vibrant tenor" (as it was described by one critic) was increasingly appreciated by audiences, critics, and buyers of his Victor phonograph records.  This is Riccardo Martin's recording of the majestic "O souverain, o juge, o pere" from Massenet's Le Cid, which he made for the Victor Company's prestigious Red Seal label on December 8, 1910:


Paul Althouse

Like Riccardo Martin, Pennsylvania-born Paul Althouse (1889-1954) studied music and voice in college, at Bucknell University.  With the encouragement of Bucknell faculty members and alumni supporters, Althouse went to New York in the early 1910s to study privately with a number of prominent voice teachers including Percy Rector Stevens and Oscar Saenger.  When he was offered a Metropolitan Opera contract by Giulio Gatti-Casazza in 1912, Althouse became the first American-born, American-trained singer to debut at the Metropolitan with no previous European experience.  Although the leading tenor roles eluded him (his Met debut was as one of the guards in Die Zauberflote, with Leo Slezak as Tamino and Emmy Destinn as Pamina), Althouse earned the confidence of the Metropolitan management as he undertook more secondary roles from the 1912-13 season onward.   

During that season, Althouse was cast as Grigory in the American premiere of Boris Godunov on March 19, 1913, with Toscanini conducting and Adamo Didur singing the title role.  After one of Althouse's performances in Boris, the New York Times critic Richard Aldrich described him as "a young American tenor who ... has a voice of unusual beauty of quality and a style of vocalism that brings it forth to the greatest advantage."  Early in his career, Althouse's voice was a sizable lyric tenor, with lirico-spinto potential.  From 1920-1925, after being unable to secure any leading operatic roles, he limited his singing to recitals and concerts exclusively.  But the summer of 1925, Althouse had a transformational experience:  he traveled to Bayreuth, an experience which prompted him to re-direct his career and pursue the Wagnerian heldentenor roles.  

Althouse's first performance at the Metropolitan as a Wagnerian tenor took place on February 3, 1934, when he appeared as Siegmund in Die Walkure,  with Frida Leider as Brunnhilde.  He remained on the Metropolitan roster until the 1939-1940 season, after which he concertized sporadically and then decided to became a full-time voice teacher.  Although a number of Althouse's students went on to have successful careers in opera, concerts, and on radio, it was Brooklyn-born Richard Tucker who became Althouse's star pupil.  (Eleanor Steber, who also studied with Althouse for a time, was always quick to point out that unlike Tucker, she had previously studied with another teacher.)  One of Althouse's last lessons with the young Tucker took place a mere two weeks before Althouse passed away on February 5, 1954. 

During his pre-Wagnerian career at the Metropolitan, Althouse made a number of recordings for the Victor, Columbia, and Edison companies.  This is one of his memorable Victor records:  the finale of the Garden Scene from Boris, which Althouse recorded with the contralto Margarete Ober on April 23, 1915:

Orville Harrold

"From Plow-Boy to Parsifal" was how The Etude, a classical-music magazine of the World War One era, described the career of the American tenor Orville Harrold (1877-1933).  Born on a farm near Muncie, Indiana, Harrold sang in local and regional choruses while studying with a series of teachers.  The last of these local teachers was Alexander Ernestinoff, whose confidence in the young tenor's future led him to serve as Harrold's de facto agent and promoter.  A tall, muscular, large-framed man (critic Max de Schauensee once likened Harrold's concert-stage presence to "Paul Bunyan in a tuxedo"), Harrold began his career on Broadway, where he sang operettas from 1906-1910.  His light-opera career reached its zenith when the composer Victor Herbert chose Harrold to create the role of Captain Dick Warrington in the world premiere of Naughty Marietta in November 1910.  

Gifted with a sizable voice, ringing high notes, and a seemingly limitless upper range, Harrold experienced a vocal crisis after his success in Naughty Marietta.  On the advice of fellow tenor Paul Althouse, Harrold sought the help of Oscar Saenger to rebuild his voice and technique, which had been over-strained as a result of his frequent appearances on Broadway and in vaudeville.  Under Saenger's tutelage, Harrold not only rebuilt his voice but also made the transition from singing light opera to grand opera.  The Italian verismo roles proved to be an ideal fit for Harrold's voice, and in the Puccini-Leoncavallo-Mascagni repertoire he received some of his finest reviews.  After one of his performances in Pagliacci with the Hammerstein Opera, the New York Times reviewer wrote, “His success was marked at the end of the first act, when he was recalled until he repeated ‘Vesti la giubba.’ ... His voice is one of beauty, his high tones having especially good quality.”  

