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Saturday, March 28, 2015




Luisa Tetrazzini was born in 1871, in Florence. She began to sing as a small child, and was trained at the Instituto Musicale in Florence. By the age of 19 she was ready to make her debut as Inez in Meyerbeer's L'Africaine. She sang around Italy, and then went to Russia, where she scored a big success in St. Petersburg. She was kept busy as a young lady, learning her craft and drawing increasing attention to herself by virtue of her superb voice. She was not beautiful, as was Patti, but was rather fat from early on. Her divine voice, however, spared her from any undue or cruel criticism for her appearance. From the earliest days, she displayed a flexible and high coloratura, of the kind that was very much in vogue in the lyric theater of the day. She commanded an extraordinary trill, easily produced, and was comfortable with extensive fioratura. There was a thrilling sound to her voice that won her acclaim early on in her career. Her American debut was in San Francisco in 1905. By this time, she was well known for her lyric coloratura roles, especially Violetta, Gilda and Lucia; roles in which her great vocal endowments could be shown to advantage. She auditioned at the Met, but they seemingly were not impressed, which is somewhat curious, as she was already famous. One suspects that something unknown outside the Met may have been in play. It makes no sense otherwise. She did sing for the Manhattan Opera in 1908, but never warmed to the Met, because of their inexplicable attitude, and only sang one season there, in 1911-12. She was in such demand world-wide that the Met was inconsequential in any case. She is reputed to have made a very large amount of money. Unwise associations over time, however, led to a sad end, characterized by poverty. Most scandalous was her victimization at the hands of a dreadful male gold-digger, thirty years her junior, who married her late in her career, and stole most of her money. In spite of such reckless errors of judgment, however, she was by all accounts a lovely person, outgoing and friendly, even to the extent of letting aspiring singers live in her home, at her expense, at least during the good years. Her last days in poverty and sickness anger and bewilder many people even today. It is so wretchedly unfair. One wonders where the charity of fellow performers was. Yes, times were hard in late 30's, but Gigli, to take but one example, managed to raise a huge amount of money during this period by the many charity concerts he gave. Were people wary of her because of her poor judgment in getting involved with such a vile (although doubtless "charming") man as the one who wrecked her life? Why did no one come to her aid at the end when she was so obviously in need? The State of Italy, at least, provided her with an appropriate funeral. It's just all too sad.
Here is the great soprano in "Caro nome":

As the recording shows, the top part of her voice was quite extraordinary. Like virtually all sopranos of her age, she will scoop down into the lower registers, and that sound jolts us somewhat today, when all sopranos simply sing low notes very softly. It is possible that in Tetrazzini's time, when people actually paid more attention to the words, sopranos felt they needed the additional heft in the lower register, so that their voice, and the words they were singing, did not get lost in the orchestra. Another thing that is immediately apparent is the exceptional and easy nature of her trill. I don't think I have ever heard that many trills in "Caro nome" before. But she was just showing off one of her greatest natural endowments. Here is the famous "Ah non giunge," from La Sonnambula:


Certainly an attractive rendition, although one must be honest and point out certain tendencies that are perhaps not up to today's standard: There is sometimes a lack of adequate articulation on the cadenzas that comes dangerously close to a glide, although she was not alone in that during her day. She also sacrifices the lower parts of her voice to the top, which is certainly common (and smart) because that is what people are paying to hear. From an aesthetic point of view, however, she lays herself open to criticism for making the bottom and(especially) middle register of the voice rather open, white, and somewhat blaring. The top is excellent.

Here is a sentimental view of Tetrazzini—the only moving pictures I am aware of—listening to a Caruso recording late in life, and bursting into song along with it. Her girly and giggly abandon at the end is most charming, and just makes one upset yet again that she was treated so badly by others, and did not have the dignified and comfortable retirement she deserved.


Isn't that delightful? She seems a lovely person, and the fact that people speak of her so fondly even today, some 75 years after her death in 1940, is a fitting memorial to a magnificent artist, who literally gave it all.

Saturday, March 21, 2015






It is a great pleasure for me to present another in our series of guest writers. Natalia Bukanova, my  young and  brilliant friend, known to many of you by her Youtube Channel name "younglemeshevist," is especially qualified to write on Sergei Lemeshev. Natalie was among the first to begin to spread his recordings on Youtube, along with those of Antonina Nezhdanova. All lovers of great singing owe her a debt of gratitude for this effort, as these two superb Soviet artists were unknown to many opera lovers in the United States at that time. Natalie is also to be praised for composing this piece in English—with less than a full year’s English in school, and a little work with yours truly, Natalia has attained a level of English language proficiency that can only be called extraordinary; she is now a professional  illustrator of children’s literature and a teacher in the prestigious Moscow Art Institute, one of the most famous such institutions in the world. Natalie has her own website on Lemeshev, which I hasten to point out to you.  It is both exhaustive and erudite!   Here you can take a quick glance at her introductory page and then return back here.


