Richard Tucker remembered
He has a beautiful voice, but he’s too noble.
That was my seven year old son’s critique of Richard Tucker’s performance in Carmen; it was his first exposure to the great American tenor. Tucker had sung Don Jose in his customary style. Wonderful singing combined with ham (what my son meant by “noble”) acting. He had mastered every operatic cliché – fist on the breast, fist shaking, galumphing around the stage like Frankenstein’s monster. He could have run Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks. When Tucker performed with Zinka Milanov, which was often, they could have cornered the world’s prosciutto market. But what voices! The rest didn’t matter.
Tucker had a focused spinto tenor voice that was ideal for Verdi. It was perfectly produced, had flawless intonation, and handled the passaggio as well as any tenor of the last hundred years. Though his numerous recordings clearly reveal a great voice, they do not reproduce the visceral impact his voice had when heard live in the house. He was the opposite of his contemporary Jussi Björling. Björling sounds better on records than he did in performance – his voice was not as big as seems on his recordings. Tucker was best experienced in person.
I heard virtually all of the great tenors of the last half century in performance, but Tucker was the one I heard the most often. I would guess more than 50 times. I first heard him in 1955 at the Met as Verdi’s most neurotic tenor – Don Carlo. I soon heard him in the rest of his Italian roles then in the Met’s repertory. In November of that year I heard him sing French for the first time – Offenbach’s demented hero Hoffmann; a role he shortly thereafter dropped from his repertoire. Why I can’t imagine; he was the best Hoffmann I ever heard. I last heard him almost 20 years later in Chicago in a recital with Robert Merrill. Nothing had changed in the interval. His stage deportment was still goofy and his voice still glorious and untouched by age – he was past 60.
Tucker had a really big voice combined with the best technique and vocal agility I ever heard in a tenor voice of comparable size. He may have been guilty of lapses in taste, but never in technique. I never heard him off pitch – never. His vocal consistency was legendary among his colleagues as was his lack of nervousness. He was almost pathologically self assured. He never had the jitters unlike his friend and admirer Franco Corelli who gave up singing because of stage fright more than anything else.
His diction was perfect in both English and Italian. Listen to him sing Handel and you’ll easily understand every word. The vowels are clearly formed and not distorted; the consonants are firmly (sometimes too firmly) articulated. His Italian singing was so good he fooled fluent speakers of that language into thinking he was a Florentine – the highest possible compliment. Yet, he could barely speak the language. When Tullio Serafin asked him where he had learned Italian he replied Brooklyn.
The Saturday broadcasts from the Met feature a quiz during the second intermission. On one of the programs several years ago the contestants were asked to identify the tenors singing the same passage from an Italian opera. One of them was Richard Tucker. William Weaver, who lives in Italy and who has written a lot of good stuff about opera, had trouble identifying Tucker.
“I don’t know who it is, but he sounds like a Florentine,” he said.
“Yeah, a Florentine from Brooklyn,” said the quizmaster. And everybody laughed.
But it really wasn’t funny; it was true. Some years earlier a friend of mine from Venice had visited my home. He had been Mario Del Monaco’s doctor during the years Del Monaco had been on hemodialysis. He told me that the late tenor had been critical of most of his contemporaries, but that he had spoken highly of Tucker (Tucker was equally fond of Del Monaco’s voice). Tucker seemed to have warm relationships with most of his rivals. He was very friendly with both Corelli and Di Stefano. About the only tenor he didn’t get along with was his brother-in-law Jan Peerce. They detested each other. Peerce, who sang at the Met for 26 seasons, would never explain the source of their mutual dislike. Neither would Tucker.
Anyway, my friend asked to hear some of Tucker’s recordings, which I then played for him.
“What do you think of his Italian?” I asked.
“It’s great,” he said. “He sounds just like a Florentine.”
How Ruben Ticker, born in 1913 in Brooklyn, ended up sounding like a Florentine is beyond my ken. Equally mysterious is how he came to sound as good as Caruso. But he did both.
When Tucker started his career at the Met he had only a few staged opera performances behind him – at small New York companies. He was engaged by the Met to sing a role in an opera he not only didn’t know, but had never heard, Enzo in La Gioconda. Yet he learned the part rapidly and performed it to great acclaim on Jan 25, 1945. For the next 30 years he was THE Italian tenor at the Met giving 734 performances with the company in 31 roles. Consider the illustrious competition he faced during that interval: Björling (121 performances), Del Monaco (142), Di Stefano (112), Corelli (365), and Bergonzi (312).