In Cavalleria Rusticana, which Harrold sang at the Metropolitan Opera for the first time on January 20, 1920, his performance as Turiddu was lauded by the New York Timescritic Richard Aldrich, who wrote that "his singing was remarkably fine in its power and pathos, in the beauty of his tone and the dramatic expression he brought to the role."  At the Metropolitan, Harrold sang in the American premiere of Korngold's Die tote Stadt (with Maria Jeritza), in Charpentier's Louise (with Geraldine Farrar), and in Rimsky-Korsakov's The Snow  Maiden.  But despite his success in opera, Harrold returned to Broadway and continued to tour in vaudeville until 1929, when he retired from the stage. 

On April 16, 1920, prompted by the acclaim he had received as Rodolfo in La Boheme at the Metropolitan Opera, Harrold traveled to the Victor studios in Camden, New Jersey, to record Rodolfo's narrative, "Che gelida manina": 


Mario Chamlee

A native of Los Angeles, Mario Chamlee (1892-1966) was offered a recording contract by the Brunswick company when he was mustered out of the U.S. Army in 1919.  At the time, Brunswick's management was creating a recording division as a complement to the company's line of high-priced phonographs.  The recording executive who essentially discovered Chamlee was Gustave Haenschen, also a war veteran, who had been discharged from the Navy just prior to becoming Brunswick's director of popular-music recordings.  "Archer Cholmondeley, which was Mario's real name," Haenschen recalled in a 1973 interview, "was still in his khakis when we persuaded him to make a test recording for us at Brunswick.  We signed him to an exclusive recording contract, and he stayed with us for the rest of his singing career."

Before the war, Chamlee had graduated from the University of Southern California, and had also studied violin during his college years.  While still at USC, he began studying voice with local teachers and decided to pursue an operatic career.  Adopting the stage name "Mario Rodolfi," he made his debut with the Lombardi Opera Company in Los Angeles in 1916, singing the role of Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor.  "What a virile yet sensitive singer-actor Mr. Rodolfi is at his young age," one Los Angeles critic wrote of his performance.  "His is a trumpet of a voice when called for, but was tender and emotional in the Tomb Scene."

At Brunswick, Haenschen and Walter B. Rogers, who directed the company's classical-music division, persuaded the young tenor to adopt the name "Archer Chamlee" for record-making purposes.  The sales of the newly-named tenor's first Brunswick recordings made it clear that Chamlee had the potential for a substantial recording career.  "What made his voice appealing to our record buyers," Haenschen said, "was the uncanny similarity of timbre phrasing, and interpretation between Chamlee's recordings for Brunswick and Caruso's recordings for the Victor Company."  This was no mere coincidence, as Haenschen freely admitted.  "Our opera recording director, Walter Rogers, had worked for the Victor Company before he came to Brunswick, and he had conducted most of Caruso's recording sessions at Victor.  So when we signed a recording contract with Chamlee, Walter worked with him to mimic Caruso's phrasing, note by note.  "After two or three weeks of making test recordings under Walter's direction," Haenschen added, "Chamlee began to sound enough like Caruso, at least on records, to the point that we thought we had finally found a way to compete with the Victor Company and its star tenor." 

In November 1920, after finally settling on the stage name "Mario Chamlee," the young tenor made his Metropolitan Opera debut in Tosca with Geraldine Farrar in the title role, and Antonio Scotti as Scarpia.  Perhaps because of such illustrious onstage company, Chamlee received only passing notice in the critics' columns.  Reviews of the tenor's subsequent performances in a variety of Italian and French leading roles yielded generally lukewarm responses from the major New York critics.  Chamlee's Duke in Rigoletto, which he sang to Amelita Galli-Curci's Gilda in November 1931, was judged to have "suffered, vocally, from driving the voice unnecessarily in his upper tones."  When he first appeared in Gounod's Faust, however, he received more favorable treatment from the critics:  "Mr. Chamlee had sung Faust only once before and never at the Metropolitan," said the New York Times reviewer.  "Making allowances for a few slips in his cues, it was vocally very fine, and after the 'Salut demeure' especially, he was the recipient of well-deserved applause."

