In 1954, on his 70th birthday, Alfred Piccaver received a letter from the Burgermeister of the city of Vienna which ended, “Please accept the greetings of the city of your triumphs. Let them be an expression of what your name still means to us, and of the emotions which are stirred by the memories of your unforgettable performances.”
Four years later, when Alfred Piccaver died in Vienna, he was given a state funeral. The center of Vienna was closed to traffic while the Vienna Philharmonic played Beethoven’s funeral march from the Eroica Symphony outside the Vienna Opera House.
But Alfred Piccaver was not Viennese – he was an Englishman who was raised in America.
Alfred Piccaver (1884-1958) was born in Northern England, in the Lincolnshire town of Long Sutton. When he was two years old his parents emigrated to America and settled in Albany, New York, where he grew up. Young Alfred worked briefly as an electrical engineer for the Edison Company but after an industrial accident he concentrated on singing and in 1905 won a scholarship to the Opera School of the Metropolitan Opera which had the added benefit of a free pass for standing room at the Met where he became enchanted by the singing of Enrico Caruso who he idolized for all his life – as this recording clearly shows.
During a visit to Austria for a summer school with his voice teacher, he was heard by the director of the Landestheater in Prague and offered a three-year contract after which he joined the Vienna Hofoper where he quickly became an audience favorite and remained for 27 years as it’s major star.
In 1912 he was offered a contract to sing 17 roles at the Metropolitan Opera in New York but, possibly he was unsure of himself or perhaps because he was so happy in Vienna, he did not return the contract. He should have. Puccini said that Piccaver was his “ideal Rodolfo.”
In 1917 the Emperor appointed him Kammersanger – Royal and Imperial Court Singer. He had a warm, velvety, lyric tenor voice with a seductive tone, similar in some ways to Richard Tauber. He had a friendly and open personality and the Viennese affectionately called him “Picci.”
One reviewer wrote: “He stands head and shoulders above all his German colleagues..” The Odeon Company obviously agreed because they signed him to a contract while he was still appearing in Prague and guaranteed to record a minimum of ten titles a year to be released as a special series with Luxury labels.
He made his American opera debut in Chicago in 1923 as the Duke in Rigoletto. Musical America said that his voice was “almost unbelievably rich and lovely” and the Chicago Times said: “in the sheer power of fine phrasing he gets subtleties as well as broad outlines from his voice and is not limited merely to … love and bravura.”
He was engaged for a second season in Chicago and sang Cavaradossi (to the Tosca of Claudia Muzio) there, but he never again appeared in America. That same year he appeared at Covent Garden in London to rapturous reviews, and gave a concert in 1925 at Albert Hall in which the great soprano Luisa Tetrazzini rushed onstage to embrace him and give him a bouquet of flowers.
Piccaver sang a wide variety of music, both lyric and dramatic, including Verdi, Puccini, popular songs and German operas. In this aria from Fidelio he displays a stylishness in his singing – no shouting in the dramatic parts – just a fluid vocal line with impeccable diction.
Like Caruso and Rosa Ponselle, his stage fright was near crippling and he often cancelled performances at the last minute. He would try out his voice in the morning and if it didn’t seem right he would call and cancel the evening’s performance. The Opera kept one (and sometimes two!) tenors on call at all times just in case. Sometimes a new young tenor would get his first big chance because of Piccaver. Audiences adored him and always forgave him.
In 1931 he left the Vienna State Opera over a salary dispute and began touring abroad, first to Switzerland and then to England. He was in England when Hitler annexed Austria in 1937 and, since he was a British citizen, he decided to remain in England where he made some records and concert appearances, but never sang again in opera.
Piccaver married twice but had no children. He remained in England until the end of the war and finally returned to Vienna in 1955 for the re-opening of the Vienna State Opera House. He occasionally took students and lived a comfortable life of retirement. He died in Vienna in September of 1958 and is buried there.