Lawrence Tibbett
The Complete Victor Recordings & Selected Broadcasts

50102-2 (10 CDs)  | $ 120.00


Lawrence Tibbett
Few (if any?) opera singers have also been Academy Award nominees, let alone for Best Actor. But then again, there is only one Lawrence Tibbett (1896–1960). Described as dashing, Tibbett had a career as a movie actor, radio show personality and host, with sponsors such as Packard, Firestone, and Chesterfield. He was also one of the first “crossover” artists singing Gershwin, Kern, and Porter, and was a staple at the Met. A cogent and articulate advocate for artistic causes (rare in his day), he founded the American Guild of Musical Artists with Jascha Heifetz. But first and foremost, Lawrence Tibbett was an opera singer and one of the greatest baritones of all time.

Lawrence Tibbett signed his first contract with the Metropolitan Opera at age twenty-six and over the years built a hugely successful career. His voice was large, deep, and dark-timbred. His dynamic range (in his prime) ranged from forceful fortes to delicate pianissimos. Falstaff’s Ford was his breakthrough role and he was an outstanding Simon Boccanegra, Iago, Scarpia, and Escamillo. Tibbett was the consummate musician with an incredible stage presence. Sadly, arthritis and alcohol took its toll and Tibbett died from a fall in his apartment at age sixty-three.

Tibbett recorded exclusively for RCA Victor between 1925 and 1940, making over one hundred sides. Marston Records is pleased to present the complete Victor recordings of Tibbett for the first time. In addition, this set will include recordings made for his films, Metropolitan and Under Your Spell, as well as selections from his Packard and Chesterfield radio broadcasts never before available on compact disc. The booklet will contain many rare photos and a comprehensive essay by author and critic Conrad Osborne on Tibbett’s life, career, and recorded legacy.

CD 1 (80:27)

Victor Talking Machine Company, Camden, New Jersey, Church Studio

3 March 1926
orchestra conducted by Rosario Bourdon
1.FALSTAFF: È sogno? o realtà? (Verdi)4:29
2.FALSTAFF: È sogno? o realtà? (Verdi)4:30

Victor Talking Machine Company, Camden, New Jersey, Church Studio

24 May 1926
orchestra conducted by Rosario Bourdon
3.Oh That We Two Were Maying, Op. 2, No. 8 (Nevin)3:04

Victor Talking Machine Company, Camden, New Jersey, Church Studio

7 June 1926
orchestra conducted by Rosario Bourdon
4.Thy Beaming Eyes, Op. 40, No. 3 (MacDowell)2:25
5.PAGLIACCI: Si può? [Prologue] (Leoncavallo)7:25

Victor Talking Machine Company, Camden, New Jersey, Church Studio

30 March 1927
orchestra conducted by Rosario Bourdon
6.Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes (Old English air)3:39
7.Believe Me, If All Those Endearing Young Charms (Old Irish air)3:40

Victor Talking Machine Company, Camden, New Jersey, Church Studio

31 March 1927
orchestra conducted by Rosario Bourdon
8.Old Black Joe (Foster)3:36
 with male quartet: Charles W. Harrison, tenor; Lewis James, tenor; Elliott Shaw, baritone; Wilfrid Glenn, bass

Victor Talking Machine Company, New York City, Liederkranz Hall

31 May 1927
orchestra conducted by Nathaniel Shilkret
9.Uncle Ned (Foster)3:43
 with male Quartet: Charles Hart, tenor; Lambert Murphy, tenor; Royal Dadmun, baritone; James Stanley, bass

Victor Talking Machine Company, New York City, Liederkranz Hall

1 June 1927
orchestra conducted by Rosario Bourdon
10.Still wie die Nacht (Calm as the Night) (Götze)3:35
 with Lucrezia Bori, soprano
11.LES CONTES D’HOFFMANN: Belle nuit, ô nuit d’amour (Fairest Night of Starry Ray) [Barcarolle] (Offenbach)2:55
 with Lucrezia Bori, soprano

Victor Talking Machine Company, New York City, Liederkranz Hall

5 April 1928
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by Giulio Setti
12.THE KING’S HENCHMAN: Oh, Caesar, Great Wert Thou (Taylor)3:55
13.THE KING’S HENCHMAN: Nay, Maccus. Lay him down. (Taylor)4:20

Victor Talking Machine Company, Camden, New Jersey, Church Studio

10 April 1928
Mark Andrews, organ
14.Le Crucifix (The Crucifix) (Faure)3:34
 with Richard Crooks, tenor

Victor Talking Machine Company, New York City, Liederkranz Hall

29 May 1928
Stewart Wille, piano
15.Shake Your Brown Feet, Honey (Carpenter)2:59
16.THE PACKET BOAT: Roustabout (Hughes)2:58
17.Travelin’ to de Grave (Spiritual, Arranged by William Reddick)1:59

RCA Victor, New York City, Liederkranz Hall

3 and 10 April 1929
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by Giulio Setti Fausto Cleva, organ
18.TOSCA: Tre sbirri, una carrozza [Te Deum] (Puccini)4:28
19.TOSCA: Tre sbirri, una carrozza [Te Deum] (Puccini)4:09

RCA Victor, New York City, Liederkranz Hall

8 April 1929
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by Giulio Setti
20.CARMEN: Votre toast [Toreador Song] (Bizet)4:40
21.CARMEN: Votre toast [Toreador Song] (Bizet)4:25
Languages: Tracks 1, 2, 5, 18 and 19 in Italian • Tracks 3, 4, 6–17 in English • Tracks 20 and 21 in French

CD 2 (76:35)

RCA Victor, Camden, New Jersey, Church Studio

27 and 28 May, 1929
 recorded on twelve sides; No. X., Litany of the Passion (hymn) was omitted from the recording.
Lawrence Tibbett, baritone; Richard Crooks, tenor
Mark Andrews, organ
Trinity Choir
Sopranos: Lucy Isabelle Marsh; Olive Kline; Della Baker; Ruth Rodgers; Emily Stokes Hager
Contraltos: Elsie Baker; Helen Clark; Rose Bryant; Edna Indermaur
Tenors: Lambert Murphy; Charles Hart; Lewis James; Charles W. Harrison
Baritones and basses: Frank Croxton; Wilfred Glenn; Elliott Shaw; James Stanley; Stanley Baughman
conducted by Clifford Cairns
1.I. And They Came to a Place Named Gethsemane (tenor recitative)1:05
2.II. The Agony—Could ye not watch with Me one brief hour (bass solo); And They Laid Their Hands on Him (tenor solo)6:24
3.III. Processional to Calvary (organ solo);
Fling Wide the Gates (chorus; tenor solo)
4.IV. And When They Were Come to the Place Called Calvary (bass recitative)1:04
5.V. The Mystery of the Divine Humiliation—Cross of Jesus, Cross of Sorrow (hymn)1:55
6.VI. He Made Himself of No Reputation (bass recitative)1:44
7.VII. The Majesty of the Divine Humiliation—King Ever Glorious (tenor solo)4:30
8.VIII. And As Moses Lifted Up the Serpent (bass recitative)1:14
9.IX. God So Loved the World (chorus)3:09
10.XI. Jesus Said, ‘Father, Forgive Them’ (tenor and male chorus recitative)0:46
11.XII. So Thou Liftest Thy Divine Petition (tenor and bass duet)4:01
12.XIII. The Mystery of the Intercession—Jesus, the Crucified, Pleads for Me (hymn)1:32
13.XIV. And One of the Malefactors (bass solo and male chorus)2:06
14.XV. The Adoration of the Crucified—I Adore Thee, I Adore Thee! (hymn)1:11
15.XVI. When Jesus Therefore Saw His Mother (tenor solo and male chorus)2:53
16.XVII. Is It Nothing to You? (bass solo)1:20
17.XVIII. The Appeal of the Crucified—From the Throne of His Cross (chorus)6:16
18.XIX. After This, Jesus Knowing That All Things Were Now Accomplished (tenor and male chorus recitative)2:03
19.XX. For the Love of Jesus—All for Jesus! All for Jesus! (hymn)0:44

RCA Victor, New York City, Liederkranz Hall

13 January 1930
orchestra conducted by Nathaniel Shilkret
20.The Rogue Song (from the film THE ROGUE SONG) (Stothart)3:23
21.The Narrative (from the film THE ROGUE SONG) (Stothart)3:17

RCA Victor, New York City, Liederkranz Hall

15 January 1930
orchestra conducted by Rosario Bourdon
22.When I’m Looking At You (from the film THE ROGUE SONG) (Stothart)3:47
23.The White Dove (from the film THE ROGUE SONG) (Lehár, Arranged by Stothart)3:46

RCA Victor, New York City, Liederkranz Hall

15 April 1930
orchestra conducted by Nathaniel Shilkret
24.UN BALLO IN MASCHERA: Eri tu che macchiavi quell’anima (Verdi)4:38
25.UN BALLO IN MASCHERA: Eri tu che macchiavi quell’anima (Verdi)4:31
Languages: Tracks 1–23 in English • Tracks 24 and 25 in Italian

CD 3 (81:48)

RCA Victor, New York City, Liederkranz Hall

15 April 1930
orchestra conducted by Nathaniel Shilkret
1.IL BARBIERE DI SIVIGLIA: Largo al factotum (Rossini)4:30
2.IL BARBIERE DI SIVIGLIA: Largo al factotum (Rossini)4:21

RCA Victor, New York City, Studio 2

6 March 1931
orchestra conducted by Nathaniel Shilkret
3.Without a Song (from the film THE PRODIGAL) (Youmans)3:43
4.Life is a Dream (from the film THE PRODIGAL) (Oscar Straus)3:41

RCA Victor, New York City, Studio 2

6 March 1931
Stewart Wille, piano
5.Wanting You (from the film NEW MOON) (Romberg)2:38
6.Lover Come Back to Me (from the film NEW MOON) (Romberg)2:57

RCA Victor, Hollywood, Studio 2

26, 28, and 29 October 1931
Stewart Wille, piano
7.Tramps at Sea (from the film CUBAN LOVE SONG) (Stothart)3:05
8.Cuban Love Song (from the film CUBAN LOVE SONG) (Stothart)3:02
sung in E-flat
9.Edward, Op. 1, No. 1 (Loewe)4:43

RCA Victor, Camden, Studio 2

10 December 1931
Stewart Wille, piano
10.Edward, Op. 1, No. 1 (Loewe)4:49
11.De Glory Road (Wolfe)4:48

RCA Victor, Camden, Studio 2

10 December 1931
orchestra conducted by Nathaniel Shilkret
12.Cuban Love Song (from the film CUBAN LOVE SONG (Stothart)3:35
Sung in D

RCA Victor, New York City, Studio 2

8 December 1932
orchestra conducted by Nathaniel Shilkret
13.The Song Is You (from MUSIC IN THE AIR) (Kern)3:06
14.And Love Was Born (from MUSIC IN THE AIR) (Kern)3:28
15.Pilgrim’s Song, Op. 47, No. 5 (Tchaikovsky)4:20
16.Song of the Flea (Mussorgsky)3:46
17.Song of the Flea (Mussorgsky)3:46

RCA Victor, New York City, Studio 2

16 December 1932
Stewart Wille, piano
18.A Kingdom by the Sea (Somervell)4:41
19.Ol’ Man River (from SHOW BOAT) (Kern)3:36