                                             Edmund St. Austell



       First, I would like to thank Professor St. Austell for inviting me to write this piece on my favorite tenor.

      In Russia, Sergei Yakovlevich Lemeshev (1902-1977) is—along with Feodor Chaliapin— perhaps the most beloved opera singer in recent history. He was born into a very poor peasant family, in a small village, and sang from his early childhood. He was always surrounded by good singers, including his parents and other villagers, as peasant Russia was a “singing country” in those days. His father died when Sergei was 10, and after four years in a parish school he started to learn shoemaking, since there was no other chance for the family to escape from poverty. In 1918 he became acquainted with architect and opera lover Nikolai Kvashnin, who, along with the rest of his family, persuaded Sergei to study voice seriously. Those were the years of the Bolshevik revolution and the Civil war, and Lemeshev was required to become a cadet in the Red Army Cavalry School. However, it was actually the Revolution that helped him make his dream of an operatic career come true, since the Bolsheviks gave the poorest peasants and proletarians a preferential right to free education. Sergei was assigned to study at the Moscow Conservatory where, after surviving a rigorous competition, he was accepted. (This determined his political views, for as he said many times, “the Soviets gave me everything".)


His teachers were tenor N. Raisky (a pupil of G. Nuvelli), N. Kardyan, and L. Zvyagina (a leading contralto of the Bolshoi.) In 1926, Lemeshev made his debut as Lensky in K. Stanislavsky’s Opera Studio, and beginning in 1927, he performed at theaters in Sverdlovsk, Harbin (Manchuria) and Tbilisi. In 1931, he became a leading tenor of the Bolshoi, where he sang for the next 34 years, winning great acclaim. His audience grew, along with his fame, and he soon gained a veritable army of fans, called "lemeshevists. His repertoire included the Duke of Mantua, Lensky, Alfredo, Tsar Berendei (from The Snowmaiden), the Indian Guest (Sadko), Faust, Ziebel, Almaviva, The Simpleton (Boris Godunov ), Rodolfo (La Bohème) The Astrologer (The Golden Cockerel), Nadir, Des Greiux (Manon), Gerald (Lakme), Romeo (Gounod’s (Romeo and Juliette), Fra Diavolo, and Werther.


His vocal and artistic qualities, evident to every listener, are beauty of timbre, musicality, effortlessness of vocal production, expressiveness, and very clear diction, qualities perhaps most commonly found in bel canto singers. These qualities can be seen is his 1940 recording of “Parmi veder le Lagrime" (in Russian). I would call attention to the extraordinarily high note at the end, a Db above high C:




An interesting comment on Lemeshev’s singing was made by the Bolshoi tenor A. Orfenov: "He developed a mixed voice of incomparable beauty, which made it possible for him to take the highest notes with such beautiful richness that even specialists could not explain how it was done technically….His high C’s … sounded virile and full…His manner of lowering his larynx a bit on high notes allowed him to perform the parts which we ordinary lyric tenors did not sing, [roles such as] Rodolfo in La Bohème, Levko in May Night, Dubrovsky, Fra Diavolo…”


Lemeshev’s emotionality, acting skills and handsomeness very quickly made him a public idol. Aside from the Duke of Mantua, which was his signature role before the war, he brilliantly performed romantic, melancholy and tragic roles such as Werther, Romeo, and Lensky. Here is his 1938 recording of " Pourquoi me reveiller":




Unfortunately, like every Soviet star in the 1930’s, he had problems securing permission to make recordings of complete operas. Several roles in which he was very successful were not recorded at all. His best early recordings of songs and arias, made on shellac, are now available on Youtube. You may consult my channel—"younglemeshevist," or that of petrof4056.


Lensky finally became his most famous role, which he refined throughout his life. His 1955 recording of Eugene Onegin, with the renowned Galina Vishnevskaya , became quite well known in the West. Here is a very good 1937 recording of Lensky’s aria:





The best years of his operatic career were 1931-1942. He was also an outstanding concert singer and a brilliant performer of folk songs. In 1938, he became the first artist to sing all 100 romances by Tchaikovsky in 5 concerts. Folk songs broadcast on the radio made him a truly “national’ singer. Additionally, the film “A Musical Story,” 1941, in which he played the main role, brought him the Stalin prize and caused Lemeshev-mania all over the USSR. It must be said that his personality was a significant part of his success. He is remembered as a very friendly and cheerful person who was also a congenial colleague. He was also quite a lady's man! Six marriages and numerous affairs focused the attention of his fans on his personal life. Their day-and-night stalking and scuffles with fans of other tenors are legendary.


