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America’s great tenor – Richard Tucker

Richard Tucker (1913 – 1975) made his Metropolitan Opera debut in 1945 and sang there for 30 years. After the death of Jussi Bjorling in 1960, he became the dominant tenor at the Met in an era when tenors such as Franco Corelli, Giuseppe Di Stefano, Mario del Monaco and, even his brother-in-law, Jan Peerce were his direct competition. Supremely confident and highly competitive, he was not musically elegant and had a tendency to overact, but he had a ringing voice, superb technique, and impeccable diction.

Rivn (Rubin) Ticker was born in Brooklyn, New York. His Romanian Jewish parents changed their surname to “Tucker” by the time “Ruby,” as he was known to friends and family, entered first grade. From the age of six he sang in the choir of an Orthodox Jewish synagogue and as a teenager he sang at weddings and bar mitzvahs and became a cantorial student. By age 22 he was a full-time cantor at a synogogue in New York.

Tucker married Sara Perelmuth whose brother Yakob, was a part-time jazz violinist and lyric tenor who sang popular music on national radio but had aspirations for an operatic career. Renamed Jan Peerce, Yakob soon became a star at the Metropolitan Opera. Richard, as he was now known, also sang on radio and hoped to join his brother-in-law at the Metropolitan.

Richard studied with Paul Althouse, a former tenor, and in 1942 against Althouse’s advice entered the Metropolitan Auditions of the Air. He did not win. Instead, he accepted a post as Chazan (cantor) at the prestigious Brooklyn Jewish Center. In 1944 Althouse arranged for Edward Johnson, the general director of the Metropolitan, to hear Tucker sing at a service and Tucker was quickly offered a contract. He made his highly successful debut at the Met as Enzo in “La Giaconda.”

Tucker relinquished his position with the synagogue in order to accept the Met’s offer but never gave up his religious duties, officiating regularly as a guest cantor at services locally and across the United States. He also recorded much of the cantorial and other Jewish repertory.

Soon he was singing around the world; in Verona opposite a young Maria Callas, at Covent Garden in London, in Vienna, and finally at La Scala in Milan. Tucker also appeared in the first full (concert version) opera to appear on national television, having been chosen by conductor Arturo Toscanini to sing Radames in “Aida” (Jussi Bjorling was the more obvious choice, but Toscanini said he preferred Tucker as having a more “heroic” voice.)

He was now in demand on concert stages throughout the U.S. with recording contracts and regular appearances on national television shows such as “‘The Voice of Firestone'” and “‘The Bell Telephone Hour.” He formed a close friendship with baritone Robert Merrill and they appeared together in joint concerts. In 1968 he sang “Panis Angelicus” at Robert Kennedy’s funeral.

His great tenor roles were primarily in Verdi and Puccini, but he sang Mozart, French opera, and verismo operas with equal success. In later years he added Pagliacci and Samson et Dalila to his repertoire but his crowning achievement was as Eleazar in “La Juive.” As with Caruso, this would be the last new role he sang on stage.

Richard Tucker died of a heart attack before an evening performance in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He is the only person whose funeral has been held on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera.The city of New York designated the park adjacent to Lincoln Center as Richard Tucker Square. .

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