RCA Victor, New York City, Studio 2

19 January 1934
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, conducted by Wilfrid Pelletier
20.THE MERRY MOUNT: Oh, ’Tis an Earth Defiled (Hanson)4:33
21.EMPEROR JONES: Oh Lord! … Standin’ in de Need of Prayer (Gruenberg)4:41
Languages: Tracks 1 and 2 sung in Italian • Tracks 3–21 sung in English

CD 4 (80:49)

RCA Victor, New York City, Studio 1

20 April 1934
orchestra conducted by Nathaniel Shilkret
1.TANNHÄUSER: Wie Todesahnung Dämmrung deckt die Lande … O du mein holder Abendstern (Wagner)4:39
2.FAUST: O sainte médaille … Avant de quitter ces lieux (Gounod)4:41
3.IN A PERSIAN GARDEN: Myself When Young (Lehmann)3:23
4.None but the Lonely Heart, Op. 6, No. 6 (Tchaikovsky)3:23

RCA Victor, Camden, New Jersey, Church Studio 2

30 April 1934
Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Leopold Stokowski
5.DIE WALKÜRE: Leb’ wohl, du kühnes, herrliches Kind [Wotan’s Farewell] (Wagner)16:45


18 December 1933
orchestra conducted by William Daly
6.Lawrence Tibbett greets his radio audience0:36
7.SERSE: Ombra mai fu (Handel)3:50
8.The Hand Organ Man (Wolfe)4:06
9.Without a Song (from the film THE PRODIGAL) (Youmans)2:26
10.IL BARBIERE DI SIVIGLIA: Largo al factotum (Rossini)4:43

Selected appearances on The Packard Hour, 1934–1935

orchestra conducted by Wilfrid Pelletier
2 October 1934
11.DIE MEISTERSINGER VON NÜRNBERG: Was duftet doch der Flieder (The Scent of Elders Flow’ring) (Wagner)5:28
12.IL TABARRO: Scorri, fiume eterno! (Puccini)4:03
Attributed to 27 November 1934
13.LA TRAVIATA: Di Provenza il mar (Verdi)4:44
Attributed to 18 December 1934
14.MARTHA: Laßt mich euch fragen [Porter Song] (Flotow)2:19
25 December 1934
15.Die Allmacht, D.852 (The Omnipotence) (Schubert)5:50
Unknown date, likely 1934
16.LES CONTES D’HOFFMANN: Scintille, diamant (Offenbach)2:34
22 January 1935
17.FAUST: Vous qui faites l’endormie [Méphistophélès Serenade] (Gounod)2:47
20 February 1935
18.FALSTAFF: È sogno? o realtà? (Verdi)4:30
Languages: Tracks 1 and 5 in German • Tracks 2, 16, and 17 in French • Tracks 3, 4, 6, 8, 9, 11, 14, and 15 in English • Tracks 7, 10, 12, 13, and 18 in Italian

CD 5 (81:00)

RCA Victor, New York City, Studio 2

10 October 1935
orchestra conducted by Nathaniel Shilkret
1.Last Night, When We Were Young (Arlen)4:05
2.On the Road to Mandalay (Speaks)4:55

RCA Victor, New York City, Studio 2

14 and 23 October 1935
Selections from PORGY AND BESS (Gershwin)
Helen Jepson, soprano; Lawrence Tibbett, baritone; Trinity Choir,
directed by Clifford Cairns; orchestra conducted by Alexander Smallens
The two solo sides sung by Helen Jepson, recorded later with Nathaniel Shilkret conducting, are omitted here.
3.Summertime and Crap Game; A Woman is a Sometime Thing3:21
with Helen Jepson and chorus
4.I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’3:10
5.The Buzzard Song3:52
6.Bess, You Is My Woman Now5:00
with Helen Jepson
7.It Ain’t Necessarily So3:04
8.Where Is My Bess?3:09

Recordings from the film METROPOLITAN

Autumn 1934; Recorded on disc by Twentieth Century Fox
Lawrence Tibbett ordered pressings of these recordings to be made, which he presented to “friends.”
9.De Glory Road (Wolfe)4:53
10.On the Road to Mandalay (Speaks)3:52
11.IL BARBIERE DI SIVIGLIA: Largo al factotum (Rossini)4:33
12.CARMEN: Votre toast [Toreador Song] (Bizet)5:10
with chorus
13.PAGLIACCI: Si può? [Prologue] (Leoncavallo)5:28
14.PAGLIACCI: Vesti la giubba (Leoncavallo)1:58
transposed down a full tone to D Minor
15.Last Night, When We Were Young (Arlen)4:38
 with Carroll Weiskopf, soprano

Selected appearances on The Packard Hour, 1935

orchestra conducted by Donald Voorhees
8 October 1935
16.Long Ago in Alcalà (Messager)2:55
12 November 1935
17.Flanders Requiem (La Forge)4:21
18.Ay, Gitanos! (Eakin)2:29
19.On the Road to Mandalay (Speaks)5:11
3 December 1935
20.Lawrence Tibbett spoken introduction0:37
21.BORIS GODUNOV: I stand supreme in power [Boris’s monologue] (Mussorgsky)4:19
The final bars of the monologue are missing from the only known source of this broadcast.
Languages: Tracks 1–10, 15–20 in English • Tracks 11, 13, and 14 in Italian • Track 12 in French

CD 6 (81:47)

Selected appearances on The Packard Hour, 1936

orchestra conducted by Donald Voorhees
Unknown date, ca. 1936
1.ANDREA CHÉNIER: Nemico della patria?! (Giordano)4:52
25 January 1936
2.IL TROVATORE: Il balen del suo sorriso (Verdi)3:37
3.TOSCA: Già, mi dicon venal (Puccini)2:53
11 February 1936
4.HÉRODIADE: Ce breuvage pourrait me donner un tel rêve … Vision fugitive (Massenet)4:10
10 March 1936
5.ROMÉO ET JULIETTE: Mab, la reine des mensonges (Gounod)2:45
The General Motors Hour
3 May 1936
NBC Orchestra conducted by Ernö Rapée
6.FAUST: O sainte médaille … Avant de quitter ces lieux (Gounod)4:36
Private recordings made during a concert of the Worcester Festival, Worcester, Massachusetts
6 October 1936
Stewart Wille, piano
7.SCIPIONE: Tutta raccolta ancor (Hear Me, Ye Winds and Waves) (Handel)3:16
8.Lebe wohl, No. 36 from MÖRIKE LIEDER (Fare Thee Well) (Wolf)2:06
9.Minnelied, Op. 71, No. 5 (Love song) (Brahms)2:04
10.Die Allmacht, D.852 (The Omnipotence) (Schubert)5:27
11.Old Mother Hubbard (Hely-Hutchinson)2:18
12.PORGY AND BESS: I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’ (Gershwin)2:34
13.Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes (Old English air)3:21
14.The Bagpipe Man (McKinney)1:47
15.HÉRODIADE: Ce breuvage pourrait me donner un tel rêve … Vision fugitive (Massenet)4:29

RCA Victor, New York City, Studio 2

19 October 1936
orchestra conducted by Alexander Smallens
16.RIGOLETTO: Cortigiani, vil razza dannata (Verdi)4:59
17.Hallelujah Rhythm (Wolfe)3:30
18.Goin’ Home (Adapted by William Arms Fisher from the second movement of Symphony No. 9 in E Minor) (Dvoˇrák)5:13

Recordings from the film UNDER YOUR SPELL

Summer 1936; Recorded on disc by Twentieth Century Fox
Lawrence Tibbett ordered pressings of these recordings to be made, which he presented to “friends.”
19.Under Your Spell (Dietz and Schwartz)4:01
20.Amigo (Dietz and Schwartz)2:45
 with chorus
21.My Little Mule Wagon (Dietz and Schwartz)4:18
22.FAUST: Buvons, trinquons, … Le veau d’or (transposed up a semitone) … Merci de ta chanson (score pitch) (Gounod)6:45
 with chorus and unidentified soloists
Languages: Tracks 1–3 and 16 in Italian • Tracks 4–6, 15 and 22 in French • Tracks 7–14 and 17–21 in English

CD 7 (75:34)

Selected appearances on the Chesterfield Hour, 1937–1938

orchestra conducted by André Kostelanetz
29 December 1937
1.LA TRAVIATA: Di Provenza il mar (Verdi)4:39
2.PORGY AND BESS: I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’ (Gershwin)2:48
3.In the Still of the Night (from the film ROSALIE) (Porter)4:41
5 January 1938
4.Gitana (Longás)2:06
5.Ständchen, D.957 No. 4 (Serenade) (Schubert)4:30
6.HÉRODIADE: Ce breuvage pourrait me donner un tel rêve … Vision fugitive (Massenet)4:19
12 January 1938
7.Life Is a Dream (from the film THE PRODIGAL) (Oskar Straus)3:36
8.Siboney (Lecuona)3:11
9.PORGY AND BESS: Oh, Where’s My Bess? (Gershwin)3:07
10.IL BARBIERE DI SIVIGLIA: Largo al factótum (Rossini)4:33
19 January 1938
11.Close (from the film ROSALIE) (Porter)3:51
12.On the Nodaway Road (Bates)3:24
13.The Song of the Flea (Mussorgsky)3:28
14.Tibbett introduces the Prologue from PAGLIACCI1:23
15.PAGLIACCI: Si può? [Prologue] (Leoncavallo)5:11
26 January 1938
16.I See Your Face before Me (from the musical BETWEEN THE DEVIL) (Dietz and Schwartz)4:25
17.PORGY AND BESS: A Woman is a Sometime Thing (Gershwin)2:17
18.IOLANTHE: Love Unrequited Robs Me of My Rest ... When You’re Lying Awake with a Dismal Headache [the Lord Chancellor’s song] (Gilbert and Sullivan)3:52
19.OTELLO: Vanne; la tua meta già vedo ... Credo in un Dio crudel (Verdi)5:24
2 February 1938
20.CARMEN: Votre toast [Toreador song] (Bizet)4:47
Languages: Tracks 1, 10, 15 and 19 in Italian • Tracks 2, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11–14, and 16–18 in English • Tracks 4 and 8 in Spanish • Tracks 6 and 20 in French

CD 8 (72:32)

Selected appearances on the Chesterfield Hour, 1938

orchestra conducted by André Kostelanetz except where noted
9 February 1938
1.On the Road to Mandalay (Speaks)4:58
2.RIGOLETTO: Cortigiani, vil razza dannata (Verdi)4:49
3.Deems Taylor and Lawrence Tibbett banter about the filming of CUBAN LOVE SONG1:45
4.Cuban Love Song (from the film CUBAN LOVE SONG) (Stothart)3:16
16 February 1938
5.Der Erlkönig, D.328 (The Erl King) (Schubert)3:53
6.UN BALLO IN MASCHERA: Alzati! Là tuo figlio ... Eri tu che macchiavi quell’anima (Verdi)5:56
7.All of My Heart (Olmstead)3:25
23 February 1938
8.Tramps at Sea (from the film CUBAN LOVE SONG) (Stothart)2:44
9.I Dream of Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair (Foster)1:54
10.FAUST: Avant de quitter ces lieux (Gounod)3:34
11.Under Your Spell (from the film UNDER YOUR SPELL) (Dietz and Schwartz)3:25
1 March 1938
12.Edward, Op. 1, No. 1 (Loewe)5:04
 with Stewart Wille, piano
13.FALSTAFF: È sogno? o realtà? (Verdi)4:00
14.Alone Together (from the musical review FLYING COLORS) (Dietz and Schwartz)2:06
9 March 1938
15.Taylor and Tibbett introduce Colonel Ibbetson’s Recitation2:30
16.PETER IBBETSON: You Ask in Vain (Colonel Ibbetson’s Recitation) (Taylor)4:13
17.Hallejuah Rhythm (Wolfe)3:10
 with Stewart Wille, piano
18.TOSCA: Già, mi dicon venal (Puccini)2:53
23 March 1938
19.Smoke Gets in Your Eyes (from the musical ROBERTA) (Kern)4:06
20.LA TRAVIATA: Di Provenza il mar (Verdi)4:50
Languages: Tracks 1, 3–5, 7–9, 11, 12, 14–17, and 19 in English • Tracks 2, 6, 13, 18, and 20 in Italian • Track 10 in French