The beginning of the Great Patriotic War (WWII) was crucial for Lemeshev; during one evacuation he caught a very bad cold which resulted in two attacks of pneumonia, complicated by pleurisy and tuberculosis of the right lung. He was treated with artificial pneumothorax, which is to say an induced therapeutic collapse of one lung. Although singing was forbidden, he in fact continued to sing with one lung from 1942 to 1948, when the other lung was also artificially collapsed and re-inflated. During that period he recorded Lakme, The Snowmaiden, Pearlfishers, and Mozart and Salieri. In addition to health problems, he started to drink heavily after a divorce from his fifth wife, the soprano Irina Maslennikova. By 1953, however, he had overcome his drinking problem and was given the prestigious title "People’s Artist of the USSR." He was also appointed Assistant Manager of the Bolshoi from 1957 to 1959. Toward the end of his career, he mainly gave concerts of Russian classic romances and folk songs, taught in the Moscow conservatory, and performed on the radio. Old fans of his, who stalked him in the 1940's and 50's, are still faithful to him even now, 33 years after his death. They collect his recordings and place flowers on his grave every week.


Saturday, March 14, 2015

Marcelle Bunlet

                                                   Marcelle Bunlet
 Father Cornelius Mattei

Good things often come in small packages, and big voices, which one often associates with opera stereotypes, sometimes come from bodies rather more discrete. Petite, even, in the case of women singers. Here in North America, we might remember the tiny Canadian Teresa Stratas, who had ample voice for such robust rôles as Cio-cio-san and Salomé.

     Perhaps the most extreme example among well-known 20th century opera singers was the  dramatic soprano Marcelle Bunlet, who, like her compatriot Denise Duval ,would always look ¨comme il faut¨ in couturier creations, but whose gleaming, radiant voice with its soaring top tones made her a natural for the rôles in which she excelled: the Brünnhildes, Isolde, Kundry, Elektra, Aïda, Dukas’ Ariane, and so forth. What our friends across the Rhine call a¨hochdramatische Sopran.¨

     Let’s hear her as Senta, and see how she masters the tricky tessitura of the ballad.


Born on October 10, 1900 at Fontenay-le-Comte in the Loire-Vendée region, Bunlet pursued the usual course of musical studies expected of French singers of her times, and was, due to her exceptional vocal endowment and evident musical versatility….she could learn difficult modern and contemporary scores with alacrity, which ability opened important career paths to her, as we shall see….brought to the attention of Philippe Gaubert, renowned flautist, conductor and pedagogue, who was the chief conductor at both the Opéra and the Concerts du Conservatoire for many years, champion of Wagner, Strauss, and of German music in general. It was Gaubert  who arranged for her Paris début, in concert with the Concerts Straram and soon thereafter, with the Concerts du Conservatoire.

That was in late 1926. She sang Leonora’s aria from ¨Fidelio¨ and an aria from Franck’s ¨Rédemption,¨ but when she returned shortly thereafter in what proved to be a long-lasting partnership with that orchestra, she captured the hearts of the Parisian public with Brünhilde’s Immolation from ¨Götterdämmerung.¨

     With the evident success of his protegée and the unanimous acclaim of the critics, Gaubert himself took her to Jacques Rouché, the  ultimillionaire Maecenas and director of the Paris Opéra. Débuts were arranged, and in early 1928, she appeared at both the Opéra Comique and the Opéra, singing ¨Ariane et Barbe-bleu¨ and the Götterdámmerung Brünnhilde, respectively. She had already performed the Dukas under Gaubert’s direction in concert.

     Let’s sample it:


     Shortly after finishing her six-run engagement of the Wagner at the Opéra, she made a triumphant début at the Royal Opera, Brussels, in her first of many Isoldes, to the Tristan of Jacques Urlus, whose last appearances in the rôle those are said to have been. Bunlet, after that time, was set in an international career which took her repeatedly to Belgium and also to Switzerland, Monaco, Germany, Argentina, Italy, Greece and, needless to say in all the important theaters of metropolitan France, with a particularly close relationship with the public and managements at Strasbourg, Bordeaux and Toulouse.

     Marcelle Bunlet established friendships and close relationships with a number of distinguished composers: Milhaud, whose ¨Agamemnon¨ she sang early in her career, Richard Strauss, who recommended her unreservedly to create his ¨Arabella¨ in French-language version and whom he conducted, at Strasbourg, in the title rôle of his Elektra.None of those friendships was more fortunate for her than that of Gustave Samazeuilh,composer, arguably France’s leading Wagnerite and longtime habitué of Bayreuth and friend of the Wagner family. He persuaded them to try Bunlet, who was hired to sing one of the flowermaidens in the 1931 Parsifal revival conducted by Toscanini….as well as to cover Kundry. As it happened, illness obliged the Dutch diva Elizabeth Ohms to cancel her final Kundry and Bunlet saved the day, to the gratitude of the conductor and the Wagners. She was invited back in 1933 as Woglinde, Helmwige and Sieglinde.