One of Chamlee's last significant operatic appearances took place on March 3, 1938, when Gian Carlo Menotti's Amelia Goes to the Ball had its Metropolitan Opera premiere.  Although the opera itself received tepid reviews (the New York World-Telegram likened Menotti's score to "lukewarm vanilla soda"), Chamlee received commendable reviews overall.  By the early 1930s, when the recording industry was reeling from the effects of the Depression, the Brunswick company had been sold to the Warner Brothers studios in Hollywood.  The sale of the company coincided with Chamlee's declining royalties from his recordings, as well as his decreasing interest in an operatic career.  By 1939, he had ceased singing opera at all, and limited his radio performances to popular music exclusively.  

Later, with his wife, the lyric soprano Ruth Miller, Chamlee became a full-time voice teacher.  (Anna Maria Alberghetti, of Broadway fame, studied with the Chamlees for a time.)  During the prime of his career, however Mario Chamlee had been a formidable tenor.  This is his 1924 Brunswick recording of Caruso's signature aria, "Vesti la giubba":


Charles Hackett

Born in Worcester, Massachusetts, Charles Hackett (1889-1942) began his operatic career in Boston’s Jordan Hall, where he appeared in Gounod's Faust  in 1910.  Reviewing one of the young tenor's early appearances in Rossini's Stabat Mater, the critic for the Musical Courier wrote, “He proved a revelation to the public who had never heard him before.  Not having much opportunity to show what he really could do except in the ‘Cujus animam’..., he availed himself so excellently of this one solo, even to the extent of ... a daring D-flat, [that] was immediately rewarded by the sort of applause which at once spells success.”  

After Hackett's Metropolitan Opera debut, as Almaviva in Il Barbiere di Siviglia on January 31, 1919, the New York Times reviewer said, "he disclosed such an agreeable and flexible voice and such finished singing and acting that the audience could not help recognize that a real bel canto artist was before them ...."  As the 1918-19 Metropolitan season progressed, Hackett received continuous praise from the major newspaper critics.  Of a Verdi Requiem that he sang with Rosa Ponselle, Margarete Matzenauer, and Jose Mardones, the critic Sylvester Rawlings wrote that "Charles Hackett ... surprised even his warmest admirers by the ease and distinction and beauty with which he sang the none too easy music that fell to his lot."  Hackett also earned the enthusiastic regard of Enrico Caruso.  “The night Caruso arrived at Buenos Aires," Hackett recalled in a newspaper interview, "he happened to hear me sing for the first time.  He had not been there for fifteen years, and was surrounded with influential friends.  Yet as I was going on in the second act he broke through the crowd, and with that generosity and great-heartedness which made him so loved, put his arm around my shoulders and said, ‘How you have sung tonight!  You make me feel old, for you have done things with your voice which remind me of what I used to do when I was younger'.” 

Hackett's last in-house performance at the Metropolitan Opera took place in April 1921, after which he decided to leave the Met and to relocate to Italy for additional musical study.  When he returned to the U.S. a year later, he joined the Lyric Opera of Chicago, where he sang the leading tenor roles in the Italian and French repertoire from 1923 until 1933.  On February 3, 1934, Hackett returned to the Metropolitan Opera to sing Romeo to the Juliette of Lucrezia Bori, one of his favorite colleagues.  The morning after the performance, one critic wrote that "Mr. Hackett ... sang the difficult role so beautifully as to command the admiration and respect of music lover and musician alike.  His voice is one of great appeal, his phrasing sensitive, his appreciation of the subtleties of the French language that of a true artist ...."  This is Charles Hackett's 1927 recording of "La reve" from Massenet's Manon:


Roland Hayes

The challenges faced by Riccardo Martin, Paul Althouse, Orville Harrold, Mario Chamlee and Charles Hackett were trebled, at the least, in the case of Roland Hayes(1887-1987), the first African-American tenor to make a debut on the concert platform as an aspiring opera singer.  In common with the other American-born tenors of the World War One era, Hayes was inspired by the recordings of Caruso.  "I had never heard any real music," Hayes later wrote in his autobiography, "but one day a pianist came to our church in Chattanooga, and ... he took me in hand and introduced me to phonograph records by Caruso.  That opened the heavens for me.  The beauty of what could be done with the voice just overwhelmed me."  