CD 9 (70:02)

RCA Victor, New York City, Studio 2

3 May 1939
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, conducted by Wilfrid Pelletier
1.The Battle Hymn of the Republic (Steffe, arranged by Bruno Reibold)2:38
2.My Own United States (from the musical WHEN JOHNNY COMES MARCHING HOME (Edwards, arranged by Bruno Reibold)2:54
 BS-036852-2 (4043)
3.SIMON BOCCANEGRA: Dinne ... Alcun là non vedesti? ... Figlia! a tal nome io palpito (Verdi)4:38
 Rose Bampton, soprano
4.SIMON BOCCANEGRA: Plebe! Patrizi! Popolo (Verdi)5:09
 Rose Bampton, soprano; Giovanni Martinelli, tenor; Leonard Warren, baritone; Roberts Nicholson, baritone, and Metropolitan Opera Chorus

RCA Victor, New York City, Studio 2

3 and 9 May 1939
Selections from OTELLO (Verdi)
 with Giovanni Martinelli, tenor; Helen Jepson, soprano; Nicolas Massue, tenor
Herman Dreeben, tenor
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and chorus, conducted by Wilfrid Pelletier
Only the six sides featuring Tibbett are included here.
5.Inaffia l’ugola [Brindisi]3:54
 with Nicolas Massue, tenor and Herman Dreeben, tenor
6.Vanne! La tua meta già vedo ... Credo in un Dio crudel4:46
7.Non pensateci piú … Tu? Indietro4:18
 with Giovanni Martinelli, tenor
8.E qual certezza sognate … Era la notte3:49
 with Giovanni Martinelli, tenor
9.Oh, mostruosa colpa ... Sì, pel ciel4:33
 with Giovanni Martinelli, tenor
10.Non pensateci più4:21
 with Giovanni Martinelli, tenor
11.Vieni, l’aula è deserto ... Questa è una ragna4:48
 with Giovanni Martinelli, tenor and Nicolas Massue, tenor

Kellogg’s “The Circle” (radio program)

12 June 1939
orchestra conducted by Robert Emmett Dolan
12.Begin the Beguine (from the stage musical JUBILEE) (Porter)3:31

Private records made for presentation to President and Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt

ca. June 1939
13.Hat dich die Liebe berührt (If love hath entered thy heart) (Marx)2:54
14.Sylvia (Speaks)3:18

Selected appearances on The Ford Sunday Evening Hour, 1938–1939

Detroit Symphony, conducted by Eugene Ormandy
23 October 1938
15.Feldeinsamkeit, Op. 86, No. 2 (In summer fields) (Brahms)3:32
16.Danny Deever (Damrosch)4:29
24 September 1939
17.DIE HEIMKEHR AUS DER FREMDE: Ich bin ein vielgereister Mann (I Am a Roamer Bold) (Mendelssohn)3:18

RCA Victor, New York City, Studio 2

15 December, 1939
Stewart Wille, piano
18.A Star Was His Candle (del Riego)3:12
Languages: Tracks 1, 2, and 12–18 in English • Tracks 3–11 in Italian

CD 10 (79:04)

Selections from Finnish War Relief Concert, Carnegie Hall, New York City

NBC Broadcast 27 December 1939
1.The Lord’s Prayer (Malotte)3:18
 Edward Harris, organ
2.THEODORA: Defend Her, Heav’n (Handel)4:54
3.Hills (LaForge)2:21
 Stewart Wille, piano
4.Suomi [Song of Finland] (Traditional, arranged by Black)4:49
 with Kirsten Flagstad, soprano; Karin Branzell, contralto; Lauritz Melchior, tenor
NBC Concert Orchestra, conducted by Eugene Goossens

RCA Victor, New York City, Studio 2

4 January, 1940
Stewart Wille, piano
5.SEMELE: Where’er You Walk (Handel)4:49
6.Defend Her, Heav’n: THEODORA (Handel)4:29
7.The Bailiff’s Daughter (Old English ballad)4:22
8.A Kingdom by the Sea (Somervell)4:35
9.Der Wanderer, D.489 (The Wanderer) (Schubert)4:56
10.Die Allmacht, D.852 (The Omnipotence) (Schubert)4:59

Selected appearances on The Ford Sunday Evening Hour, 1940

17 March 1940
Detroit Symphony and chorus, conducted by Eugene Ormandy
11.Ballad for Americans (Robinson)12:28
29 December 1940
Detroit Symphony, conducted by Sir John Barbirolli
12.UN BALLO IN MASCHERA: Eri tu che macchiavi quell’anima (Verdi)5:29
13.Ring Out Wild Bells (Gounod)4:19

Selected appearances on The Telephone Hour, 1942–1943

orchestra conducted by Donald Voorhees
1 September 1942
14.To the Children, Op. 26, No. 7 (Rachmaninoff)4:24
23 November 1942
15.UN BALLO IN MASCHERA: Eri tu che macchiavi quell’anima (Verdi)5:04
8 March 1943
16.LA FORZA DEL DESTINO: Urna fatale del mio destino (Verdi)3:48
Languages: Tracks 1–3, 5–11, 13, and 14 in English • Track 4 in Finnish • Tracks 12, 15, and 16 in Italian


Producers: Ward Marston and Scott Kessler

Audio Conservation: Ward Marston and J. Richard Harris

Photos: Girvice Archer, Gregor Benko, the Metropolitan Opera Archive, the San Francisco Opera Archive, and Lori Tibbett

Booklet Coordinator: Mark S. Stehle

Booklet Design: Takeshi Takahashi

Preface: Will Crutchfield

Booklet Essay: Conrad L. Osborne

Marston would like to thank Dr. Herman Schornstein and Paul R.Terry for their leadership gifts that allowed us to produce the Lawrence Tibbett release.

Major sponsor: Steve Bauman

Additional sponsors: Anonymous (2), Joseph A. Bartush, John L. Frigo, Cary Frumess, Peter Mallon, William Russell, Frank Self, and Richard A. Williams

Marston would like to thank John Bolig for providing important discographic information.

Marston would like to thank Will Crutchfield for his editorial assistance.

Marston would like to thank Gregor Benko and Jeffrey Miller for lending us records from their collection.

Marston would like to thank Mark Bailey, Director of the Yale Collection of Historical Sound Recordings, for providing digital transfers of primary disc sources for the following tracks: CD 4, track 15; CD 9, tracks 12 and 15–17; and CD 10, tracks 11–13.

Marston would like to thank Kevin Mostyn for providing transcription discs containing the Worcester Festival recordings, CD 6 tracks 7–15.

Marston would like to thank Norman White for providing a digital transfer of CD 6, track 16, taken from a unique test pressing in his collection.

Marston is grateful to the Estate of John Stratton (Stephen Clarke, Executor) for its continuing support.

Marston Records is an historical record label. As such, audio and visual materials are products of their particular times, and may contain offensive language or portray negative stereotypes.


by Will Crutchfield

Early jolts impress themselves on the mind, so it is easy for me to recall my first experience of Lawrence Tibbett. It came through a Victrola LP my father had bought, part of the admirable series through which RCA reminded the world in the 1960s and ’70s of the pre-war glories of its Victor catalogue. What electrified my eleven-year-old imagination was “Edward,” Tibbett’s stunning theatrical rendition of a grisly ballad perfectly calculated to appeal to adolescent male sensibilities at the stage of life when one reads Dracula and The Monkey’s Paw.

I had no idea at the time that I was hearing an ultra-rarity: Victrola had chosen the first take of the Loewe song (on this set as CD 3, Track 9), which appeared on vanishingly few 78-rpm copies, perhaps even pressed unintentionally. Almost all originals have instead the version heard on Track 10, recorded a few weeks later, with some significant differences of text and interpretation. This comparison is just one of the uncountable reasons why it is so valuable to have, for the first time, a comprehensive edition of the recordings of America’s greatest singing actor.

Here, Tibbett’s magnificent Victor series is interspersed with a generous selection of his surviving broadcast performances, and accompanied by nearly a hundred photographs and an all-encompassing essay by Conrad L. Osborne. All these are “must-haves” in their own right. Many of the photos are previously unpublished; quite a few of the broadcasts are gems hitherto unknown even to specialist collectors (do not for any reason miss “Begin the beguine,” a great song you’ll never hear sung better). And the essay, by the author most qualified to attempt such a thing, amounts to a year-by-year biography of the artist, a note-by-note biography of his voice and technique, and a song-by-song biography of his art. You may not agree with everything CLO has to say (he considers the second take of “Edward” an improvement; I remain attached to the one that amazed me so long ago), but you will understand Tibbett’s unique artistry and unique role in American culture as never before.


by Conrad L. Osborne, ©2022

In February of 1950, when Lawrence Tibbett took on the role that was to mark the end of his operatic career—that of Prince Ivan Khovansky in the Metropolitan Opera Company’s first presentation of Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina—Olin Downes, the chief music critic of the New York Times, praised the English enunciation of several cast members “. . . including that of the greatest male singer among Americans whom the Metropolitan has advanced in the last quarter century, Lawrence Tibbett.” A year earlier, James Hinton Jr., a perceptive critic, had written in Musical America of Tibbett’s Rigoletto that it “. . . brought freshly to mind what a really remarkable singing actor he is . . . his phrasing and his movement were an education in the craft of the stage.” These are only two critics’ opinions, but they would not have met with much challenge then, and, granting some allowance for the inevitable changes in what’s considered compelling in opera’s unique forms of singing and acting, would not meet with much even if extended to cover the seventy-plus years since they were voiced.

Neither review dwelt on the singing itself, and indeed Tibbett, though only in his early fifties, had not been close to his best self with any consistency for some eight or nine seasons, his Baker’s-Dozen years of dominance ending in one of the most poignant sudden declines in operatic history. More of that later. The critical reticence of Downes and Hinton reflects the deference—veneration, even—due to a man who vaulted from rough-hewn beginnings to the pinnacle of High Art, at the same time earning lofty status as a star of the popular culture of his time. Tibbett’s is a triumph-and-tragedy tale of the artist as rugged American individualist, without operatic parallel before or since.

