The 1950s and 1960s were an unusual time for tenors — on one hand, Kraus, Gedda, and Bergonzi were faithful re-creators, on the other, there were such individualists as Franco Corelli and Richard Tucker (1913-1975), who rejoiced in their vocal idiosyncrasies, and sang in a manner that best displayed their vocal strengths. For some listeners, with his open, powerful, and seemingly tireless voice, Richard Tucker was not only the supreme Verdi tenor of his time, but of the entire twentieth century. For others, his interpolated sobs and gulps, his perceived lack of sensitivity to textual or musical nuances, and tendency to sing everything at full forte, regardless of the score's indications, was both vulgar and unstylish, nearly the opposite of what Verdi singing should be.
He first sang professionally at the age of six as an alto in a local synagogue, and continued to sing at weddings and bar mitzvahs while he was growing up. In his teens, he studied with Paul Althouse, sang as a professional cantor, and made his operatic debut as Alfredo in La Traviata at the Jolson Theater in New York in 1943. In 1944, Althouse invited Edward Johnson, general director of the Metropolitan Opera, to hear his pupil sing services at the Brooklyn Jewish Temple, and Johnson was impressed enough to offer him a contract. Tucker made his Met debut as Enzo in Ponchielli's La Gioconda in early 1945, the first of over 600 performances for the Met (499 in the house, 225 on tour). He made his Italian debut at the Arena di Verona in the same role in 1947, opposite debuting soprano Maria Callas, and made his Covent Garden debut in 1957, his Vienna debut in 1958, and his La Scala debut in 1969. However, the Met was his home base, and where he was a favorite. While his voice had the power of a spinto, its basic timbre was lyrical, enough so that Rudolf Bing was able to convince him to sing Ferrando in the now-famous English-language production of Cosi fan tutte, with Eleanor Steber and Blanche Thebom.
Tucker was a devout believer, and proud of his Judaic heritage, and he also made several recordings, now classics, of Jewish sacred music. During the Vietnam War, he even went overseas to serve as cantor for Seder services for the United States troops. He also performed Cesar Franck's Panis angelicus at the funeral services of Robert Kennedy.
He died in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Due to his close ties with the Met and its audiences, his funeral service was held on the Met's stage. His family established the Richard Tucker Foundation, which awards a prize to a rising opera star each year. Some of the past winners include Renée Fleming, Dwayne Croft, and Paul Groves. Tucker's recording of Cosi fan tutte, based on the Met production, captures his voice in its prime as he sings with uncommon elegance and grace. Sony has also re-released a representative album of his Verdi arias with Eileen Farrell.