Let’s hear Kundry:

During the years of the second World War, Bunlet performed her usual dramatic soprano parts, though somewhat less frequently, in a number of the theaters which were far from combat zones--Lyon, Bordeaux,Toulouse. In Paris, though she did return to sing some Wagner and made a brilliant impression as Valentine in the storied 1936 revival of ¨Les Huguenots¨ starring Georges Thill and André Pernet, she remained under the shadow of Germaine Lubin, who was never reticent to use her influence with M. Rouché or her right, as ¨titulaire¨ to HER rôles, to keep rivals at a distance. Veterans of the period gave this as the reason for Bunlet’s spotty appearances in the capital during the least in the theater.

     In the concert hall and in recital it was another matter, for Bunlet had earned the respect of such composers as Roussel and the younger Olivier Messaien, both of whom composed with her voice in mind and both of whom dedicated works to her. Who nowadays, when hearing lighter lyric sopranos singing Messaien’s ¨Poèmes pour Mi¨ or his ¨Harawi¨ cycle is mindful that these were intended for and premièred by Marcelle Bunlet? Indeed, Messaien was so fond of her singing that he accompanied her in recital as late as the 1950s.

     After the end of hostilities, Marcelle Bunlet settled down in Strasbourg, where from 1945 until 1970, she taught at the local conservatory, appearing in a variety of rôles there at the same time. From 1950 on, she seems to have confined herself to the concert stage. Recordings of three such events are familiar to the author of this posting:

A performance of Albéric Magnard’s ¨Guercoeur¨...actually parts 1 and 3, from the ORTF, 1951,conducted by Tony Aubin. Bunlet, whose recording career was not very extensive, is nothing short of thrilling, her seemingly limitless top tones and brilliant sound being captured with as good fidelity as contemporary technology allowed: a stunning testament. Available some years ago in LP format and also on CD, it is much more than a mere curiosity and worth searching out.

A recital from 1954 from the theater at the Casino of Vichy with Messaien at the piano. Let’s

hear them in Debussy:

Finally, conducted by Gaston Poulet, father of violinist and pedagogue Georges Poulet, let’shear her in M. Samazeuilh’s ¨Le Sommeil de Canope,¨ a work which mixes influences of

Germanic post-romanticism with impressionism recalling the Arnold Schoenberg of Gurrelieder.


To some, the musical equivalent of purple prose, but very much to my taste, oh well.

Marcelle Bunlet died in December, 1991 in Paris, where she had continued to teach after she retired from her Strasbourg professorship. Among her pupils was the soprano Eliane Lublin.

So, a life of service to music with significant impact on contemporary composers...with a fullplate of Wagner Strauss, Gluck, Verdi, and even Bellini...Norma in Strasbourg...besides!

Not bad for a tiny woman from the country.

                                                                      Father Cornelius Mattei

Saturday, March 7, 2015

René Bianco

René Bianco: Baritone and Verdian





Father Cornelius Mattei


It is a great pleasure for me to
present, in our continuing series
of guest authors, Father Cornelius Mattei,
Monastery of The Holy Cross, East Setauket, New York.
Father is a genuine authority on French art and culture,
most especially classical vocal music.  His willingness
to share that vast knowledge with us today is generous
and much appreciated! 

-Edmund StAustell 


The life and career of this outstanding dramatic baritone may be outlined briefly: He was born in 1908, in the stunningly beautiful city of Constantine, French Algeria.  He made his début, as a bass, at Bône in 1934, spending the first decade of his career mainly in the French theaters of North Africa, with a few excursions to the theaters of the ̈Midi. ̈

After the Second World War, he sought brighter pastures, joining the rosters of the national theaters in Paris in 1948, putting in his 20
years and retiring in 1968 from the life of a singing civil servant. He continued to sing in theaters in the French provinces, appearing in the same demanding rôles until the 1980s and then teaching singing until the 1990s. He passed away in early 2008, five months short of his 100th birthday, in the Lyon suburb to which he had retired, Charbonnières-les Bains.   He also sang abroad, both  in the major Belgian French theaters —Brussels, Liège and Namur—as well as in the cities of Geneva, Florence, Bologna, Lisbon and Budapest.

Let’s hear him in a rôle which he was still performing in his mid-sixties.  Here is Iago’s “Credo:”



I call your attention to the authority, power, crisp enunciation and grasp of the venomous nature of this reptilian personage.  Bianco entertains no pretense to sounding pleasant. What you hear is what you get.  

Based on rich, full lower and middle registers, Bianco’s voice rose to bell-like, full top tones--his A on the Brindisi of the same work was sounded, not merely suggested.  His voice was described by one critic as an ̈ouragan vocal-- a vocal hurricane. The voice gave the impression, in the theater, of coming at the listener from no particular direction rather, it enfolded one. It also seemed to have infinite reserves of power. When he hummed in a small space, the sound   “tickled “ everything. Several of those who heard him as Rigoletto in his farewell performances at the Opéra Comique remarked that he was wonderful, but that he hurt their ears in that relatively small space.