THE LAUNCHING, 1896–1922

Lawrence Mervil Tibbet (the second “t” came later) was born on November 16th, 1896 in Bakersfield, a town along the Kern River in South-central California that had flourished as a farm market hub since the coming of the Southern Pacific Railroad some twenty years earlier, and was just beginning to boom with the discovery of oil in the region. His father, William Edward Tibbet, was of English stock, his mother, Frances Ellen McKenzie Tibbet, of Irish. Lawrence was the youngest of four children. The family was Methodist, of at least moderately strict observance. The Bakersfield of those days was not a peaceful place, and in April of 1903 Lawrence’s father, a Kern County Deputy Sheriff, was killed in what is sometimes labeled as “The Last Big Gun Battle of the Old West” against a locally notorious outlaw. For Lawrence and Frances Ellen, this was obviously a tragic occurrence. But for the future of opera, it was probably for the best. For whereas William Edward was a professionally manly man who administered corporal punishment, belittled his son’s physical underdevelopment, and sneered at his early musical inclinations, Frances Ellen was a contralto church soloist who aspired to a life of greater refinement and encouraged the early signs of unusual vocal and musical gifts in her son. She soon left Bakersfield, and though she struggled to support herself and her family with hotel and rooming-house ventures, by 1910 she had succeeded in settling them all into a life of reasonable stability in the City of Angels.

In the fall of 1911, Larry Tibbett (we’ll adopt the familiar spelling now) enrolled at the Los Angeles Manual Training High School. There, presumably under typical adolescent male peer pressure, he began a regimen of physical training he was to pursue until late in life, gradually turning his body into a strength-and-fitness specimen worthy of the old comic-book and nickel-Western ads. He also entered Manual Arts’ theatre program, which, despite the blue-collar trade orientation of the school, was a good one. His stage talent was immediately apparent (his drama teacher—Maude Howell, who went on to a screenwriting and production career of some standing—took special note of his death scene as Mercutio), and when he sought the leading role in an operetta about Miles Standish, his voice was promising enough to earn him free lessons with the tenor Joseph Dupuy. Dupuy even employed him with his choir at five dollars per week and gave him solo roles in its oratorio performances. It was in his time at Manual Arts that Tibbett also met the young woman who was to become his first wife, Grace Mackay Smith.

Upon high school graduation, Tibbett had no interest in further formal education. He kicked about the Los Angeles stage scene, acting in what seem to have been high-level community theatre productions, singing in church, in musicales, and in operetta of both the Austro-American (Herbert, Friml, Romberg) and English (Gilbert and Sullivan) varieties. In summers, he worked as a ranch hand. Following America’s entry into World War I, he enlisted in the Navy, though the closest he came to combat was a supply voyage to Vladivostok as part of the American intervention in the Russian Civil War. After his discharge in 1919, he married Grace and resumed his struggles in what performers have always recognized as their natural employment milieu, known now as the gig economy, his most remunerative gig being fifteen weeks singing between film showings at Sid Grauman’s Million Dollar Theatre.

In 1921, Tibbett auditioned for a production of The Mikado, in which Basil Ruysdael was to sing the title part. Ruysdael had relocated to Los Angeles after eight seasons in the more important secondary bass roles (e.g., Hunding, Varlaam, The King in Aïda) at the Metropolitan. He took an immediate interest in Tibbett and, like Joseph Dupuy before him, offered him voice lessons gratis, in addition to the role of Pish-Tush. Through another audition for an appearance at a women’s organization, Tibbett also came to the attention of Rupert Hughes, a poet and author of high reputation, and an accomplished musician as well. Over dinner, Hughes urged Tibbett to head for New York, on borrowed money if necessary. It was necessary, and through the good offices of James G. Warren, president of The Orpheus Club, where Tibbett had often sung, sufficient funds were raised to buy the train ticket and allow for a few months’ grubstake. In April of 1922, armed with letters of recommendation from Warren and Ruysdael, and leaving behind his wife and their twin sons, Lawrence Tibbett left for New York and the studio of Frank La Forge.

La Forge was a power on the New York singing scene. He had been the accompanist of several important singers (Farrar, Galli-Curci, Matzenauer, Schumann-Heink) and had become the coach of soprano Frances Alda, the wife of the Metropolitan’s General Manager, Giulio Gatti-Casazza. Alda took the young baritone into her touring Alda-Metropolitan Quartette (replacing Giuseppe de Luca) under the management of Charles Wagner. And it was through the combined efforts of Alda and La Forge that Tibbett secured an audition with Gatti in April of 1923 and, on appeal from Mme., a second hearing that led to a contract for the following season. He made his debut in November 1923 in Boris Godunov as the monk Lovitsky, who sings a few lines in Latin in the Kromy scene. The Boris of the performance was Feodor Chaliapin.

Gatti brought Tibbett along slowly. With Titta Ruffo and Antonio Scotti still on hand, and Giuseppe de Luca, Giuseppe Danise, and Mario Basiola in their prime years, the Met was not hurting in the Italian baritone department, and in the fourteen months between his debut and his legendary breathrough evening as Ford, his best assignments were as the Herald in Lohengrin, Silvio in Pagliacci, and Valentin in Faust, none of which attracted unusual attention, though his first Valentin earned him credibility with the management for making it through the role as a last-minute replacement. The story of the Falstaff of January 2nd, 1925, has been often recited. I think it will suffice here to say that on the opening night of a revival built around Scotti, Tibbett’s singing and acting of Ford’s Monologue, “È sogno? o realtà?”, occasioned a thunderous and prolonged audience response, followed by the sort of press reaction usually afforded a tabloid celebrity. They also led to new management with the rising powerhouse agency of Evans and Salter, and to his first studio session with RCA Victor, for whom he was to record exclusively for the next fifteen years.

At the Brink, 1922–1925

Before beginning consideration of the recordings and Lawrence Tibbett’s rise to stardom, it’s worth pausing to mark the route he has traveled so far, and take note of what is most rewarding to listen for in his voice. He has risen through an ecosystem of operatic education and production that today seems woefully underdeveloped, but which nonetheless produced at least a few grand-opera luminaries of greater stature, vitality, and individuality than we now seem capable of cultivating. He had the benefits of neither a liberal-arts higher education nor more specialized conservatory training. Instead, he plunged by choice into the musical and theatrical milieu around him, into the practice of the skills he sought to perfect, at whatever level he found open to him. He was hungry to learn, but after his clearly constructive high-school years, the learning was by way of self-instruction and private mentorship, with his livelihood on the line and no safety net beneath him. It is often remarked that he was the first American male singer to attain true stardom without European training and experience, preceded by only Rosa Ponselle among American women. That is true, and his self-awareness as an exemplar of American exceptionalism in a field of European high culture, and as a part of the foundation of what he hoped would become an authentically American school of opera, were to become important components of his performing self and of his unprecedented popularity.

In the Tibbett literature one sometimes comes across the notion that his voice was a “constructed”—as opposed to a “natural”—one. I think that this is to confuse matters of musical, linguistic, and stylistic cultivation with the voice itself. As is often the case with a great singer, it is difficult to ascertain just what his technical training encompassed. But the young man who first wins the leading roles in school operettas (quite different from the amplified pop-and-rock musicals of the present, which are minefields for adolescent voices), who gets free lessons and performing opportunities from professionally knowledgeable teachers, who attracts the sponsors of musicales and club recitals and earns the support of wealthy and well-connected patrons, is not someone struggling to find basic attributes of timbre, sonority, and pitch range. They’re already there, though not at full maturity. Tibbett’s first teacher, Dupuy, was a well-respected musician whom Tibbett later described as “an excellent drillmaster in music of this [i.e., the religious] type,” who put his young charge through an exercise regimen (“staccatos, legatos, scales, cadenzas”) that Tibbett admittedly found tedious. His second, Ruysdael, considered by Tibbett the most helpful, hounded him on the matter of well-formed but natural-sounding English pronunciation and, in the manner of a strength-and-fitness coach, addressed bodily weaknesses and tensions. Tibbett later credited Ruysdael with opening up his voice by getting him to relax.

As for La Forge, while it is clear that he was a superior pianist (a pupil of Lechetizky) and a shrewd, ambitious self-promoter, it’s not at all clear that he knew much about the workings of voices. He was never a singer or even a student of singing himself, and I surmise that he deployed his advanced musical knowledge and aesthetically tuned ear, augmented by observations and technical language picked up from the prima donnas he had played for, and presented it all with an air of authority. He seems to have helped Tibbett in the areas of musical expression and stylistic acumen, though much of the woodshedding of repertoire was handed over to a very capable and supportive associate, Helen Moss. For that sort of work to succeed, the voice must already be structurally complete, or nearly so. The exercise patterns Tibbett attributed to La Forge are of a generic sort any teacher might use for warm-ups. Neither they nor the default vowel used (the American diphthong “ay”) are directed toward any specific vocal use. Tibbett didn’t like LaForge personally, and tried other teachers on a couple of occasions, only to return to LaForge because of the latter’s strong connections with managers, critics, and patrons.

All this does not mean that important steps weren’t taken by these mentors in Tibbett’s maturation. But it does strongly suggest that his instrument was more a gift of nature and earliest usage than of “voice-building” pedagogy. His early theatre experience and predilection for acting (to the point of weighing it, and not singing, as his career choice) was also surely a factor. For him, singing was always first and foremost a means of dramatic expression, and the exuberant—at times reckless—energy he directed toward that goal was a component of the voice itself. And what sort of voice was that?

A woman I knew (older than I, but still young) in my apprentice acting seasons used to say that Tibbett’s voice had a “call” in it. She was speaking as a woman, and there’s not much doubt about the erotic appeal of the Tibbett tone, virile and commanding, yet capable of turning tender or romantically nostalgic in an instant. The “call” also has a “Lonesome Cowboy” element, a sound we might imagine hearing from a distance on the Western plains, rock-steady and manly, but with a plaintive tint. I can’t think of a European voice that has quite that sound. Along with that of John Charles Thomas, it is the top-of-line exemplar of what was in those times the American baritone identity, reflected in the timbres of Nelson Eddy and many of the “legit” baritones who displaced the operetta tenors in the leading roles of Broadway musicals. It wasn’t a massive voice. Ruffo, in Tibbett’s early years, and Alexander Sved, later, were both deemed “bigger” baritones, and there are even references to Tibbett’s sound during his first seasons as an essentially “light” one. His leaner instrument came to qualify as a “dramatic” baritone by virtue of its core and thrust and his authoritative, dramatically heightened delivery.

We will encounter many opportunities for discussion of technical specifics as we consider the individual recordings. For the moment, let it be observed that the qualities described above were deployed in performance over a pitch range of slightly more than two octaves—from the G an octave and a fourth below the middle C to the A-natural in the octave above it. This in itself is not common among great operatic baritones, who have often been limited at the lower end of the range—singers of such high accomplishment as Mattia Battistini, Heinrich Schlusnus, and Ruffo himself can be cited in this regard, and the notable exceptions have been among baritones of much “looser” overall structure, as in the otherwise dissimilar cases of Cornell MacNeil and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Tibbett’s voice also embraced the full continuum of dynamic shadings, from softer ones that were (almost) never of the crooned variety to louder ones that clearly impinged, even when not of overwhelming weight. And it showed a color span reflexively responsive to the expressive demands placed upon it by the singer’s active dramatic imagination.

