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Sunday, April 22, 2012

Eugene Conley: An Excellent And Greatly Under-Rated Tenor

I remember picking up a copy of Opera News some 50 years or so ago, and being struck by the title of its leading article.  It read, as best I can now recall, "I Hear America Singing Abroad; Why Not At Home?"  Why indeed?  This is a question that plagues not only me, I assure you, but nearly all American opera lovers.  With the relative objectivity provided by (eternally evoked) hindsight, it becomes a curious matter indeed why some singers attain international stardom and others, equally gifted vocally, do not.  Many things come into play, I know; thing such as looks, acting ability, musicality, stylistic intuition, and so on.  Then we get down to those very hard to define things such as timing, luck, talent, drive, competitiveness, and so on.  And then there is just plain prejudice.  I cannot help but feel that the latter, sadly, plays a part.

Opera was founded in America as an exotic plant; an Italian art form that was oh-so-much more sophisticated that what the new and up-coming country could supply on its own.  It became the darling of New York High Society, and almost all the big stars—and certainly the big attractions—were foreign, mainly Italian.  Mercifully, the situation is now much more balanced, and Americans are now reasonably represented world wide.  But a lot of good singers got trapped in the no-man's-land of the early years, when it would have been a decided advantage to have a name that ended in a vowel.

One such case was Eugene Conley.  Born in Massachussets, in 1908, Conley made his debut as the Duke in Rigoletto in 1940, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.  He joined the New York City Opera in 1945, debuting in the role of Rodolfo in La Bohème, and from there it was off to a European career embracing the Opéra Comique, La Scala, and Covent Garden.  It was in Milan, at La Scala, that he sang opposite María Callas in I Puritani (one of his signature operas) in 1949.  He returned the following year to the States, and made his Metropolitan Opera debut in 1950, as Faust. He was to appear at the Met in many performances for the next six years.

Conley was a handsome man, and an attractive figure on the stage.  Most importantly, he was a real, vibrant vocal presence, with a lirico-spinto voice that soared above high C with seeming ease.  Possibly the best introduction to Conley is his singing of "A te, o Cara," from I Puritani, the role he sang opposite Callas at La Scala:  Notice, please, that he sings this demanding aria in the original key, which many tenors cannot manage, as the high note is a Db above high C:

This is first rate tenor singing!  The voice is amazingly consistent, all the way to the top.  The essential quality of the voice can be called lyric, although there is certain spinto edge there that, while it does not become harsh, does introduce a certain dramatic touch to the phonation. 

A slightly more lyric and less dramatic Conley reveals itself in the eternally popular Che Gelida Manina":

This is the quintessential Conley voice—high, lyrical but virile, with squillo in abundance. To my ear, this is not a voice I would characterize as "French," "Germanic," "Anglo-Saxon" "for Mozart," or any other commonly applied term.  If anything, I would call it Italianate.  It is in every way an excellent tenor voice, absolutely suited to the popular Verdi and Puccini favorites.

Finally, because he was an American tenor, and native English speaker, we owe it to ourselves to hear him sing in English.  Here is the very popular "Because," composed by Guy d'Hardelot in1902, and recorded by very many tenors in the early to mid-20th century:

What a top voice!  Why this wonderful tenor is not a household name among opera lovers is not entirely clear to me.  I know there was at that time an unspoken and seldom-articulated prejudice against American tenors because they just somehow weren't "the real thing,"  weren't exotic enough and so forth, yet there were some who escaped that classification, such as Richard Tucker.  Jan Peerce did well also, albeit not so much on stage.  But that's about it.  The case of Richard Crooks is just as striking as that of Conley.  Perhaps James Melton also, although to a lesser degree.  Maybe it's just a simple matter of luck, but it seemed to happen with a little too much consistency to be purely coincidence.


JD Hobbes said...

Thank you for bringing him to our attention. I must admit I know very little about him and am glad to learn more.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, Mr. Hobbes. That was my hope, to simply talk about him and point him out to a general audience who may not know his name. He deserves that, at the very least. He was an excellent tenor. But something was wrong. Maybe he simply had no impulse or instinct toward self-promotion. Maybe he just didn't care about being famous. You know, the quest for fame is its own career, and not everyone is disposed to serve yet another career in addition to their chosen one. That's why some hire aggressive agents. I just don't know the answer! Thanks again for the comment.

DanPloy said...

Lovely singing, ('Because' was my favourite).

The first factor you have already mentioned, Edmund, and that is the fickle nature of the public. In the UK it was the same attitude regarding, for example, Heddle Nash or more recently, Dennis O'Neill. Whatever you think abou the attributes of those singers, being born in the UK actually seem to disadvantage them.