If we emphasize Verdi, .Rigoletto was his calling-card, a most significant composer in his career.  Bianco, to be sure, performed a broad repertoire from Rameau (Huascar in Les Indes galantes) to Hindemith (Mathis der Maler) and Milhaud. He sang, besides the standard French
works associated with his vocal type, Wagner and Puccini, being particularly well-received as Kurwenal, Telramund and Scarpia.  His biggest success in Wagner was the Flying Dutchman, which he first sang in the early 50’s and, later, in a new production in 1963, if memory serves. 

But let’s continue with Verdi.  Here is “Le voilà  C’est l’Enfant” from Don Carlos:   [Please remember that the French Don Carlos which you will hear came first; the Italian  Don Carlo, which you may be more used to hearing—and in Italian- came later.]


Here, Bianco shows another “face. ̈ How else to put it? Many other baritones have been as sympathetic as Posa, but here, abetted by an excellent Alain Vanzo and backed by aware, sensitive, dramatic conducting from the ever-memorable maestro Charles Bruck,  Posa’s love for his friend...(a high-maintenance, difficult sort, one might add )is evident in his plangent timbre and intense solicitude.  This is rare vocal acting of unusual power.  

Bianco’s long career, over 40 years, was ensured by a robust constitution and constant motion.  Truth in advertising:  the present author studied with Bianco and has very fond memories of a generous soul with a cheerful, even temperament. His teaching, based on slow careful vocalises, emphasized  “aperto ma coperto “ from the middle register up to the high tones. He was not one of those who leaves the pupil voiceless after an hour.

Did his healthy lifestyle and the care he took in warming up pay off for him? Doubtless, for when I knew him in his mid-sixties, he went to Lille, Valenciennes and St. Etienne, singing Athanaël, William Tell and Iago, respectively, rôles usually left behind by that stage of a singer’s career. He continued to sing in other cities, particularly Lyon where, as at St. Etienne nearby, he had quite a fan base. There, where he retired, he died in January 2008. Let’s hear him one more time in another duet, this time from the soundtrack of the telecast of a débutante at the Paris Opéra and in Italian, as a fierce, manipulative Amonasro.  Here is the Nile scene duet with Tebaldi:

Can a case be made for Bianco having been one of the outstanding Verdi baritones? I would like to think so. Some of the recorded evidence makes a good case!
Father Cornelius Mattei

Monday, March 2, 2015

Father Theodore Hesburgh and My Father, Richard Tucker:  The Tenor of Notre Dame
Dr. David  N.  Tucker,  M.D.


Our readers and subscribers will recall that on the occasion of the 100th birthday of Richard Tucker, his youngest son (Henry R. Tucker), through our mutual friend Dr. James A. Drake (biographer of Richard Tucker, Rosa Ponselle, and Lily Pons), contributed a very fine article about his father's life and career.  This week, again through Dr. Drake, I am pleased to feature the following article by David N. Tucker, M.D., the middle son of Richard and Sara Tucker.

A retired eye surgeon and former adjunct professor of medicine, Dr. Tucker is co-authoring a book with Burton Spivak (an American historian with a national reputation) about David's personal relationship with his father, and David's early ambition to become a tenor and follow in his father's footsteps.

In this article, Dr. Tucker writes about his father's pre-Metropolitan cantorial career, and refers to three cantors--the legendary Josef "Yossele" Rosenblatt (1882-1933), his contemporary Mordechai Hershman (1888-1940), and Herman Malamood (1932-1989), a protege of Richard Tucker who sang leading roles at the New York City Opera, at the Met, and in a number of European opera houses.

The core of Dr. Tucker's article, however, is about the personal friendship between his parents and the renowned Rev. Theodore H. Hesburgh, one of the great figures in American higher education and in the civil-rights movement, among other causes.  For more information about Father Hesburgh, who died last week at age 97, please see, the website of the University of Notre Dame.  

For an honor as significant as this one, my father could not have asked for a more beautiful day:  Sunday, June 6, 1965.  Nor could there have been a more beautiful setting:  the campus of the University of Notre Dame, blossoming with the flowers of late spring, cooled by a light summer breeze, and not a cloud in sight in the azure sky above.  

On that beautiful summer afternoon, my father, clad in a maroon academic gown, stood like a soldier at attention while two priests lowered a gold-threaded hood over his head and onto his shoulders.  At that moment, Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, the president of the University, grasped my father's hand in his and said, "May the blessings of the Lord God be yours now and always, Doctor Richard Tucker."

Before my eyes, my father, whose need to help support his four siblings had kept him from graduating from high school, had just received the degree of Doctor of Fine Arts, honoris causa, from one of the most prestigious universities in the nation.  

For the remainder of the 1965 Notre Dame Commencement, during which more than a thousand undergraduate and graduate students received their degrees, my eyes stayed on my father the entire time.  Eight other national and international figures including NAACP president Roy Wilkins, and McGeorge Bundy (who was then Special Assistant to President Lyndon B. Johnson, having served under President John F. Kennedy when LBJ was Vice President) also received honorary doctorates that afternoon.  But only one, Richard Tucker, was awarded the Doctor of Fine Arts honorary degree.

