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Friday, August 1, 2014

Robert Weede, by James A. Drake




"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:


[Dear Readers:  address links are not working properly.  The simplest thing to do is just check out the videos on Google Youtube by the name of the video, such as " le minacci, Forza, Weede, Peerce. "  That usually works well.  Sorry for the hassle--been having a lot of trouble with Google lately, surprise, surprise!"]


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:

 Dear Readers:  The following address seems to work!



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 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. 









                                                                                  JAMES A. DRAKE


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