There is one aspect of Tibbett’s technique, sometimes mentioned as a contributing factor to his vocal crisis, that will be interesting to listen for as we move through his recorded legacy. In the uppermost segment of the chest register (B to E-natural), his singing of the open vowels (“a” and “e”) at forte can sound “too open,” too driven, and lose the easy, consistent vibrato elsewhere evident, taking on a fixed or, in rare instances, deadened quality and necessitating an overly precipitous shift into the more gathered focus required for the high range. At other moments, the darkening of timbre in that same area of range (suggestive of what some Italian teachers and singers termed “the vuoto” i.e., “empty” or “hollow”—an adjustment attributed only to baritone voices) can at moments sound imposed on the instrument, rather than natural to it. That this is not entirely a question of “open” versus “closed” or “covered” is shown by the example of de Luca, who sometimes sang F-natural or even F-sharp in an “open” manner, yet without any loss of vibrato, timbral beauty, or liquid flow, or in a different way by that of Thomas, who on occasion attacked those same pitches in what singers would call a “wide open” fashion, yet got away with it. With Tibbett, it sounds more like a stiffening in his positional hold on the tone that inhibits a completely free emission. I’ll try to evaluate these symptoms, along with that of a slight overall darkening and some loss of brilliance (though not of reach) at the top, as an element in the voice’s crisis when we arrive at that sad juncture. For now, on to the recordings of Lawrence Tibbett in his youth and glorious prime.

Worth noting: Tibbett’s recording career began at the electrical method’s crack of dawn. The studio orchestras assembled to take advantage of the new technique, customarily under the direction of Rosario Bourdon or Nathaniel Shilkret, must have sounded splendid—at least at first—to listeners accustomed to the acoustical method, but inevitably seem undernourished to our ears. In terms of arrangement and execution, their work ranges downward from pickup-pro-acceptable to less than that, and I won’t comment about them further except for anomalies and exceptions.

THE ASCENT, 1925–1929

Verdi/Shakespeare/Boïto: FALSTAFF: È sogno? o realtà? (unpublished, takes 4 and 5, 3 March 1926) (CD 1/1-2). The first of Tibbett’s recordings to be assigned matrix numbers (there had been trial sides a year earlier, two of them self-accompanied) was, unsurprisingly, of the piece that had earned him his initial triumph, Ford’s great monologue. And we immediately encounter, in rather extreme form, the very technical issue I have just described. To be sure, the voice’s characteristic timbre and steadiness are already present, and as the singer rides powerfully up to a ringing G-flat at “Due rami enormi crescon sulla mia tes-TA,” we feel we’re in for a spine-tingling ride. Subsequently, though, syllables on the F at the upper edge of the passaggio are given raw, worrisomely open treatment (“il tuo LET-to,” “donna, de-MO-nio,” “NON mia moglie a se stessa”), and we don’t feel that he retakes the reins until the climactic G of “nel fondo del mio COR.” Interpretively, too, his penchant for the dramatic accent exposes immaturities, in the form of exaggerated colorings and a habit of shouting on accented syllables for effect. All this goes on despite Tullio Serafin’s personal coaching on the role throughout the rehearsal period. And we might note that, at least at the outset, Tibbett didn’t know Italian (or French or German, for that matter). He learned his roles by rote, phonetically (though always aware of meaning), and it took time for his treatment of word-setting to take on greater fluency. Of the two takes heard here, the fifth shows some negligible improvements on the fourth.

Ethelbert W. Nevin/Charles Kingsley: Oh That We Two Were Maying, Op. 2, No. 8 and Edward Macdowell/William Henry Gardner: Thy Beaming Eyes, Op. 40, No. 3 (24 May 1926) (CD 1/3–4). We next meet Tibbett in two examples of a type of song he (and many other singers of the time) often included on his recital programs. These are light expressions of genteel romantic sentiment, considerate enough in terms of vocal range and complexity of accompaniment to be essayed by amateur musicians at their parlor pianos, and thus apt to generate satisfying sheet music sales. This is also our first opportunity to assess the aspect of Tibbett’s singing that Ruysdael had so emphasized—his way with an American variant of the English language, which is a remarkable amalgam of unquestionably formal structure (fully formed vowels, exactitude of articulation) with a bonding to the musical line that sounds utterly unaffected. Occasionally, in softer passages, the clarity of word (not of tone) takes on a slight haziness, but the expressiveness of phrase is always present, so that we never lose emotional contact. The setting by Nevins (composer of the once-popular “The Rosary” and “Mighty Lak’ a Rose”) of the Reverend Kingsley’s verses is a purely lyrical expression of midrange legato, dependent on sustainment of breath and precision of intonation. To my ear, Tibbett sings it perfectly. In “Thy Beaming Eyes,” by the better-remembered Macdowell, he shows something we’ll hear frequently from him—the ability to move the voice on the instant from an assertive forte to a melting piano, including a heart-catching attack on the upper E-natural. It’s not quite the subito piano of the old Italians, but it’s based on the same principle of pinpoint control of the swell-and-diminish, and gives no hint of a technical trick for its own sake.

Ruggiero Leoncavallo: PAGLIACCI: Si può? [Prologue] (7 June 1926) (CD 1/5). A year and a half after his breakthrough performances as Ford, Tibbett was still singing secondary roles at the Met, including some very minor ones indeed (the Marquis d’Obigny in La Traviata is barely above the anonymous servant’s announcement of “La cena è pronta” at Flora’s Act 2 party). He had attracted favorable attention as Ramiro in Ravel’s L’Heure Espagnole, but though the part is a romantic male lead in a charming opera, it hardly constituted a principal assignment in a repertory work. However, in January of 1926, he succeeded Ruffo as Neri in Giordano’s La cena delle beffe and registered a major success with an intensely sung and acted performance. On the company’s spring tour of that year, he was given several new important roles to try out. One of them was Tonio in Pagliacci, and it was with his recording of the Prologue in June 1926 that Tibbett announced himself to the world of collectors as an important operatic baritone. Indeed, for the effortless glide of tone that is potent yet suave through the whole range of the piece, including a blandishing mezza voce at “Un nido di memorie” and brilliant acuti at the close, it has few rivals. (For the first of many examples of Tibbett’s unsurpassed respiratory poise, follow the whole slow, legato chain: “Un nido di memorie/in fondo all’anima/cantava un giorno”—not a ripple on the surface of the tone, a flicker in its vibrato, or the slightest deviation from center in its intonation, and without even a well-disguised intake of breath at either of the perfectly permissible points before the end. The polished ease is deceptive.) The fact that this seems to have been the first electrical recording of the aria to hit the market, and that it was complete with the full orchestral introduction (requiring two sides for the original release) were also probably factors in the disc’s huge popularity in both the U.S. and Italy. In contrast to the “È sogno?”, it is, stylistically, a remarkably well-behaved rendition. At spots that could easily succumb to the shouting-for-emphasis syndrome (e.g., “Le lagrime che noi versiam son FAL-se”, or “vedrete dell’odio i TRIS-ti frutti”), Tibbett sticks to singing. A few of those upper-midrange vowels can still be called open-ish (“io sono il PRO-logo;” “in parte ei vuol riprende-RE”), but they are more reconciled toward a gathered, though certainly not “covered,” adjustment. Tibbett snaps off the crush notes on “mette l’autore” and “squarcio di vita” with good bite. Two quibbles: throughout, his “i” vowel cheats toward “ih,” and the release of the exciting high A-flat of “al pari di VO-I” is not completely clean. The royalties from this recording constituted Tibbett’s first big payday.

Ben Jonson (from an Old English air): Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes; and Thomas Moore (from an Old Irish air, My Lodging Is On the Cold Ground): Believe Me, If All Those Endearing Young Charms (CD 1/6–7). Despite the critical and financial success of the Pagliacci disc and his growing stature at the Metropolitan, it was to be three years before Tibbett recorded another standard-repertory aria. Instead, Victor kept his Red Seal identity alive with releases that appealed to the American market for his English-language recital songs. Two new varieties were introduced: concert ballads derived from English or Irish folk melodies, and Stephen Foster’s melodious evocations of Southern American (often African-American) sentiment. The ubiquity of these settings in both genres, and the affection with which they were held in millions of American households, is perhaps difficult to appreciate today, as is the thought of their regular appearance on the concert programs of prominent classical singers, except as a self-conscious retro gesture. There is a reason, though: when honestly felt and impeccably sung, as here, they are fragrant and touching. In Tibbett’s rendition of Ben Jonson’s “Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes”, the firmly declared pledge of the first verse is followed by more of the same sorcery in the softly voiced second. Hear how the portamento carves perfect arcs of sound leading into the reluctantly relinquished final “of thee.” In the setting of “Believe Me, If All Those Endearing Young Charms” by Thomas Moore (who also gave us “The Harp That Once Through Tara’s Halls,” “The Last Rose of Summer,” “Oft In The Stilly Night,” and much else in a full and varied life), we might feel that a couple of the soft D-naturals on open vowels in the first verse are not unequivocally positioned, but the singing is otherwise spotless, and the intoning of “As the sunflower turns,” etc., through to the finish of the song is magical.

Stephen Collins Foster, arranged by Rosario Bourdon: Old Black Joe and Foster/N. Clifford Page: Uncle Ned, with the Shannon Quartet (31 March 1927) (CD 1/8–9). In these two Foster songs, Tibbett begins to explore the alternate racial identity that soon became a trademark. In the present examples, though, he does not traffic in dialect. “Old Black Joe” is sung with mainstream formal American (i.e., white) pronunciation (“I’m coming,” not “Ah’s a-comin’,” etc.), and richly vocalized. In “Uncle Ned,” he doesn’t avoid “dere’s” for “there’s,” but otherwise takes on no accent. In Bourdon’s tinkling arrangements, he is joined by a backup quartet, and while we might prefer to simply listen to Tibbett, it’s a good group of its kind, giving us a notion of the “gentle voices calling” in the second verse of “Old Black Joe,” and the deep bass of Wilfrid Glenn making a fine effect at the end of the song. I would again point to the discomfort of an open vowel (the “e” of “Ned”) on the D-natural when sung softly, not because it much affects the lovely effect of the singing, but because we’re tracking Tibbett’s handling of his voice in this tessitura.

Karl Götze, translation by Nathan Haskell Dole: Calm as the Night and Jacques Offenbach/Jules Barbier: LES CONTES D’HOFFMANN: Fairest Night of Starry Ray [Barcarolle], both with Lucrezia Bori, soprano (1 June 1927) (CD 1/10–11). It is a shame that Victor’s pairing of Tibbett with Lucrezia Bori did not yield more than the two items presented here (and that their only Met broadcast outing together was to be in Deems Taylor’s Peter Ibbetson). While the soprano/baritone distribution does not achieve the almost uncanny unity of the soprano/contralto one of Alma Gluck and Louise Homer in similar material, there is a comparable naturalness in the matchup of pure, centered tone, even vibrato, and subtlety of expression, with the added piquancy of a male/female exchange between singers of notable charm. In the English translation of Karl Götze’s “Still wie die Nacht”, the tossing back and forth of brief responses has the effect of what we might term soulful repartée (and note Bori’s touches of light chest voice at spots like “sighing . . . DY-ing,” making a bewitching effect without any overt dramatization). In Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffmann, Tibbett drew attention in his early seasons in the short character part of Schlemil, and was to essay first Dappertutto and then all four of the villains in succeeding seasons. Here, we have an arrangement of the Barcarolle as removed from the opera and its vocal distribution, as were the arias of Handel in those years, and again sung in translation. Even so, the weave of these two voices is elegantly seductive.