Another factor may have been WWII, which from his birth date, may have come as precisely the wrong time for him, (not that it came at the right time for anyone, of course).

And maybe, also, he was just not hard edged enough. Sorry to mention him again, but I can write about him without reference. Martinelli made the decision to stay in New York. That must have been a difficult decision and certainly detrimentally affected his appeal in Italy. There were personal reasons but I think it was also a 'commercial' decision - be No.1 tenor in New York, or fight with Gigli and Pertile (and others) for that status in Milan.

Perhaps Conley didn't have that hard edge in him. The public expects all our artists to be friendly and nice and approachable (saving the odd 'bad boy') yet we forget that to get to where they are they undoubtedly must have trampled on someone. Gary Grant supported Nixon, for example.

My last thought is, the Errol Flynn moustache is just a little dated for the 1950s, don't you think?

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you for a most interesting comment, Dan! I tend to think that you are on to something. I note with interest that he seemed very happy to take a position at North Texas University for 18 years, where he was basically artist in residence, and I suspect was quite well taken care of. It may well be that he was temperamentally suited to the academic life, away from the cut throat ambiance of professional opera. Yes, I think you are likely to be right, and also, I agree about the Moustache. It's got the 1930's stamped all over it! Thanks again.

Verdiwagnerite said...

I, Like Mr Hobbes, know very little about Eugene Conley. A beautiful voice!
You make some interesting points about self-promotion, or not, as the case may be with Conley (as does DanPloy).
The more I read and listen makes me think it's a tough world, the world of opera. Apart from anything else, the hours aren't sociable, unless you're a night owl.

The case of our own Lisa Gasteen,a dramatic soprano, is an interesting one. She had climbed the greasy pole all the way to the Met and Covent Garden as Brunnhilde but an accident 3 or 4 years ago stopped her career right there. Later she spoke of the separation from family and friends as a negative and while she missed the thrill of performing she didn't miss the loneliness of being away from family. She's teaching young singers now and hoping to make it easier for them than it was for her.

Another great post Edmund, keep up the good work.


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, Kate.. An excellent comment, very much appreciated. You are right about opera being a tough world. It's just show business, after all, albeit with a very long and distinguished history. People in the business have to claw and fight their way up--if they make it at all, which almost nobody does. It, like all show business, is filled with endless battles of the egos, sexual politics, the whole sordid business. Given the extreme temperaments of many of the performers, and the relative scarcity of opportunity within the business, all this becomes inevitable. Many people spend their hard earned money for years, and often make sacrifices while preparing for a career, only to discover that there are no opportunities waiting at the end of the line. Rough business!

Anonymous said...

Very interesting article; thanks for making us familiar with this wonderful tenor. He had a gorgeous voice and it’s sad that he was not famous. He had everything to become a star – a pleasant timbre, excellent top , musicianship and expressiveness. I loved Che Gelida Manina very much. Other recordings are brilliant too; his top notes are just fantastic.
Perhaps American singers like him needed more support, because it was very difficult to compete with Italians. Besides, immigrants usually tend to support each other.
There is a similar stereotype in Russia – Soviet tenors are not considered “a real thing” because they didn’t study or perform in Italy.


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, Natalie. I think you are right. Perhaps we just need to realize that opera is mainly, from its very beginnings, primarily an Italian art form, or at the very least a Latin art form. People rather instinctively think of opera singing as something essentially Italian. Perhaps its just as simple as that! Thanks for the comment, always much appreciated!

G. Fiurezi Maragioglio said...

It is true. Most of the warhorses are Italian, or easily done by Italian voices (Don Jose, Samson). It comes to the suitability of the vocal material for this repertoire. As good as Richard Crooks was, his voice was best suited to the lyric French repertoire which was sadly neglected (and still is). Even the great Jan Peerce, was a bit unsuited to the exposed high notes of the Italian tenor repertoire — I know, for example, Vittoria! and La vita mi costasse in Tosca were not his most comfortable moments.

Richard Tucker was a very different story. Just as Crooks had a French voice and Peerce as Jewish voice, his throat came from Italy.

Specifically in regard to Conley, I will take a very European view. It seems to me he was a great tenor with a busy and world-class career. And a human being! Like Merrill, easy repose was available to him when the harshness of stage life became too much — something not always available to Callas.

Thank you Edmund. You facilitate bringing il Conley just a little sun!

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, my friend, for a brilliant and highly informative comment! You are exactly right! I have never heard it said better, and I just wish I had said it! The suitability of a voice for the largely Italian repertoire. That says it all! thank you so much...I really appreciate your enlightening comments!

