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Friday, August 1, 2014

Robert Weede, By James A. Drake


By James A. Drake

 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.

                                                         Robert Weede

"This place is worse than Hell," a frustrated Mario Lanza wrote to his manager from the steaming-hot Army Air Force base in Marfa, Texas, where the young tenor had been assigned for his stint as a draftee during the summer of 1943. “Oh, how I wish I could have Robert Weede here now," Lanza lamented.  "I could sure use some singing lessons."


The young Mario Lanza was not alone in seeking out Robert Weede for help with vocal technique.  "Bob was our 'voice repairman,'" said Jan Peerce of Weede's uncanny ability to pinpoint, analyze and, as Peerce put it, to "repair" other singers' vocal problems.  Other first-rank singers including Norman Treigle, Dominic Cossa, and John Alexander also sought Weede's help and advice at key points in their careers.  At no time would Weede accept any remuneration for assisting his colleagues when they were experiencing vocal problems. 


Jan Peerce had sought Weede’s help during the only vocal crisis that the otherwise-durable tenor ever experienced.  Weede helped Peerce regain his voice, and appeared with him in San Francisco on The Standard Hour radio series, where they sang the duet “Le minaccie i fieri accenti” from La Forza del Destino:



Weede also appeared on radio with Peerce’s young brother-in-law, Richard Tucker, on The Squibb Hour, where Tucker had become a frequent guest artist after being signed by the National Concert Artists Corporation, an agency which secured radio appearances for both up-and-coming and well-established classical musicians. 


On The Squibb Hour, accompanied by Lynn Murray and his orchestra, the young Tucker and the already-established Weede sang “Within the Temple There,” an English version of “Au fond du temple saint,” the tenor-baritone duet from I Pescatori di Perle:



Although Tucker had not yet made his Metropolitan Opera debut when he appeared on The Squibb Hour, Weede was first-rank baritone by then.  Born Robert Wiedefeld in Baltimore, Maryland, on February 22, 1903, he studied voice at the Eastman School of Music in the mid-1920's, and subsequently went to Milan for additional study in 1929-1930.  Upon his return to the U.S., he began performing in regional opera companies, and by 1936 his growing reputation earned him a Metropolitan Opera audition. 


Weede made his Met debut on May 15, 1937, as Tonio in a double-bill performance of Pagliacci and Cavalleria Rusticana.  Not until the rehearsals were in progress did he realize that another promising young American baritone, Thomas L. Thomas, had been scheduled for his debut the same day, as Alfio in the Cavalleria performance.  The next day, both baritones were lauded in the New York press for their extremely impressive debut performances. 


In the wake of the success of Weede’s Metropolitan debut, he was offered a recording contract by Columbia Records.  One of his most successful Columbia disks was of “Si puo?,” the prologue from Pagliacci, with Frieder Weissmann conducting:


After his initial success at Tonio, Weede spent the the next three seasons at the Met performing in concerts and galas, usually singing one aria (typically, the Pagliacci prologue) and perhaps singing in a trio, quartet, or other ensemble, but garnering very little attention from the New York critics for these brief appearances.


All of that changed on the evening of February 27, 1941, when Weede first appeared in the title role in Rigoletto, in a cast that included Jussi Bjoerling as the Duke of Mantua, Hilde Reggiani as Gilda, and Bruna Castagna as Maddalena.  Amid this strong cast, it was the previously-unheralded Weede who netted the   

All of that changed on the evening of February 27, 1941, when Weede first appeared in the title role in Rigoletto, in a cast that included Jussi Bjoerling as the Duke of Mantua, Hilde Reggiani as Gilda, and Bruna Castagna as Maddalena.  Amid this strong cast, it was the previously-unheralded Weede who netted the praise of all of the major critics. 

"It was not much of a Rigoletto at the Metropolitan for anybody but Robert Weede last night," wrote Irving Kolodin in the New York Sun. "However, what this American baritone accomplished in his first appearance at the opera house in this role was striking enough to make the occasion a memorable one, not only for him, but also for the audience."

"As a primary asset," Kolodin continued, "Mr. Weede has a voice—a big voice, moreover, which fills the opera house with ease and doesn't require the forcing to which he sometimes resorted.  But it has quality as well as size ... [and] he was entitled to the robust applause he received."