As significant and memorable as the Commencement was, an event of equal significance to my father, my mother, my brothers Barry and Henry, and my wife Lynda, had taken place the night before in an elegant dining room on the Notre Dame campus.  There, at a large rectangular table with Father Hesburgh seated at its head, my brothers and Lynda and I witnessed one of the most touching moments of that period in my parents' lives.

At that table were not only the honorary doctoral candidates, but also several priests including senior-ranking professors and key members of Father Hesburgh's administrative team.  As best I can recall, my brothers and my wife and I were the only relatives of the honorary-degree candidates who were present at that pre-Commencement dinner.  Also present, and seated next to my parents at the table, was Alfred C. Stepan, Sr., a highly successful Illinois industrialist and a major donor to Notre Dame, who had nominated my father for the honorary degree.

Just as Father Hesburgh became "Father Ted" to my parents, so Alfred C. Stepan, Sr., was always "Al" to the Tucker family.  His handwritten letter of nomination for my father to the president of Notre Dame was an example of the candor which characterized everything that Al Stepan undertook:

Dear Father Ted,

Richard Tucker is the best husband I know.  Richard Tucker is the best father I know.  Richard Tucker is the best tenor I know.  We would do well to consider conferring an honorary degree upon him.

Your friend,

Al Stepan

Another honorary-doctoral candidate who was at the table during the pre-Commencement dinner was Cardinal Bernand Alfrink (or, more properly in the Roman Catholic form, His Eminence Bernard Cardinal Alfrink), who was seated adjacent to my parents and next to Father Hesburgh.  Cardinal Alfrink seemed especially drawn to my father--and with Father Hesburgh's prior consent and encouragement, the Cardinal made an unforgettable gesture in my father's honor that night.

Fortunately, thanks to New York radio station WQXR and longtime announcer Martin Bookspan, who interviewed my father several times on the air, the gesture that I'm referring to was described and recorded by the recipient of that gesture:  my father, in his own words.  In this YouTube link to a 1970 interview by Martin Bookspan, beginning at the 4:16 timing mark (and concluding at 6:11), my father speaks of the Notre Dame Commencement and the friendship he formed with the Cardinal:

My father, who never lost his composure publicly, had merely smiled when the Cardinal had asked, "When are you coming?"  But Father Hesburgh, who was standing next to the Cardinal, had laughed as heartily as my father did when he retold the story to Martin Bookspan and other interviewers over the years. 

The next time my father saw Father Hesburgh was from a distance, under extremely emotional conditions, three years later--almost to the day--on Saturday, June 8, 1968.  That morning, in St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City, the funeral Mass for Robert F. Kennedy took place.  Shortly after midnight in Los Angeles on June 5, the Senator had been mortally wounded after making a speech to an overflowing crowd of supporters for his presidential candidacy.  He lingered for almost 26 hours, and underwent extensive but unsuccessful neurosurgery.  He died at 1:44 a.m. (Pacific Time) on Thursday, June 6.  

The funeral of Robert F. Kennedy, which was televised and relayed by satellite and news film around the world, was one of the iconic events of the 20th century.  Among many memorable moments during the funeral Mass was the singing of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" by the Senator's personal friend, Andy Williams, whom my parents also knew.  Unlike Andy Williams, however, my father did not have a close personal relationship with Robert Kennedy.  Yet for his funeral Mass, the Senator's family, through then-Cardinal Terence Cooke, asked my father to sing the Latin hymn "Panis Angelicus" during the Mass.

As perhaps many readers will know, the "Panis Angelicus" was composed in 1872 by Cesar Franck, who wrote the music (the words are from a text by St. Thomas Aquinas) for the tenor voice and the harp, cello, and organ.  Although "Panis Angelicus" has been sung by sopranos, baritones, and other singers in different vocal ranges, any artist who has ever performed the "Panis Angelicus" will confirm that it is a challenge to sing under the best of circumstances--but not during the funeral of one of the most famous men of the century, on "live" television worldwide, with almost no rehearsal, accompanied by an organist with whom he had never performed, and sung in Latin by a tenor who was not only non-Catholic but also a proud Jew whose liturgical singing had been in synagogues, not cathedrals.

But at the appointed time during the funeral Mass, my father, Hazzan Rubin Tucker ("hazzan" being a phonetic English version of a Hebrew word for "cantor," and Rubin being my father's birth name), stood at the front of the choir loft, nearly 25 feet above the pews where the Kennedy family and the overflowing congregation were seated.  At that moment, my father put his personal emotions in check and sang what I consider the most beautiful rendering of the "Panis Angelicus" that anyone will ever hear:

As I said previously, my father only glimpsed Father Hesburgh from the distance of the choir loft in St. Patrick's, where Father Ted was sitting among the numerous dignitaries who had known, supported, and marched with Robert Kennedy on behalf of civil rights and equal justice for all Americans.  Then and now, I am proud that my father was asked to sing at Robert Kennedy's funeral service, I am proud of my father for doing so, and for giving his very best, as he did invariably.  He could never tolerate less than the best.  "Good is never good enough," he would say.  "Only the best will do.  I expect the best, and I demand it from myself.  If I don't, what right would I have to expect others to give their best?"