Clayton said...

Conley was clearly a gifted artist. Thank you for introducing us to him, Mr. St. Austell!

As far as the essential beauty of his voice is concerned, there's really nothing I can add to what's already been said. His diction seems very, very clear, although I'm not sure whether this is due to Conley's skill, or to the fidelity of the recordings. I've heard a lot of different renditions of "Che gelida manina" at this point; with most singers, I find myself guessing at a lot of words, but not so with Conley.

I'm surprised that he sounds so convincing doing a song like "Because." I see that Perry Como recorded it, so I assume that it's essentially popular music. Conley doesn't sound like an operatic singer trying to sing pop, though. Actually, he reminds me of the singers on older recordings of Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, before Broadway started using microphones. It seems like the line between the operatic and musical stages was a little blurrier in those days.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you, Clayton. Good comment! I appreciate it. "Because" was written in the very early part of the 20th century, and it does conform, stylistically, to theatrical music of the day. I was glad to see that you pointed out Conley's enunciation. That is one of the most commonly overlooked attributes of great tenor singing. So many tenors cheat the words in pursuit of the "ideal vowel", their purported "best sound." However, that is an illusion. Toscanini once told Jan Peerce that nothing is more important than clear enunciation. He said that if the word is correctly and carefully enunciated, the voice will automatically fall into the ideal singing position, and authenticity of style will be the result. Now of course we all understand that there are some vowels that have to be altered somewhat because they fall in the extreme upper register, but even then a great tenor can often manage them. When Gigli sang "Salut, demeure," in Italian, the high C fell on a "u" vowel (la fanciUlla) and he did it! A pure U on a high C. Try that some time! Thanks again for the comment.

Darren Seacliffe said...

Well, thought I appreciate the significance of Conley being asked to open La Scala with Puritani, honestly, neither can I find fault with his Arturo or praise it. From what I hear, he sings it as well as other tenors do but the problem is his voice was like John Alexander's. It doesn't have any particularly memorable characteristics like Tucker, Peerce, etc, did. In those days, singers sang with a lot of passion, emotion and sentiment, in general. In this department, Conley would be considered very good if he was singing today but that was the norm in his time, it seems.

The 'Che gelida manina' was honestly a really well-done version. Conley was so passionate it struck a chord in my heart. Thank you so much for introducing us to it. He seemed very much in character when he sang it.

About the 'Because', the song was okay but it seems English doesn't work as well in French, Italian or even German in song. The language doesn't seem to flow as smoothly in song or rather in art-song and opera, given the popularity of the English pop-songs after the War.

Conley looks like a rogue with that moustache. I can't help thinking of Errol Flynn every time I see someone with that.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Fascinating comment! You have a point about the problems of singing in English. I have always felt that to be the case. And what you say about identifiable sound is also likely. Certainly Tucker and Peerce--especially Peerce--are immediately recognizable. Good comment, thank you very much, Darren!

Nyima said...

I was streaming one of the opera channels, from here in the Himalayas. I found myself commenting to myself, "Who is that voice??" FORTUNATELY there was a banner with pertinent information: E. Conley, Faust, etc. But of course this was immediately followed by "Who the heck is E. Conley, and why donʻt I know this singer?" I am not an opera expert, but neither am I unknowledgable. This site arrived as a google-gift, so thank you very much for providing the relief to my quandary! I can now begin to know about Eugene. Soooooo lovely a voice.

Frank Roberts said...

As a teen, I ushered at the Cincinnati zoo opera where the singers competed with the lions and tigers for encores. I fell in love with Rise Steven's Carmen and relished Conley's vocal heroics in Il Travatore.
After seating all the Cinci royalty, a cute and very well endowed usherette sat with me in one of the box seats. I hoped to court her after the performance - but a small man with a moustache emerged and effectively sabotaged my lascivious dreams. With stars in her eyes, she left - with Eugene Conley

Debbie said...

I am the daughter of his first cousin Sheldon, born 10 yrs. after him. His mother and my grandmother were sisters born in Nova Scotia Canada. I have seen a couple of his Met performances on TV when I was a small child, but my father who also had a beautiful voice, praised him. Thank you for this article.

Debbie said...

I am the daughter of Mr. Conley's first cousin, Sheldon Robinson. My father was born 10 yrs. after the late Mr. Conley. My paternal grandmother and Mr. Conley's mother were both born in Nova Scotia. I vaguely remember him as a small child, but had met his brother on numerous occasions. My father, who also had a beautiful voice, would only sing in church choirs, etc..., but praised his cousins talent. Thank you for writing this article.