Distant Voices : Richard Tucker

Distant Voices : Richard Tucker

American society seems obsessed with “best of” and “top 10” lists. We like to rank everything and everyone. If one wanted to create a list of “greatest American sopranos,” a multitude of important artists would vie for the top spot, from Geraldine Farrar, Rosa Ponselle, and Anna Moffo to Beverly Sills, Leontyne Price, and Renée Fleming. A list of American mezzos would be especially rich and could easily include Risë Stevens, Marilyn Horne, Frederica von Stade, Dolora Zajick, Joyce DiDonato, and a host of others. Among American baritones, Lawrence Tibbett, Leonard Warren, Robert Merrill, Sherrill Milnes, and Thomas Hampson come immediately to mind.

The U.S. has certainly produced (and continues to produce) many fine tenors, but it is difficult to think of an American tenor whose career and legacy is equal to that of Richard Tucker. If one was to argue for another candidate, it would likely be Tucker’s brother-in-law, Jan Peerce—or perhaps Richard Crooks, of the previous generation.

August 28, 2013, was the 100th anniversary of Tucker’s birth, an occasion which was designated by New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg as Richard Tucker Day and celebrated with events throughout the city.

Tucker was born Rubin “Ruby” Ticker on August 28, 1913, in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. His parents, Israel (“Sam”) and Fannie, emigrated from Romania in 1911. Sam used his baritone voice to sing Hebrew melodies at home, and his daughter, Minnie, had a naturally beautiful soprano voice. Sam recognized his young son’s vocal potential and sought to cultivate his talent in the hopes that Ruby might become a cantor. Ruby received his early training from Samuel Weisser, cantor of the Tifereth Israel synagogue on New York City’s Lower East Side, where he sang in the choir for seven years.

Tucker continued to study with Weisser and was serious about his singing, but gambling and sports were among his recreational interests. He exhibited a tremendous sense of self-confidence in all three areas. This quality guided him in romantic pursuits, too, which eventually led him to call upon Sara Perlemuth, to whom Tucker remained married until the end of his life.

Ruby and Sara married on February 11, 1936, in the Grand Mansion banquet hall, which her family owned. Tucker worked as a salesman for the Reliable Silk Company before accepting full-time cantor positions, first at Temple Adath Israel in the Bronx and then at the Brooklyn Jewish Center.

Ultimately, Tucker had his eyes set on becoming an opera star—even before he had ever seen his first opera. Sara’s brother, the aforementioned tenor Jan Peerce, was not yet at the Metropolitan Opera at the time Tucker first met him in 1934, but he was well known in New York music circles, and Tucker admired him. Tucker also respected Peerce’s savvy sense of business and sought his advice when negotiating his cantorial contracts. During this process, however, Tucker was wounded by feelings that Peerce was discouraging of him. Despite any misgivings, Peerce introduced Tucker to the Wagnerian tenor Paul Althouse, who would help Tucker perfect his vocal technique.

Although Althouse’s own reputation was eclipsed first by Enrico Caruso and later by Lauritz Melchior, he had a significant career and was the first American tenor to sing Tristan at the Met. Althouse was trained in the Bel Canto traditions of the 19th century and passed them to his new pupil. When Tucker told his new teacher he wanted to sing opera because of Caruso, Althouse replied:

I knew Enrico Caruso very, very well, and I heard him in most of his great roles . . . He was one of a kind, and every other tenor who has tried to sound like him has ended up a failure. No disrespect to the man, but he didn’t really have a perfect technique. He sang his own way and did things that no one else could do quite the same way. The last thing I want you to do is to try to sound like him. For that matter, I don’t want you to sound like Gigli, Lauri-Volpi, Pertile, Paul Althouse, or anybody else. I just want you to be Richard Tucker—that’s all, and that’s enough.1

To this end, Althouse put forth three cardinal rules that any singer would wisely heed:

1. Let the voice “expand slowly, naturally, with age and experience . . . time and age are friends, not enemies.” “There’s no shortcut to developing the voice. . . . In singing, the short way is the long way.”
2. Do not “overtax the voice before singing an engagement. . . . If you’ve got your technique right, all you have to do is limber up your voice with a few exercises.”
3. Separate home life from the performance life. “Your home is where you live with your family, and the opera house is where you sing.” Don’t get overly involved with socializing and never involve yourself in opera-house politics.2

Vowel sounds were an important element of Althouse’s teaching, and Tucker sang only vowels for the first six months with him. The first repertoire he was assigned included “Caro mio ben” and Schubert’s Lieder. The young Tucker wanted to sing Verdi and Puccini, but Althouse gave him Mozart, which he said was the “best source of discipline and refinement.” In Tucker’s words, “You’ve got to learn Mozart before you try Verdi. Put the mild before the meat.”