Seven years after that funeral Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral, on Wednesday afternoon, January 8, 1975, my father died of cardiac arrest in Michigan while on a concert tour with his friend and colleague Robert Merrill.  As historians of opera in America have duly noted, my father's funeral service was held not in a synagogue, not in a funeral-home chapel, but on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House, where he had reigned for thirty years as "The American Caruso," a title suggested by Rudolf (later Sir Rudolf) Bing, the general manager of the Met during most of my father's tenure there.    

Father Hesburgh, due to his obligations as Notre Dame's president, could not attend the funeral at the Met, but he honored my father several months later by coming to New York City to celebrate a Requiem Mass in my father's memory at St. Patrick's Cathedral.  

As was his way, from what I have since learned about him, Father Ted called no public attention to the fact that he was coming to Manhattan to perform a Requiem Mass in memory of my father.  The Mass took place on 
Tuesday, October 14, 1975, but despite Father Ted's best intentions for its privacy (although anyone in the New York Archdiocese could have attended the Mass), The New York Times learned of it and published a story about it the next morning.  According to the Times, the Requiem said by Father Hesburgh "was believed to be the first memorial mass for a Jew at St. Patrick's Cathedral."

Although I was not present on that occasion (I was practicing medicine as an Ophthalmologist in Cincinnati, so I had responsibilities for performing surgeries, making hospital rounds, and examining patients), my mother told me how the Requiem had come about.  From his campus residence in South Bend, Father Hesburgh had called my mother to tell her about his intention to offer the Mass, and had urged her to be present in the cathedral with him.  She had been very reluctant, she told me, because she felt that it would be inappropriate to lend her presence to a Christian rite, even though the celebrant was Father Ted Hesburgh.  

My mother, as anyone will tell you who knew her, had an iron will.  When she made up her mind about something--no matter what the issue was, nor what anyone else (including, at times, my father) thought about it, nor what her family or her friends would think of her--she would hold her ground and stay anchored to her decisions.  Not that she wouldn't listen to another person's reasons why she should do or think differently.  She would listen, but if she didn't hear anything persuasive, she would halt the discussion with a firm "No, I disagree, and that's that."

Mother was so resolute about not attending a Catholic-Christian service that she told Father Hesburgh that she would not come to any church, not even St. Patrick's Cathedral, and not even for Father Ted, who was a friend of the family.  "How am I going to explain this to my own Jewish people?" she said repeatedly to Father Ted.  "What you did for my husband at Notre Dame was wonderful, and we love you for it, but how could I explain to my people what I was doing at St. Patrick's!"  

She told me that no matter how many times Father Ted would try to interject, "Now, Sara, let me explain," she would exclaim, "No!  Never!  He was a Jew, so am I, and I am not coming to a church!"  After a moment of silence on the other end of the telephone line, she told me, Father Ted had said simply, "Sara, our Lord Jesus was a Jew."  In that instant, she told me, she changed her mind completely.  

After he had gotten her consent, Father Hesburgh had a request for my mother:  he asked her to recommend a cantor to sing the "El Mole Rachamim" at the end of the Requiem Mass.  For those who are not familiar with it, the "El Mole Rachamim" (sometimes rendered in English as "Kel Molai" or "Chel Mole") is a Hebrew prayer sung by a cantor during a traditional Jewish funeral service.  It is a prayer intended to induce open, heartfelt, even visceral mourning among those who hear the cantor intone the prayer.  It begins slowly, solemnly, in the middle of the cantor's vocal range, and then steadily rises in pitch and intensity until the music reaches a peak.  It is at that peak, in a vocal cry at full volume, that the cantor intones the name of the deceased and thereby prompts the congregants to sob openly, to wail in grief, as the cantor continues to sing the prayer until its end.  

There have been many variations of the musical form of the "El Mole Rachamim," but the one which set the standard for cantors in America was composed and sung by Hazzan Josef (Yossele) Rosenblatt in the early 1900's.  Although his unique voice, expansive vocal range, and emotive singing were not very influential in my father's cantorial development (the powerful tenor-cantor Mordechai Hershman was my father's inspiration), Yossele Rosenblatt, a contemporary of Caruso, was the best-known cantor on phonograph recordings in America.  