The source of Tucker’s success and longevity was multifaceted. First, God gave him a potentially great voice. He also gave him an incredible aural memory. Once he heard something it stuck with him forever. This trait explains his perfect Italian diction. Tucker also possessed a fierce drive to excel so he perfected his gifts rather than squandering them – think Di Stefano. Next he trained and worked (all his life) as a Cantor. Jewish liturgical music demands a technique similar to that of Italian opera. Long coloratura passages, wide leaps, and trills are routine. Cantors like Samuel Weisser, Yossele Rosenblatt, Mordecai Hershman, Gerson Sirota, and Zavel Kvartin were famous in the Jewish neighborhoods in which Tucker grew up. Weisser was Tucker’s first teacher. He sang in Weisser’s choir at Tifereth Israel Synagogue for seven years as a boy alto. Boy altos grow up to be tenors.
When Tucker’s voice changed he determined to become a Cantor. He served in this office for three successive congregations before leaving to join the Met. Thereafter, he sang regularly as a guest Cantor. His appearances at the Park Synagogue in Chicago on the high holidays were sold out years in advance. Yes you have to buy tickets to attend services on the high holidays. Any devotee of vocal music should at least sample some of Tucker’s cantorial recordings.
Finally, the former Met tenor Paul Althouse was his only opera teacher, though Tucker used coaches from time to time. Tucker credited Althouse for developing his voice to the great instrument it became. He also followed Althouse’s advice to add the heavy spinto and dramatic roles slowly as the tenor’s voice matured. Thus Radames, Manrico, Canio, Samson, Calaf, and Dick Johnson entered Tucker’s repertory only in later part of his career. Though he clearly had the voice for it, Tucker never sang Otello. He seems to have considered it a voice destroyer. Ben Heppner’s recent grief with the role suggests he was right.
The one role that eluded him at the Met was Eléazar in La Juive. He wanted to sing the role for a number of reasons; it had been Caruso’s last success and his last performance. Its Jewish theme appealed to him, though the Jewish protagonist is as much villain as hero. He sang the part in New Orleans and Barcelona, but died before the Met could mount the work for him. The company had finally yielded to Tucker’s entreaties to perform the work after a decade of nagging only to have him die before it could be produced.
Amazingly, Tucker sang about 75% of all his staged opera performances with the Metropolitan. Though he did sing in staged operas throughout the US and appeared from time to time in South America, he mostly avoided Italy until the end of his career. He had appeared at the Verona arena in La Gioconda in 1947 (also Maria Callas’ Italian debut – Tucker got better reviews), but Rome, Florence, Parma, and La Scala had to wait more than 20 years. His success in the home of opera was enormous. At La Scala his debut role was Rodolfo in Luisa Miller. Luciano Pavarotti who was at the performance said the audience “erupted” after the 55 year old Tucker finished “Quando le sere al placido.”
Writing about music, especially singing, is always frustrating at best and inadequate at worst. Music is its own language. You want to know what it says – listen to it. Nevertheless, those who love it cannot resist articulating its appeal and worth. Analyses of performers based on recordings of their work are especially tricky. A live performance exists in the present and the near future. A recording is entirely in the past. It’s the ghost of a performance, instructive and edifying as it may be. But it’s all that a performing artist can bequeath beyond memory. It’s been about 30 years since I last heard Richard Tucker live. As I write this I’m listening to recordings made in performance, some more than a half century ago. I’m not the same listener (or anything else for that matter) now compared to what I was when I was standing through Tucker’s performances at the Met. But what I hear now seems to correlate with my memory of Tucker onstage.
His vocal production was pure, like silver seems the most apt comparison. Like a silver trumpet is even better. While his physical acting was inept, his vocal characterizations were passionate and intense. He was an Italian tenor through and through. He sounds more Italian than most native singers from the boot. I can think of no Italian singer of his worth and vocal size who could match his technique. Of the non-Italians only Björling is in the same league and he couldn’t trill very well and had a much smaller voice. Melting diminuendos and caressing pianissimos were not Tucker’s forte, for those go to Di Stefano (who could uniquely combine them with dramatic intensity). But for the best sung and most exciting Don Alvaro, Enzo Grimaldo, or Andrea Chenier he’s your man. If you want to know what squillo means listen to his high notes. In brief, he’s on the very short list of the greatest Italian tenors of the last century. Beyond that, Hemingway has the last word: Among great masterpieces there is no order.