Deems Taylor/Edna St. Vincent Millay: THE KING’S HENCHMAN: Oh, Caesar, Great Wert Thou and Nay, Maccus. Lay him down., with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Giulio Setti, conductor (5 April 1928) (CD 1/12–13). In the season of 1926–1927, the Met staged the first in the series of six operas by American composers in which Tibbett, with his resources of voice, dramatic flair, superb elocution, and missionary dedication to the cause of a native repertory, had notable successes. This was The King’s Henchman, with music by Deems Taylor and a libretto by Edna St. Vincent Millay, then at the height of her celebrity as poet, playwright, and exemplar of an independent female Bohemian lifestyle. A year later, Tibbett recorded two selections from the work, now backed for the first time by the Met’s orchestra and chorus. The first, “O Caesar, Great Wert Thou,” is a lively ballad which in the opera is started not by Tibbett’s character, King Eadgar, but by Maccus, a servant and minstrel (sung in the Met production by the bass William Gustafson, who occupied much the same position in the company as Ruysdael had a decade earlier), with the succeeding two verses taken jointly by Tibbett and the tenor Edward Johnson as Aethelwold, and modulating upward accordingly. It jogs along in a “rollicking” style almost like a sea chantey’s, and is engaging enough until Taylor feebly attempts to nail it down with the orchestra at the close. Tibbett, taking the solos of all three verses, sings it brilliantly. In the second, “Nay, Maccus, Lay Him Down,” which begins the opera’s finale, Eadgar bids the assembled lords and ladies of the court to “weep not” for the death of Aethelwold, but to save their tears “for a little sorrow.” According to Thomas Bullard (see bibliography), some part of this passage was slated for redaction until Millay heard Tibbett’s voicing of her words in rehearsal and insisted on its retention. Here he adds to his full-voiced kingly commands several phrases of piano singing of captivatingly mournful and dedicatory tone. In this number the choral writing is better laid-out, and one can imagine a moment of impressive gravity in the theatre.

Jean-Baptiste Faure/F.W. Rosier: Le Crucifix (The Crucifix), with Richard Crooks, tenor (unpublished, 10 April 1928) (CD 1/14). As we have already noted with respect to Tibbett’s study with Joseph Dupuy, church music played an important part in his early musical and vocal development. It did so for many American singers of his day (as did the traditional music of the synagogue for Jewish male vocalists), both for its orientation to classical music models before the introduction of amplification and for its direct connection to the world of oratorio performance, then far more significant as artistic experience and employment opportunity than it is now. Once his opera, film, and concert career was in full flight, Tibbett did not have much occasion to sing sacred music, but he continued to hold it in high regard. In this English-language version of “Le Crucifix,” one of the several selections by the great French baritone Jean-Baptiste Faure that became church solo and recording studio favorites, he is partnered by Richard Crooks. Both singers are in fresh estate, and both bring to the graceful melody (as Tibbett said of his approach toward this repertoire) “the same vital expression and the same intense interest that I would to an operatic role,” with Crooks flinging out a full-throated high B at the close. Listen to the way both artists—but to greater effect in Tibbett’s voice—use the sounding consonants (like the m’s and n’s of “Come unto him”) to bind the line, with absolute maintenance of both legato and sonority. And just think, as you listen to this duet arrangement with its organ accompaniment: if you’d been a congregant of the North Avenue Presbyterian Church in New Rochelle, New York for a time in 1922–3, these would have been your tenor and baritone Sunday soloists, quite possibly in this very number.

John Alden Carpenter/Langston Hughes: Shake Your Brown Feet, Honey; Rupert Hughes/Berton Braley: THE PACKET BOAT: Roustabout; Spiritual, arranged by
William Reddick: Travelin’ to De Grave (unpublished, 29 May 1928) (
CD 1/15–17). With these three selections, we are back to the sort of folkish (that is, folk-derived, but composed or arranged) songs that Tibbett regularly programmed. “Shake Your Brown Feet, Honey” is from the set of Four Negro Songs (1927) set to poems of Hughes by Carpenter, whose best-known larger work, the ballet Skyscrapers, had been presented by the Met in 1924. This song can be rendered as a simple, gently swinging up-tempo tune with little variation among the sections. Tibbett starts it that way, but then makes something much more of it—a minidrama about keeping spirits up in the shadow of uncertainty, ending with an ascending piano phrase that seems to melt into air on the concluding upper E of “Sun’s going down this evening/Might never rise no mo’.” This side introduces us to Tibbett’s career-long recital partner Stewart Wille, whose subtle understanding of the uses of rubato and touch contribute much to the artistic finish of the effect, as it will on many subsequent occasions. Roustabout, with music by Tibbett’s patron Rupert Hughes and lyrics by the popular poet and magazine writer Berton Braley, is one of the baritone’s least attractive records, and one of a sub-genre we will meet several more times. A mediocre would-be workingman’s song, it leads Tibbett into a combination of faux-tough straight tone and the sort of snarling that disfigured his early “È sogno?” Only a gifted interpreter with a fine voice could commit these depredations, but they are depredations nonetheless. Happily for us, he is back in his comfort zone with the infectious spiritual “I’m Travelin’ to de Grave”, a trip along life’s final stretch of road that is undertaken in the highest of spirits, since its destination is the eternal Jerusalem. It’s intriguing to realize that of all the race-or-class “character voices” that Tibbett assumed in his lighter recital repertoire, this amalgam of Euro-American with African-American cultural expression is invariably the most natural and spontaneous-sounding. And, since we’re tracking his adventures with the passaggio pitches, we also note that his handling of the repeated E-naturals, both at full voice on a closed vowel (“GLO-ry Hallelujah!) and more crucially at a more restrained intensity on the problematic American “a” as in “land” (“the LAST thing that he said to me”) could not be more adept.

Georges Bizet/Henri Meilhac/Ludovic Halévy: CARMEN: Votre toast [Toreador Song] (takes 4 and 5, 8 April 1929) (CD 1/20–21); and Giacomo Puccini/Luigi Illica: LA TOSCA: Tre sbirri, una carrozza [Te deum] (takes 2 and 4, 3 and 10 April 1929 (CD 1/18–19). RCA Victor returned Tibbett to the standard repertory with a sure-fire pairing of the next two sides, now accompanied by a reduced complement of the Met’s orchestra and chorus under Giulio Setti, and presenting excerpts from two roles in which his onstage encounters with the glamourous and combative Maria Jeritza were fought to a draw. He had introduced Escamillo into his repertory as early as 1924, but though its music sat comfortably in his voice (as it does not for many a good baritone, particularly at the bottom) and its element of bravado seems tailor-made for his temperament, it did not actually become one of his more frequent assignments. He sang the “Toreador Song” often, though, in the course of his radio and film work, and it was an obvious choice from a marketing point of view. The voice here is burnished and bold, the swagger easily conveyed. In terms of linguistic and stylistic elegance, his version will not be confused with that of the best French baritones; but then, how many of them have Tibbett’s virile glamour of tone and manner? On the passaggio trail: the E-flats of “ils ONT les combats” are “too open” both vocally and linguistically, while the repeated E-naturals (“te re-GARDE,” etc., are quite suavely “covered.” Of the two takes, the second is marginally better than the first with respect to details of voice and language.

Scarpia was at this point a new role for Tibbett—he had first sung it only the previous fall in San Francisco. It was one of a couple in which connoisseurs at first compared his interpretation unfavorably with that of Scotti, and it is likely that in terms of elegance of manner, and surely of subtle pointings of pronuncia, they weren’t altogether wrong. As with Tibbett and his French counterparts in Carmen, though, it is difficult to reconstruct even a prime-time Scotti bringing to bear on this part the flood-tide of voice that we hear in Tibbett’s Te Deum. Unlike Escamillo, Scarpia became a standard role for Tibbett, and one that he continued to sing with some success in the later stage of his career. Here the superiority of the second take over the first is decided, with respect to both the positioning of the solo voice, chorus, orchestra, and organ in relation to one another, and Tibbett’s still powerful but more contained singing. For those who enjoy micro-observations: compare between the takes the baritone’s treatment of the vowel “e” on E-flat at “tendo il vo-LER;” the transition from “è la più preziosa” to “Ah, di quegl’occhi;” and the vowel “o” on the last syllable of “capestro.” These are among the tiny things, yielded up by close listening, that become cumulatively significant in terms of both performance effect and vocal efficiency. Tibbett self-corrected these in real time, on the day. On organ, that’s Fausto Cleva, later to be a repertory mainstay on the Met podium.

John Stainer/W.J. Sparrow Simpson: THE CRUCIFIXION (27–28 May 1929) (CD 2/1–19). With Richard Crooks, tenor, Mark Andrews, organ, and the Trinity Choir, Clifford Cairns, conductor. It is hard to make a very strong claim for John Stainer’s oratorio The Crucifixion, either in the light of its conscious model, Bach’s Passions, or in that of the English sacred choral tradition of which it is a distinctly minor example. Between the Victorian sentimentality of the good Rev. W.J. Sparrow Simpson’s libretto and the only occasionally relieved conventionality of Stainer’s musical response, even the sympathetic listener is taxed to sustain engagement. But if one measures it against its intention—to provide an Eastertide piece within the capabilities of at least the better parish choirs (and perhaps a couple of imported soloists), in which the congregation could periodically join for some sturdy hymn-singing—it must be conceded that it’s done with some skill. Besides, one can’t argue with success, and from the moment of its premiere (1887, Marylebone Parish Church, London) it became an anticipated annual event for several decades in churches throughout the English-speaking world. Despite the decline of the tradition it represents, it still surfaces from time to time, and has received several modern recordings. Since the piece was virtually complete on its original release, we are presenting it thus here.

The aforementioned tradition was very much alive here in the U.S. in 1929, when RCA Victor recorded The Crucifixion, complete except for some verses of the hymns, and with the old Sunday morning partners, Tibbett and Crooks, as the principal soloists. Beyond the obvious asset of a world-class voice, Tibbett brings to this music two great advantages. One is that his voice, though invested with a depth and penumbral timbre that eloquently fulfills the modest requirements of the bass-oriented moments in the writing, is truly a technically complete baritone, and so capable of both stirring forte preachments and ravishing mezza-voce disclosures at the high end, where basses do not find the going so easy. The second is Tibbett’s unfailing directness and simplicity of address, which makes his singing reverential without being pious, and dramatic without being theatrical. Despite the thinness of the musical material and the rather confusing shifting back and forth between narration and characterization, the nobility of his vocal presence captures the tone of mystery and tragedy that Stainer was trying to evoke. And there is no fall-off in quality with the contributions of Crooks; he shares with Tibbett a beauty of tone, a seamless passage between a melting piano and a manly forte, and a crystal-clear, supremely eloquent command of the text. The choir is made up of sturdy RCA studio regulars, here labeled “The Trinity Choir.” At a few points in the hymns, we miss the broader, cushioned and blended sound of a good choir (and congregation) that greater numbers might have captured, even with the recording capacities of the time. Nonetheless, it’s a very strong, well-balanced group. They launch willingly into the comically jaunty “Fling Wide the Gates,” and the oratorio’s most famous passage, “God So Loved the World,” comes off well enough. The solo assignments from the chorus (most prominently Wilfrid Glenn as The High Priest) are characterful. As unimaginative as the organ setting for the most part is, it is solidly rendered by Mark Andrews. At this remove, it is touching to hear two great artists and highly professional supporting forces bringing such sincere commitment to the often almost childlike mode of expression of this once-beloved work.