In the New York Post, critic Edward O'Gorman wrote that "Mr. Weede has an enviable baritone voice, one that is full and robust, capable of a wide range of expression and yet one that has none of the coarseness usually encountered in a voice of its type. Its chief characteristic is perhaps its pliability.  But the element that distinguished Mr. Weede's characterization of Rigoletto was neither vocal nor histrionic, although each was telling in its way, but an uncanny sense of theatre that balanced the two in a performance that was a personal triumph for the singer ...."


Writing in the New York World-Telegram, Robert Bagar said that "Mr. Weede's singing proved thoroughly compatible with the demands of the part.  His impersonation grew in stature as the evening wore on, and in the emotional give-and-take of the third act he dominated the stage."  Although Weede’s first appearance in Rigoletto was apparently not recorded, his performance of the demanding role during a Saturday matinee radio broadcast on January 31, 1942, was preserved in an off-the-air recording:


From 1941 to 1953, Weede added Amonasro in Aida, Manfredo in L' Amore dei tre re, Shaklovity in the Met premiere of Mussorgsky's Khovanshchina, and Scarpia in Tosca to his Metropolitan Opera repertoire.  It was as Scarpia that he sang his last performance with the Met, a matinee broadcast from Detroit on April 17, 1953, with an all-American cast including tenor Eugene Conley as Mario Cavaradossi and Dorothy Kirsten as Floria Tosca. 

Some of Weede’s most successful Tosca performances, however, occurred not in the U.S. but in Mexico City, where he sang Scarpia to the Floria Tosca of Maria Callas during the summer of 1950.  They were also cast together in Aida, and later, in Chicago, the two would sing together again in Il trovatore and Madama Butterfly.  But it was their pairing in Tosca that netted enthusiastic reviews from the critics and wild applause from the audience:

Weede also made successful debuts with other opera companies, chiefly in Rigoletto, beginning with the Chicago Opera in 1939, San Francisco in 1940, and at the New York City Opera in 1948.  There he reprised his success as Tonio in Pagliacci, but also sang in the world premiere of William Grant Still's short-lived Troubled Island, in a cast that included Robert McFerrin, Marie Powers, and Marguerite Piazza. 

In 1956, Weede left the opera stage to appear on Broadway as Tony Esposito in the original production of Frank Loesser's The Most Happy Fella, at the Imperial Theater in New York City.  Reviewing the opening performance, New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson praised Loesser’s musical adaptation of the “romance of a lovely waitress who marries a rich, ebullient vintner.” 


Singling out Weede’s performance as Tony, Atkinson wrote, “The music is beautifully sung.  Robert Weede, as the vintner, is a wide, artless-looking man with a powerful voice that can travelthe full range from romantic fervor to despair.  He sings the part with the authority of a professional.”


Weede was also seen on Broadway in Milk and Honey from 1961-63 (which was also recorded by Columbia Records) and Cry for Us All  in 1970.  But neither Milk and Honey nor Cry For Us All impressed critics and audiences to the same degree that Weede's Most Happy Fella had.  For that, Weede was nominated for, and received, the 1956 Tony award for "Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical." 


Because of his engaging personality, both onscreen and off, and his first-rate acting and nuanced characterizations, Weede's voice was only infrequently assessed by the same criteria that are applied to almost other operatic voices.  One who had no difficulty doing so was Max De Schaunsee, who had reviewed every major singer since Giovanni Martinelli arrived in New York in 1910. 

Speaking of Weede's voice at the time of his early success as Tonio in Pagaliacci, De Schaunsee described it "as a big voice, but not a beautiful voice in the usual sense of that phrase--not in the class of Lawrence Tibbett, or John Charles Thomas, or Leonard Warren and Robert Merrill.”


“Although he was definitely a baritone,” De Schaunsee said, “Weede’s singing often took on more of a tenor quality in his middle and upper range.  But it was not as a singer per se that he made his mark.  He was a superb actor, an actor who could sing, an actor who was an artist in the finest sense of that word."

Robert Weede died in 
Walnut Creek, California, on July 9,1972.  But through his numerous recordings and radio appearances, and the relatively few television appearances he made, he earned a form of immortality that few artists experience in their lifetimes.  

                                                                                  JAMES A. DRAKE




1 comment:

JD Hobbes said...

Thank you so much for an informative and interesting article on Weede. I have to agree that he is not on the same level as Tibbett. His "Si Puo?" strikes me almost as having a raw or rough edge to it. But nevertheless, he was a fine singer and influenced many others.