Tucker made his first operatic appearances in 1941 as Alfredo in La traviata with the low-budget Salmaggi Opera Company, which emphasized good singing over lavish scenery. Against Althouse’s advice, Tucker entered the Metropolitan Auditions of the Air in 1942 and did not move past the early rounds. It was the last time he did not heed the advice of his teacher and, in the words of biographer James A. Drake, “For the first time in his professional life, Richard Tucker had gambled and lost.”

Tucker signed with National Concert Artists Corporation, the same agency that represented Peerce, and began to make radio appearances, from which he gained exposure. In 1944, he auditioned for then Met General Manager Edward Johnson, singing only “Cielo e mar” from La gioconda and, on January 25, 1945, he made his Metropolitan Opera debut as Enzo in Gioconda to great acclaim. Enzo was also the role of Tucker’s European debut, which he made in 1947 at the Verona Arena opposite Maria Callas, who was making her Italian debut. He would also sing in London, Vienna, Milan, and Florence—but his home company remained the Met, for which he sang 724 performances in New York and on tour during the course of nearly 30 years.

When Tucker first went to the Met in 1945, he took a two-month leave from his position as cantor, which he ultimately had to resign. The religious aspects of his life remained central to him, however, and he continued to sing regularly for Jewish services throughout his life. He had a long-held desire to perform Eléazar in La juive which remained unfulfilled, but he performed it in New Orleans in 1973 and made a recording of selections from the opera with Martina Arroyo and Anna Moffo.

Throughout his career, Tucker was praised for the freshness, evenness, vitality, security, and ease of his singing. His tone combined a brilliant ring with wonderful sweetness and warmth in more than 30 leading roles with the Met, many of which he recorded. Tucker’s discography includes complete commercial recordings of Lucia di Lammermoor, I pagliacci, Cavalleria rusticana, Così fan tutte, Rigoletto, La traviata, Il trovatore, and two recordings each of La bohème, Aida, and La forza del destino. Among these, recordings of Madama Butterfly and La forza del destino with Leontyne Price are particularly emblematic representations of Tucker’s art.

Detractors cite the rudimentary nature of Tucker’s acting style—a criticism, perhaps, worth noting. Regardless, he was chosen as Risë Stevens’ co-star in the live telecast of the Tyrone Guthrie production of Carmen from the Met in 1952. Additionally, he was regarded as a kind and generous colleague.

Tucker’s death from a heart attack on January 8, 1975, at the age of 60 shocked the musical world. He was in Kalamazoo, Mich., on a concert tour with his friend and longtime colleague, baritone Robert Merrill. Tucker’s funeral was held on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, where Merrill, Stevens, Price, Franco Corelli, Eleanor Steber, Eileen Farrell, Roberta Peters, Rosalinda Elias, Victoria de los Angeles, and Maria Jeritza were among those in attendance.

Shortly after her husband’s death, Sara Tucker created the Richard Tucker Music Foundation to support and cultivate American operatic talent and to bring opera to communities in the New York metropolitan area. The list of recipients of the prestigious annual Richard Tucker Award includes Angela Meade, Lawrence Brownlee, Joyce DiDonato, Stephanie Blythe, Patricia Racette, David Daniels, Deborah Voigt, Renée Fleming, and Dolora Zajick. More information about the foundation can be found at RichardTucker.org.

In the forward to Drake’s biography, Luciano Pavarotti wrote:

For me, Richard Tucker was, and always will be, an “Italian” tenor.
. . . But let us not forget that Richard Tucker was more than one of the greatest “Italian” tenors of our time. His sense of style was so adaptable, and the timbre of his voice so pure, that he became a great interpreter of French opera, a highly acclaimed oratorio singer, and a widely respected Bel Canto tenor. Personally, I always found it hard to choose which repertoire—Italian, French, oratorio, Bel Canto—I preferred hearing Richard in. But he did each of them so inspiringly that I never really had to choose.3

1 James A. Drake, Richard Tucker: A Biography (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1984), 46-7.
2 Ibid., 51-54.
3 Ibid., viii.

Dean Southern

Dean Southern, DMA, is on the voice faculties of the Cleveland Institute of Music and the American Institute of Musical Studies (AIMS) in Graz, Austria.