THE GLORY YEARS, 1929–1940

By the time of these sessions at the conclusion of the 1928–1929 season, Lawrence Tibbett could consider himself firmly established. After a highly successful fall season in San Francisco in several major roles (making a special impression as Amonasro), he earned another triumph at the Met in a contemporary one. Following its smash-hit debut (Leipzig, February 1927), Ernst Krenek’s Jonny Spielt Auf had run like wildfire through the German and Austrian houses, and earned its composer several pots of gold. Now it had come to the Met. It told the story of a love affair between a white woman and a Negro (to use the then-preferred term) band leader, and its music combined harmonically traditional, atonal, and jazz elements. As with La cena delle beffe, Tibbett had followed a European star in the title role (Michael Bohnen, prodigious of bass-baritone voice, body, and theatricality), and had more than held his own with a combination of brilliant singing, deft acting, and, in this instance, his aforementioned identification with African-American idiom. His Jonny thus melded with a persona already becoming familiar on his recital tours, and soon to find its ultimate expression in the Gruenberg/O’Neill The Emperor Jones. He had also been busy with standard-repertory roles, having added his first Wolframs in the preceding season, and now two new ones—Marcello and (on tour) Germont. The great Ruffo was gone, and Scotti had narrowed his repertoire to a handful of specialties. If Lawrence Tibbett was not quite yet the leading baritone of the Metropolitan Opera, he was on close to equal footing with de Luca, Basiola, and Danise, and building a relationship with American audiences that even the greatest and most-beloved of European artists could not.

With his departure for a Hollywood screen test in the spring of 1929, Tibbett’s career was about to enter a new phase. His personal life, too, was undergoing changes. It had become clear that his marriage with Grace Mackay Smith was a serious mismatch. She was a strong-minded person with ambitions (and some small success) as a poet, maintaining the couple’s Los Angeles home and raising their now-nine-year-old twins. She had neither much taste for sophisticated New York high life nor the skills for navigating it. Larry, on the other hand, was gregarious, liked by all who knew him on a social and professional level. He reveled in the adulation that was becoming his expected portion, all the more dizzying to an energetic young man sprung from humble circumstances into the milieu of the upper-crust 1920s. He formed relationships, including romantic ones, easily, but was not given to maintaining them well when they moved into deeper territory. In 1927, he had begun an on-and-off affair with Jane Marston Burgard, a socialite to the manor born, then approaching the end of a second well-off but otherwise unrewarding marriage. In time, she was to become Tibbett’s second wife. Meanwhile, his first marriage teetered along at the edge of estrangement, and the already heady pace of his life quickened.

•     •     •     •     •

Tibbett’s screen test, set up by Ida Koverman at Louis B. Mayer’s MGM, was successful. He was cast in the male lead in the first of his four films, to be shot over the summer of 1929. This was The Rogue Song, an unrecognizable Hollywoodization of Franz Lehár’s Zigeunerliebe. Tibbett’s director was Lionel Barrymore, his co-star Catherine Dale Owen. Laurel and Hardy chipped in with some comic bits written in after filming was underway. Rogue Song was the first talkie in Technicolor, the first in which an opera star sang onscreen, and the first in the genre of Hollywood operetta movies later taken over by the Jeanette MacDonald/Nelson Eddy combo. A lavish, exotic bandit-of-the-steppes adventure, it’s essentially a lost film, though a few fragments, including the trailer, have been reclaimed, along with a complete soundtrack. This last is from Vitaphone discs recorded after the shoot for possible use with a silent version of the film, and is in excellent sound for its age. (The sound-to-film process was not yet far enough advanced to allow a separately recorded track to be synched with the action. Thus, Tibbett sang everything, including all re-takes—live, in full voice—while filming, and apparently sang at will or on request during down time on the lot as well, besides making other appearances while in the Los Angeles area. Not for the last time, we get a picture of a man with a strong belief in his invincibility.)

Herbert Stothart/Clifford Grey: THE ROGUE SONG: The Rogue Song (13 January 1930); The Narrative (13 January 1930); When I’m Looking at You (15 January 1930); and The White Dove (15 January 1930) (CD 2/20–23). A touch of culture shock, perhaps, as we move from the 19th-Century Anglican pieties of The Crucifixion to the free-spirit notions of movieland, c.1929. These four excerpts from The Rogue Song were timed for the movie’s release. Three of them are by Herbert Stothart, composer of many a Hollywood soundtrack and a few pop hits. They bear traces of acquaintance with the Viennese operetta mode, but are well below the quality of such American practitioners of the genre as Herbert, Friml, or Romberg. The title song is a lusty-outlaw proclamation, of no musical consequence except insofar as it is well-set to exploit the range and power of Tibbett’s voice. He obliges enthusiastically, mastering the high tessitura with fully seated tone and extraordinary crescendos on the top F and G. The second, also known as “The Song of the Shirt,” is just as negligible, though it contains some spoken narration and several examples of the hyperhearty laugh with which lusty outlaws of the time greeted all dangers, ironic discoveries, or initially disinclined women, at least in the movies. Snugly tailored to Tibbett’s romantic wooing mode is the pleasantly lilting “When I’m Looking at You,” made memorable for its stunning diminuendos on the top F, especially the second time around. With “The White Dove,” we are given the group’s one direct adaptation of a Lehár waltz song (complete with “hesitation”), and a very nice one, appropriately translated and transposed. Tibbett gives it the full treatment we’d expect from a Richard Tauber morphed into an American baritone. He received an Academy Award nomination for Rogue Song.

Verdi/Antonio Somma: UN BALLO IN MASCHERA: Eri tu che macchiavi quell’anima (takes 2 and 3, 15 April 1930) (CD 2/24–25), and Gioacchino Rossini/Cesare Sterbini: IL BARBIERE DI SIVIGLIA: Largo al factotum (15 April 1930) (CD 3/1–2). Next on Tibbett’s growing Victor list was another pairing of ever-popular arias. He had sung “Eri tu” from his earliest full-grown days, including for his first Met audition (cracking on the high G, which no doubt necessitated the second), and he frequently programmed it on his recitals. But Renato is one of several Verdi parts, along with Di Luna and Rodrigo, to which he would have been well suited but which he never sang. Here is Tibbett assuming full command of his Verdi baritone identity. Except for a subtle use of aspirates to outline pitches at some spots (perhaps not detectable at the distance of live performance but, if we’re being fussy, a stylistic demerit), there is not a thing wrong with either of these renditions. There are interesting differences between them, though. On the first take, the high G at “bril-LA-va d’amor” has a full-throated bloom that is more contained on the second, as well as a more deeply inscribed bite on the G-flat of “Non SIE-de che l’odio,” etc. (He nails it down by leaning into the “i” of the compound vowel: “SI-ede.”) On the second take, though, there are several astonishments absent from the first. In an instance of poise on the breath comparable to the phrase I noted in the Pagliacci Prologue, Tibbett carries through “D’un amplesso che l’essere india” without a break, and with some extra sheen on the F at the top of the phrase’s arc. The E at “de-LI-zia” is ever so slightly more mellifluous, the two syllables on F at “che compensi in tal gui-I-SA” (carrying the “i vowel up into the F before adding the final syllable) just a mite more smoothly joined, the diminuendo and downward portamento at “vedo-VO-O cor” even more longingly suspended. Most noteworthy, though, is the attack on the F of “O speranze” (at mezza-voce, then diminuendoed), with the phrase again carried on through (and a little catch in the throat after the turn into the D of “d’a-a-a-amor”) on a single breath. From Pasquale Amato’s to Leonard Warren’s, there are many wonderful renditions of this great aria. But this can stand with the best.

I think we can say that in his rendition of “Largo al factotum,” Tibbett’s exhilarating athleticism and seemingly bottomless well of energy carry all before them, the “all” being the rushed quality of the whole, which doesn’t give him room to finish one statement before plunging into the next, and which also contributes to the sketchiness of a couple of the patter passages. The overall impression, in fact, is that of a bold, splashy sketch of a fully developed interpretation. The latter had scant opportunity to emerge, for Tibbett sang only a single performance as Figaro, and that in San Francisco in the fall of 1941, shortly after the period of rest following his vocal crisis. (He was scheduled for the part later that season at the Met, but an attack of appendicitis forced him to cancel.) An attempt, involving several takes, to record Tibbett and Amelita Galli-Curci in the Act 2 Rosina/Figaro scene (along with the vendetta duet from Rigoletto had been made in May of 1926, but the sides were never approved for release, and have proved elusive. The “Largo,” which we will meet again, is thus once more our only trace of him in what would seem to have been a highly compatible role. The above reservations notwithstanding, it’s a joy to hear this voice insouciantly warbling its alternations of the high G and A (as if preparing for a trill), and the overall brilliance and plentitude of tone on this recording. (Yes, those repeated Es on “per carità, per carità” are “too open,” but they’re clipped short, so—no harm, no foul.)

•     •     •     •     •

Four days after the recording session that produced the Ballo and Barbiere arias, Tibbett sang his first Germont in New York (19 April 1930), with Bori and Gigli the other principals and Vincenzo Bellezza conducting; it was to be one of his most eloquent roles over the next decade. But then it was back to Hollywood, where he remained through the end of the year for the filming of two more movies, New Moon and The Prodigal. In New Moon, derived from a Sigmund Romberg operetta that had had a substantial Broadway run a couple of years earlier, his co-star was Grace Moore, like Tibbett a small-town American (born Slabtown, Tennessee), and the only female singer of the era (or since, for that matter), who— though never quite of Tibbett’s artistic stature—achieved something close to his level of popular standing with a blend of operatic, movie (Oscar nomination for One Night of Love, etc.) and radio success. They were a glam couple onscreen, and a romantic item between takes. The singing was still being done live and in real time, and while the constrained, single-shot, single-angle framing of the captivating duet “Wanting You” is to our eyes limited and quaint, I am filled with admiration at the sight of these two singers pouring forth full-throated tone on an early-talkie set without a hint of undue respiratory effort or self-consciousness, Tibbett’s voice reveling in its easy, brilliant top, and Moore’s in its yeasty, warm chest blend at the bottom. They were, in the fashion of their time, decidedly cool. In The Prodigal (also called The Southerner), Tibbett plays a man torn between a settled life and the independence of the open road. His romantic interest, Esther Ralston, was a well-established actress but, alas, not a singer. So Tibbett is, vocally speaking, on his own save for some song-and-dance backup of the “Cheerful Darkie” variety.

These two movies were shot in quick succession and released just six weeks apart in January and February of 1931, and selected songs from them recorded by Victor in March of that year, with catalogue numbers assigned in reverse order of the films’ release dates, thus:

Vincent Youmans/Billy Rose/Edward Eliscu: THE PRODIGAL: Without a Song and Oscar Straus/Arthur Freed: THE PRODIGAL: Life is a Dream, with studio orchestra, Nathaniel Shilkret, conductor (both 6 March 1931) (CD 3/3–4). These two make an odd couple. “Without a Song” was one of Vincent Youmans’ biggest hits, proferred with regularity by any male singer with a touch of virility in the tone (and by some without) till well after World War II, though frequently with a change in the lyrics to “A man is born” from the original’s “A darkie’s born.” Tibbett’s, though, remains the iconic version, for reasons obvious to anyone hearing it. He sings it in a casually assumed Southern, blackish accent. “Life Is a Dream,” on the other hand, is another fully elaborated, rangey Oscar Straus waltz song with a blandishing melody, rendered with the singer’s most polished High Society American elocution and most cultivated neoViennese musical manner. Listen to the matched accomplishments of the ringing high Gs (two at full throttle, the third at a mezzo piano), the barely breathed–into-life onsets of “Only in dreams,” and the pianissimo high ending. We could say that these two sides give us Hollywood’s default escape options for Depression-era Americans—the merrily singing hobo of the open road and the EuroAmerican salon sophisticate wafting us to Dreamland. Tibbett evokes both without batting an eye.

