In “The American Opera Singer,” Peter Davis recounts an incident in which Franco Corelli (newly arrived at the Metropolitan Opera) asked Richard Tucker (1913-1975) for advice on how to sing a tricky passage in “Tosca.” Tucker replied, “To sing that correctly, Franco, you have to be Jewish.” The response evoked laughter and the two competitive tenor stars maintained cordial relations thereafter. Tucker may have been joking, but the two box sets released to celebrate Tucker’s 100th birthday reveal that, while you may not need to be Jewish to sing Puccini, in Tucker’s case, there was a link between the two.
The two box sets are “The Opera Recital Albums” (10 CDs including seven “first time on CD releases) and the 14-CD “Song & Cantorial Album Collection.” Both sets include CDs packaged in mini sleeves with their original album artwork and booklets with new liner notes by music critic Jürgen Kesting. The first set reveals why Tucker became an opera star and, covering recordings over a 20 year period (1947 to 1967), how he maintained his stardom. The confident tenor assured his wife that the stars from Europe would flame out (which many did) and that his position was secure.
What impressed audiences was the beauty and power of Tucker’s voice and his expression of each character’s emotions was often quite potent. While he appeared awkward on stage, in these recordings (mostly from Italian and French operas), he could sound impassioned and convey a sense of character. He could produce heroic tones as Radames or Andrea Chénier even if he did not look the part. The album of French arias doesn’t have the finesse of Nicolai Gedda’s interpretations except Tucker sounded superior in the arias that demanded a meatier sound, such as Don José in “Carmen.” And it was a pity that Tucker died before fulfilling his dream of performing “La Juive” at the Met. His rendition of “Rachel, quand du Seigneur” rivals Caruso’s in its intensity. And his Canio in “Pagliacci” was so emotional that the music critic Irving Kolodin sent the singer a letter expressing concern about his health. This turned out to be prophetic since Tucker died of a heart attack while on tour with baritone Robert Merrill.
Tucker, who grew up in Brooklyn, began his vocal career singing in the synagogue and it was as a cantor that the Met’s general manager, Edward Johnson, was first impressed by his singing. Tucker was deeply religious and even after he became an opera star, he took time to perform at services. He also recorded many albums of cantorial works as well as Israeli and Yiddish songs and these are included in the “Song & Cantorial Album Collection.” Other famous tenors, such as Joseph Schmidt, started as cantors but no one with a voice of this quality recorded such a quantity of this material. The music (sometimes with a chorus) was mostly arranged by the distinguished Sholom Secunda. While other interpretations of the Yiddish material has been done with more charm, for example, by Nehama Lifshitz (unfortunately her live 1969 recording of concerts in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are not available on CD), Tucker’s cantorial works are mostly in a class by themselves. Indeed, listening to them after his opera recordings reveals that the tragic sense conveyed in the operas is the same as in the Jewish liturgical music.
Less successful are the pop albums which sound overblown and often corny, with him belting out songs like “What Now My Love” and “Exodus” (the theme from the movie with lyrics by Pat Boone). Neither Tucker, nor any other opera singer performing pop, is in a class with Eileen Farrell, who appears on a duet album in the opera set. (The CD with Dorothy Kirsten seems a better match). There are also albums of Neapolitan songs, in which Tucker sounds completely at home (and less bombastic than the Italians Corelli and del Monaco in this material). On the other hand, his Viennese album does not possess the lilt of Richard Tauber’s definitive interpretations. One of my favorite albums is the “Art of Bel Canto” CD, which may be old fashioned but it is so beautifully performed that I don’t care if the orchestra does not use original instruments.
There used to be an ad saying that you don’t have to be Jewish to like Levy’s rye bread. I would add that you don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy Tucker’s cantorial recordings. (According to the liner notes, Elvis Presley was an admirer of the “Cantorial Jewels” album.) If you are partial to Tucker and this music, I recommend you snatch up these sets before they disappear. Now, my wish list is for Sony to put out similar collections for Tucker’s fellow stars at the Met and native New Yorkers: Robert Merrill, Leonard Warren and Jan Peerce (who was Tucker’s brother-in-law but was not on speaking terms with him).
On Wednesday August 28, New York City is celebrating Richard Tucker Day to honor what would have been the singer’s 100th birthday. There will be several events celebrating the event. At 4 p.m. at the The Julliard School’s Peter Jay Sharp Theater (155 W. 65th St.), Renée Fleming (a Richard Tucker Foundation Award winner) will lead a panel discussion featuring Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and tenor Neil Shicoff as well as Barry Tucker (Richard’s eldest son). No tickets are required. At 7:30 p.m. at the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park, there will be a free concert featuring several Richard Tucker Grant and Award winners, including Ailyn Peréz, Jamie Barton, Erin Morley, Wendy Bryn Harmer, Stephen Costello and Paul Appleby. Brian Zeger will be the pianist. Related events are a 2 p.m. concert in Richard Tucker Park (at Broadway and 65th Street), a special Richard Tucker Reuben (containing pastrami and corned beef) at Junior’s of Brooklyn, and the voice of Richard Tucker being played all day on WQXR and on Sirius Radio’s Metropolitan Opera station.