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Chaliapin’s Heir – Norman Treigle

Norman Treigle (1927 – 1975) may have been the closest to a true heir of Feodor Chaliapin that we are likely to see. Like Chaliapin, he was a consummate actor and a master of theatrical makeup and costuming. He had a commanding physical presence and a compelling stage personality. He was 5″11″ tall and quite thin (140 pounds.) On stage he could appear gigantic. His voice was large and powerful, very dark, and filled with subtle colorations and majestic low notes. When he sang you could “hear” what his face looked like. Like Chaliapin, Treigle valued theatrical effect over musical values and sometimes added a rasping tone to his voice for dramatic effect. Where Chaliapin had a raw, almost elemental, sound in his voice, Treigle’s voice was smoother and more melodious.

Of the three most famous alumni of the New York City Opera, Beverly Sills, Placido Domingo, and himself; Treigle is the least known to the public today. One reason may be that he lacked the cheerful outgoing personality of Sills and the suave handsomeness of Domingo. Also, while there are many off-the-air pirate recordings of his performances, he only made three commercial opera recordings (plus a recital LP that has never been re-released on CD) and no television appearances other than a very short and murky clip are known to exist.

And, of course, he never appeared at the Metropolitan Opera.

Adanelle Wilfred (Norman) Treigle was born in New Orleans on March 6, 1927. His mother played piano and organ in church where Norman sang as a boy soprano. He was known as “Addie” to his friends and family, joined the U.S. Navy at 16, and returned to New Orleans after the end of World War II where married his childhood sweetheart. A deeply religious Baptist, who nevertheless smoked constantly, drank Scotch, and enjoyed the racetrack, Treigle regularly sang as a guest at churches and synagogues regardless of denomination.

After studying music at Loyola University he won the New Orleans Opera House Auditions of the Air in1947 and made his operatic debut with the company that year. He also studied both drama and ballet, sang with the New Orleans Pops, the New Orleans Philharmonic Orchestra, and hosted a radio show. Management at the station suggested that he change his name from “Addie” and Treigle chose “Norman”, the name he had earlier given to his son

In 1953 Treigle joined the New York City Opera where he sang for the next 20 years. With his electrifying stage presence and highly theatrical singing style he quickly became known as the outstanding actor-singer of his generation. In 1956 he triumphed in a new opera, Susannah by Carlisle Floyd. Floyd chose him for the premieres his next three operas as well. Treigle also appeared in Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni as well as Handel’s Julius Caesar and more modern works by Copland’s and Dallapiccola. His greatest successes were as Gounod’s Faust, Boito’s Mefistofeles, where his tall, gaunt incarnation of depravity brought a forceful believability not seen since the death of Feodor Chaliapin.

Treigle’s other greatest role, his portrayal of the tortured Tsar Boris Goudonov, was so mesmerizing and totally believable that when he collapsed and fell down the flight of stairs in the Death Scene, the audience gasped out loud. The fall was actually a device first used by Chaliapin. Still, as someone once pointed out, mediocrity steals, genius borrows.

Like Beverly Sills, Norman Treigle was for some reason disliked by Rudolph Bing, the director of the Metropolitan Opera and neither sang there while Bing was in charge. In 1972, after Bing had retired, there were offers from the Met but Treigle turned them down explaining that at the Met he would be only one of several fine basses whereas at New York City Opera he was a star and could influence the productions in which he would appear. Instead, Treigle went to Europe for appearances in Hamburg, Milan, and London where he debuted at Covent Garden in Faust. Milan’s La Scala also invited him to sing Mefistofele there and international career seemed assured.

But Treigle had, after many years of staying up nights and taking sleeping pills to sleep during the day, become addicted to them. He returned from London in 1974 with an injured foot and a failing second marriage and on February 16, 1975, he was found dead in his New Orleans apartment. The cause of death was determined by the coroner an accidental overdose of sleeping pills. He was forty-seven years old.

His daughter, Phyllis Treigle, honored her father by becoming a well known singing actress appearing with the New York City Opera among others and often portraying dark and supernatural characters.

Your comments or questions are welcome.