After the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, in which so many Jewish men, women, and children perished, Cantor Rosenblatt was urged to make a special recording of the "El Mole" for the victims, survivors, and the public who had followed the ship's fate in the newspapers.  On July 29, 1913--exactly 32 days before my father was born in Brooklyn--Cantor Rosenblatt recorded El Mole Rachmin (für Titanik), as it was spelled on the label of the Victor disc.  For months after its release, the recording could be heard pouring from open windows throughout Jewish communities in every major American city:

For the Requiem by Father Hesburgh at St. Patrick's, when he asked my mother to recommend a cantor to sing "El Mole," she immediately suggested Herman Malamood, a young hazzan who, like my father, had made the transition from the bima, or pulpit, to the opera stage.  Herman, who at that time was a leading tenor at the New York City Opera, would eventually make his Metropolitan Opera debut as Canio in I Pagliacci, a role he had first sung in Philadelphia in 1970 on the rare occasion when my father was indisposed.  Herman always referred to my father as his mentor, and he considered this performance of the "Ya-Aleh," which my father recorded in 1959, to be the finest performance of this demanding cantorial masterpiece:

Herman Malamood and his lovely wife, Anna, were almost members of the Tucker family.  Herman was a trim and handsome young man with a distinctive lyric tenor voice.  He had a fine stage presence, was a competent verismo actor, and had a voice substantial enough for Pagliacci (which he sang with Cornell MacNeil as Tonio) and also for Idomeneo, in which Herman replaced Luciano Pavarotti in the title role for some Met performances of that production.  

Regrettably, very few of Herman's recordings are currently posted on YouTube.  But this "live" recording of a scene from Bellini's Norma, in a Toulouse production in which he sang Pollione to the Norma of soprano Radmila Bakočević, captures the quality of Herman Malamood's voice.  While the entire scene is compelling, Herman's singing begins at the 3:39 timing mark in this YouTube video: 

Before Herman Malamood chanted the "El Mole Rachamim" at the end of the Requiem Mass at St. Patrick's, Father Ted Hesburgh once again created an unforgettable moment for our family, and most especially for my mother.  From the altar, in perfect Hebrew, Father Ted recited the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer of mourning for the deceased.  As he intoned the opening of the prayer, my mother, our family, and Jewish friends who came to the Mass at my mother's request, recited in unison the traditional response from the congregation:  "May His great name be blessed forever, and to all eternity."

My mother lived ten years after my father passed away.  She continued to live in our family home in Great Neck, Long Island, and often came into Manhattan to spend time with my brothers and my sister-in-law Joan, and from time to time she flew to Cincinnati to stay with Lynda and me and our children.  

She dabbled (her word) in painting, she studied the many facets of the Modern Art movement, and she collected art works that appealed to her.  (The great Marc Chagall, whose enormous paintings adorn the front lobby of the Metropolitan Opera House, could rarely resist my mother's appeals for "just one more" of his paintings or drawings.)   Regularly, too, she would have lunch with the close friends whom she and my father had known since they had gotten married in 1936.  

Amid her grief for the loss of my Dad, she continued his (and her) lifelong dedication to Jewish causes and to the state of Israel, she watched her grandchildren grow and prosper, and happily and eagerly played her role as matriarch of the ever-growing Tucker family.  She also led the creation of the Richard Tucker Music Foundation, which stemmed from an informal conversation that she had with my brother Barry and Herman Krawitz, who had served as an Assistant Manager at the Metropolitan Opera during the Bing administration. 

Spurred by that conversation in the winter of 1975, she and Barry gathered their thoughts and sought expert advice to create a non-profit foundation, in my father's name, to provide financial support to promising young American singers.  The Richard Tucker Music Foundation was chartered in 1975, with my mother as its founding president and Barry, Henry, and me as founding members of its board of directors.  At the first Gala Concert in the autumn of 1975, the roster was led by Luciano Pavarotti and also included a nostalgic performance by my father's tenor colleague Giuseppe di Stefano. 
When my mother passed away in 1985, Barry succeeded her as president, and he has steadily elevated the Foundation to an unprecedented level of prestige. 

Today, through the annual Richard Tucker Gala Concerts televised by PBS, the Richard Tucker Music Foundation is not only the largest music-related organization of its kind in the nation, but also, as my mother had intended, the Foundation has played a direct role in building the careers of Renee Fleming, Deborah Voigt, Joyce DiDonato, Lawrence Brownlee, Stephen Costello, Ailyn Pérez, and Michael Fabbiano, among many others who have received the prestigious Richard Tucker Award. 

This past Thursday, February 26, shortly before midnight, the Richard Tucker family lost a beloved friend, the Reverend Theodore M. Hesburgh, "Father Ted," who died peacefully at the age of 97 in a residence adjacent to the University of Notre Dame.  As the University has described him on its website, he was "a priest of the Congregation of Holy Cross, and one of the nation’s most influential figures in higher education, the Catholic Church, and national and international affairs."  

In his memory, as I feel certain that my parents would want me to do, I will close these reminiscences with the voice of my father, in a prayer which I dedicate to Father Hesburgh's memory, a prayer which expresses a transcendent human hope:

May your soul rest in peace, Father Ted.  

David N. Tucker, M.D.