The son of freed slaves who became tenant farmers, Hayes was born in Curryville, Georgia, but relocated with his mother and his family to Chattanooga in 1898, after his father had died earlier that year.  Although he was able to attend school sporadically in the segregated, under-funded black schools in the Chattanooga area, Hayes was forced to leave school in order to help support his mother and his siblings.  By his own estimation, he had a sixth-grade education when he began working as a waiter and earning other small sums from any jobs he could find.  By the late-1890's, Hayes had matured into a lyric tenor under the tutelage of Arthur Calhoun, the director of a local church choir.  In 1905, Hayes was still supporting himself as a waiter and hotel porter when he was accepted into the college-preparatory program at Fisk University in Nashville.  There, a group of tutors helped him obtain a high-school diploma.  Decades later, Fisk University would award him an honorary doctoral degree, one of eight that he received during his long lifetime.

While enrolled at Fisk, Hayes was accepted into the elite Jubilee Singers, which traveled throughout the northern U.S. and much of Europe as a fundraising vehicle for the University.  From 1909-1911, a quartet from the Jubilee Singers (which originally consisted of ten male singers) was recorded and marketed by the Victor Company.   Although Hayes was not a member of the Jubilee Quartet at that time (Victor catalogs and advertisements of the era list the names and a photograph of the four members), he was in the group when they made a second series of recordings for the Edison Company in 1911.  After leaving Fisk, Hayes relocated to Louisville, Kentucky, but kept in contact with the Fisk University administration.  When the lead tenor of the Jubilee Singers left the ensemble in 1914, the president of Fisk contacted Hayes in Louisville and offered him the lead-tenor role in the Jubilee Quartet's upcoming concert in Boston.  

Hayes not only accepted the offer, but also decided to remain in Boston in the hope of establishing himself as a solo artist.  In 1915, he made his concert debut at Jordan Hall in Boston (where Charles Hackett had made his operatic debut five years earlier).  "His voice is rich, pure, and gracefully lyric," wrote Philip Hale in the Boston Globe.  "Not only has he a voice that many might envy, he also has the gift of interpretation.   He catches almost instinctively the mood of the poet and composer."  Another pioneering black artist, Harry T. Burleigh (1866-1949), a conservatory-trained baritone, pianist, and composer-arranger, served as Hayes's piano accompanist when the young tenor made his New York City debut in Aeolian Hall on January 30, 1919.  (Five years later, Aeolian Hall would become the site of the premiere of George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue.)  The day after Hayes's concert, the critic for the New York Times wrote, "the young man's enunciation was remarkable, not least so in the dream from Massenet's 'Manon,' which he sang in good French."  

Because phonograph recordings had been a key to the artistic and financial success of the Jubilee Singers, Hayes decided to pursue a recording career as a supplement to his concert appearances.  First at Victor, and subsequently at the Columbia and Edison studios, he made test recordings but was unable to secure a contract from any of the three major record companies.  Left with no alternative but to finance his own recordings, he managed to raise enough money to pay the Columbia Company to produce a limited quantity of phonograph records of his singing.  In the February 1919 issue of The Crisis, the monthly magazine of the NAACP, the enterprising young tenor raised enough money to pay for a half-page advertisement entitled "Roland W. Hayes Phonograph Records."  The advertisement began with a question:  "Do you own a phonograph of any make and have you tried to purchase records which would bring to your home the singing and playing of the best Negro artists?"  

Noting that most record stores usually stocked "popular music and possibly a few records of quartet songs by Negro singers," the advertisement suggested that prospective buyers should be able instead to purchase recordings by "the individual Negro performer who would rank high among the invisible makers of music ... to cheer your spare moments after the grind of the day's work is done."  "At last this is possible," the advertisement stated.  "Roland W. Hayes, the acknowledged leading singer of the Negro race, has brought out his first record and ... has plans for many others in the very near future."  Four records were listed in the advertisement, three of which were spirituals.  The fourth recording was an operatic selection identified on the record label as "Arioso from 'Pagliacci'."  This is Roland Hayes's performance of "Vesti la giubba":


Long after Riccardo Martin, Paul Althouse, Orville Harrold, Mario Chamlee and Charles Hackett had retired from the stage, the indefatigable Roland Hayes was still concertizing.  Throughout the 1950's and 1960's, he sang nearly eighty concerts per year.  Although an operatic career had eluded him, he continued to give concerts until 1973, when he was in his mid-eighties.

James A. Drake