This country has a history of producing great baritones: Leonard Warren, Robert Merrill, Sherrill Milnes, Thomas Hampson, and a whole slew of new guys, just waiting for their big break. But, we don’t exactly produce that many world-class tenors. Unless you are into inside opera, you don’t even know the names of a the few very good ones we’ve produced. The late Jerry Hadley would have been one of them, had he not died, so suddenly. Neil Shicoff almost made it. That’s about it. The greatest tenor this country has ever produced, without hesitation was the great Richard Tucker.
As well you know, I could care less about a tenor. Tucker, though was different – and is different. His death was so sudden, the loss to opera so great, that he is the only person to have his funeral on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera. He was beloved. His greatest legacy, though is the Richard Tucker Foundation, where incredible young voices are honored. This year’s winner, Jamie Barton, is well on her way to becoming the next operatic super-star.
One of the great joys of opera, and the primary reason we tolerate tenors is because they can do wondrous an magical things when their voice augments a baritone in duets. Great baritone and tenor duos are legendary, and are fairly difficult to find, historically, in opera. You talk baritone & tenor duos and only two pop up, constantly: Sherrill Milnes & Placido Domingo and Richard Tucker and Robert Merrill.
Robert Merrill was my mother’s favorite singer. I remember when she and her best friend finally had tickets to see Robert Merrill when the Met was on tour in Atlanta. I was just a kid, and didn’t pay much attention to how upset she was when she returned to the hotel. Merrill did not sing that night. Instead, the Met was using a young baritone. Durn if it wasn’t Sherrill Milnes. But, to her, it was heart-breaking. Years later, at a Richard Tucker Foundation Gala, she and my father were there. I’d gone the year before, so it was her turn. She had front row seats at Carnegie Hall. There are times when the seating could be quite intimate. If the lights were just right, you could be seen from the stage.
When Sherrill Milnes escorted an elderly Robert Merrill on stage, helping him, she lost it. Like I would do if I were to see Dmitri Hvorostovsky and have done with Sherrill Milnes, she sat there, bawling. Over the years, as a truly obsessed fan and compulsive groupie, I was quite fortunate to get to know the greatest baritone of them all. In the process, so did my mother. When he saw her sitting there, bawling as she watched Robert Merrill, he smiled and nodded to her. That made her bawl even more.