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Richard Tucker is today primarily associated with the history of opera in America — a highly gifted tenor, he is compared to Franco Corelli in influence and appeal, and classed with people like Alfredo Kraus and Nicolai Gedda. But Tucker, as a Jewish American who came to music from a religious background, had an output different from all of those others, and, ironically, was just as well known in the United States — and perhaps even more beloved — for that other side of his work. When he sang the part of Radames in Verdi's Aida as conducted by Toscanini on the NBC television network, it was because he was arguably the supreme Verdi tenor of his generation, and this broadcast was a piece of operatic, musical, and television history in the making; but Jewish audiences took a special pride in his selection for the role in the concert performance (for which he would have been utterly unsuited physically, in an actual production of the opera) because of whence he came.
He was born in New York, and at age six joined the choir of an Orthodox Jewish synagogue on the Lower East Side of Manhattan as a boy alto. Over the next eight years, he sang at weddings and other events and became steeped in Jewish liturgy and the musical traditions of the synagogue — only the inevitable change to his voice interrupted his vocalizing, and from ages 14 through 18 he abandoned singing. By the time he reached 18, however, his adult voice had settled into a rich tenor, and it was in that capacity that he returned to his old synagogue. He also studied cantorial music with Cantor Weisser, Zavel Zilberts, and Cantor J. Mirsky, all eminent teachers, and at age 22 he was a cantor at a synagogue in New York. He subsequently sang at Temple Emanuel in Passaic, NJ, Temple Adath Israel in the Bronx, and the Brooklyn Jewish Center in Brooklyn, NY. But he overlapped his cantorial work with the study of operatic singing and repertory, principally with Paul Althouse, himself a former tenor with the Metropolitan Opera. It was Althouse who, in 1944, when Tucker was 29 years old, arranged for Edward Johnson, the general director of the Met, to hear Tucker sing at a service at the Brooklyn synagogue, and what he heard impressed him sufficiently to offer Tucker a contract. He relinquished his position with the synagogue in order to accept, although he vowed never to give up that side of his art, regardless of his professional engagements — and ironically enough, with the Metropolitan Opera as his platform, he became the guest cantor to the world, officiating on the High Holy Days at services across the United States, and recording a then-unique body of cantorial repertory for Columbia Records; many of the early recordings were done in collaboration with conductor Sholom Secunda. His later recordings also included lighter fare, including stage work by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick (obviously with Fiddler on the Roof looming large in the selection). His more than 600 performances at the Met were, to at least some of his admirers, only icing on the cake next to his religious and other Jewish repertory, which also came to encompass such little-known works as Abraham Goldfaden's operetta-like work for the Yiddish theater. Meanwhile, Tucker sang around the world, his debut in Italy coming in the same production in which Maria Callas made her debut; he sang at Covent Garden in 1957, and in Vienna in 1958, and at La Scala in Milan in 1969. Tucker remained uniquely popular in America, however, and even more so in New York. Alas, because operatic recording was limited in the United States during his prime years, there are relatively few examples of his work in this area in complete operas during his first 15 years, before he reached his fifties — the Aida with Toscanini and some other live performances with the Maestro, and an English-language version of Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutte from the start of the 1950s capture his youthful sound, and otherwise there are some later operatic recordings, and some Mahler with Leonard Bernstein on Columbia, all from the 1960s; mostly, however, he was represented by recitals, and his cantorial and other Jewish-themed recordings, relatively few of which have surfaced on CD. He passed away in 1975 at age 61. His funeral service was held on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, and in his memory the Richard Tucker Foundation awards a prize each year to a promising potential opera star.