Sigmund Romberg/Oscar Hammerstein II: THE NEW MOON: Wanting You and Lover Come Back to Me, with Stewart Wille, piano (both 6 March 1931) (CD 3/5–6). In the New Moon adaptation, some of Romberg’s songs (including “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise”) were dropped and new material added (Stothart was in on the act again). Fortunately, the two numbers that Victor chose were from Romberg’s top drawer. “Wanting You” is here sung as a solo—which has Tibbett, in effect, answering himself in the verse—and with piano accompaniment rather than the film’s studio orchestra, thus saving the company a bundle in artists’ fees while hurting sales only slightly or not at all. However, given Tibbett’s accustomed blend of invitational soft singing (a kind of polite seductiveness very much of its time and place) with masculine assertiveness and Wille’s perfectly gauged contributions, there’s little to complain of in terms of an alternate version of the song. “Lover Come Back to Me,” again accompanied by Wille, is even more spectacular, embracing a dozen delicate touches (the feathery soft high singing in the break—“When I remember every little thing,” etc.;—the ebb and flow of the rubato; the tiny pause and stroke on the “c” of “the night is cold”) and a sensational development of the high G at “wait-ING here,” starting at a mezzo piano like that in “Life is a Dream,” but then sustaining and swelling the tone to bursting before releasing into the descent. We could call it exhibitionistic, except that the singer really does sound unbearably lonely. On the minor reservation front: the release from the song’s concluding high G (“Come back to ME”), like the A-flat of the Pagliacci Prologue, is inelegant, suggesting a slightly over-driven adjustment.

Jimmy McHugh/Dorothy Fields: CUBAN LOVE SONG: Tramps at Sea, with Stewart Wille, piano (26 October 1931); CUBAN LOVE SONG: Cuban Love Song, with Stewart Wille, piano (28 October 1931); and Cuban Love Song with studio orchestra, Nathaniel Shilkret, conductor (12 December 1931) (CD 3/7, 8, and 12). In the summer of 1931 Tibbett shot the last in this quartette of movies, opposite the “Mexican Spitfire,” Lupe Velez. Though Herbert Stothart is credited as the composer for the film, the two songs from it that Tibbett recorded for Victor are by the team of Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields, then riding high after the Broadway success of Blackbirds of 1928. The first, “Tramps at Sea,” is another rather tiresome macho exercise in the “Rogue Song” or “Roustabout” manner, this one with a “Shiver me timbers!” overlay and, again, an endorsement of an unconstrained lifestyle. In both takes, Tibbett fires the heavy-calibre ammunition he has available for this sort of thing, but the genre never brings out the best in his singing. The two versions of the title song, though, have their charms—in fact, this is one of the best of the melodies to be found in these scores. The first version was recorded in Hollywood and is piano-accompanied, in E-flat, while the second, which in later years displaced the first in the Victor catalogue (hence the duplication in catalogue number), was done back in Camden, with orchestra. It uses the lyrics from the reprise of the song near the end of the film, and starts a half-step lower to accommodate the “tenor-baritone duet” stunt in the last verse. (The upper line was recorded separately, unaccompanied, then synched with the singer’s rendition of the baritone line. The “tenor” line is still, of course, within baritone range, though hanging high in tessitura.) How one feels about the overdubbing trick is a matter of taste, but up to that point I prefer Tibbett’s singing on that version. There, he fills out the softer passages just sufficiently to expunge the flirtation with the croon of the piano-only take, whereon the big attacks on the upper F (“DEAR one . . .”), though on the button, also strike me as overbearing. But we don’t have to choose, and the comparison is good clean fun.

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The three summers (and one autumn) that Tibbett had given over to filming, supplemented by recitals, had eliminated large chunks from his seasons at the Metropolitan. Nonetheless, he had accomplished some notable firsts with the company, including a series of performances as Jack Rance in La Fanciulla del West in the 1929–1930 season (with Jeritza and Martinelli; Bellezza, conductor—echoes of William Edward Tibbet and the “Last Great Gun Battle of the Old West”); the aforementioned Germont; the creation of the role of the Colonel in Deems Taylor’s second opera, Peter Ibbetson, in February of 1931 (a portrayal so successful that, despite the presence of Bori and Johnson as the romantic leads, it was Tibbett who was largely credited with propping up the piece sufficiently to carry it over for another season, and eventually for a total of four); plus further repetitions of Amonasro, Tonio, Scarpia, Wolfram, et al. This period saw significant shifts in his personal life, too. Perhaps the dalliance with Grace Moore had proved the last straw. In any event, Grace Mackay Smith had reached the breaking point, and in January of 1931 had left the family. She proceeded to Reno to begin the residency requirement for divorce, while Larry returned to New York with the twins and his mother, who had agreed to take over their care. She, however, died of pneumonia within two weeks of their arrival—a tremendous blow for Tibbett in both emotional and practical terms. The divorce proceedings with Grace then proved contentious, the publicity was bad, and the relationship between Grace and Larry remained jagged for the rest of their lives. The twins were installed in boarding schools. The divorce became final in September, 193l. On New Year’s Day, 1932, the four-and-a half-year relationship with Jane Marston Burgard culminated in a New York wedding. The Hollywood celebrity entertaining that had been an almost nightly feature of Grace and Larry’s Los Angeles life would now be replaced by the New York High Society equivalent that would mark Jane and Larry’s marriage. The Great Depression, and Prohibition, were in full swing.

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Carl Loewe/Thomas Percy: Edward, Op. 1, No. 1, with Stewart Wille, piano (takes 2 and 4, 29 October 1931 and 10 December 1931); Jacques Wolfe/Clement Wood: De Glory Road with Stewart Wille, piano (10 December 1931) (CD 3/9–11). Amid these hectic personal doings, recording sessions continued, and from them came, along with the Cuban Love Song extracts, the first of the handful of examples we have of Tibbett’s way with Lieder, which out of conviction he always sang in English translation—in this instance, re-translation, since Loewe set Herder’s German version of the old Scottish ballad that had been collected and arranged by Thomas Percy, only to have it turned back into Scots-tinted English by the singer. “Edward” is a progressively fevered narrative—in this case of a highly dysfunctional family—of exactly the sort that Tibbett loved to dramatize, and he certainly makes a high-calorie meal of it. These are West Coast-East Coast dueling takes, recorded two months apart, and the second is the better of the two, with the voice itself marginally fresher and freer and the heavily accented words more distinct at several points. The aural perspective is also slightly improved, though on both versions one wishes that Wille’s accompaniment (even in this early opus number an important point of interest in Loewe’s ballads) were less recessed in relation to the voice. One can question Tibbett’s resort to shouted emphasis at one or two places; yet we should keep in mind that Loewe’s ballads are closely related to traditions of elocutionary recitation and of mélodrame—as recently as my high school days, this is the kind of material with which we fledgling thespians and preachers assailed our classmates come Declamation Contest time. “Edward” is a long song, and it is likely that in recital Tibbett laid it out more expansively than the 78-rpm side would allow.

And paired with “Edward” is the song that, more than any other, became associated with the “common touch” side of Tibbett’s performing personality—“De Glory Road.” Bertolt Brecht would have called it “culinary,” with dashes of this and pinches of that thrown into the batter: African-American spiritual, concert ballad, folk narrative, minstrel act—none “authentic” in itself, but somehow coalescing into a form with its own unified identity. It was composed by Jacques Wolfe, “. . . a music teacher in the public schools of Brooklyn, NY, who is no more a Southerner than was General Grant,” as Tibbett observed in the genial memoir whose title, with the “De” judiciously altered to “The,” is taken from that of the song. The full effect of Tibbett’s vocal and physical enactment of “De Glory Road” is only appreciated by viewing it in its home setting, the film Metropolitan (see below). On the recording we have not the benefit of that, but so easily does Tibbett inhabit both of the song’s characters (the humble “darkie” being called to Heavenly glory and “De Lawd” Himself, and so vividly does he describe through their exchanges each new change of scene along the road and from his “grandstand seat” at the paradisic gathering, that the mind’s eye has no trouble in constructing the sequence end-to-end, nor the heart in embracing the uplift of the final homecoming. It’s an extraordinary evocation, which Tibbett repeated countless times as a request on his recitals. Technical note: the repeated D-naturals on the word “glory,” and most of all the concluding sustained one, show him adopting a straight tone. This is undoubtedly intentional, to avoid too much of a “cultivated” tone, but its relationship to the “dead” sound I mentioned earlier is a little close for complete comfort.

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It was on January 28th, 1932, that Tibbett first essayed what many qualified observers considered his greatest operatic characterization, that of the title role in Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra. Since Victor did not get around to recording him in excerpts from this score until the spring of 1939, I’ll postpone discussion of it till then, except to record that Simon’s rehearsal period was marked by the first of several accidents that plagued Tibbett from this time forward—at a performance of Peter Ibbetson, shards of broken glass fell into his boot, gouging his heel and hobbling him for much of the time till the premiere.

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Jerome Kern/Hammerstein II: MUSIC IN THE AIR: The Song is You and And Love Was Born, with studio orchestra, Nathaniel Shilkret, conductor (8 December 1932) (CD 3/13–14). Tibbett’s next recording sessions, the following winter, were devoted not to Verdi or any other operatic composer, but to a couple of nice Jerome Kern melodies and English-language versions of two Russian songs that had been Chaliapin specialties. There is an argument for Kern as the most transformative of American popular composers, the one who brought forth “the musical” out of the old operetta style, and wrote several dozen memorable songs in the process. These Kern pieces were taken from a musical that had opened only a few weeks earlier. Music in the Air was by this time something of an affectionate throwback for Kern and his lyricist, Oscar Hammerstein II, and the songs could easily have been doodled on a Lüchow’s napkin some thirty-years earlier by Victor Herbert. “The Song is You” is one of Kern’s loveliest ballads in this vein, and from the caressed opening (“I hear music when I look at you”) through the full-throated F at “my heart would SING” to the slowly vanishing final E-natural (“the song is YOU …”), it is hard to imagine it better done than here. It’s incidental but intriguing to note that at the time of this recording session, the song was being rendered in the still-running show by the baritone Reinald Werrenrath, himself ex-Metropolitan and a prolific Victor recording artist. “Love was Born,” assigned to a different character in the musical, is of waltz-song profile, its melody pleasing but slightly less ear-catching than Kern’s very best and its operetta-pastoral lyrics, complete with shepherd and pipe and “Tra-la-las,” gently parodic. Tibbett sings it without a trace of condescension to its sappiness, and with an especially feathery pianissimo on the last of the “la-las.”

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky/Leo Tolstoy/translation by Paul England: The Pilgrim’s Song, Op. 47, No. 5 and Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky/Johann Wolfgang von Goethe/translation by Rosa Newmarch: FAUST: The Song of the Flea (takes 1 and 2), both with studio orchestra, Nathaniel Shilkret, conductor (8 December 1932) (CD 3/15–17).
We recall that Tibbett’s Met debut was in a performance of Boris Godunov starring Chaliapin, who was also usually the Boris of succeeding repetitions (Tibbett graduating to the still-small but more rewarding part of Shchelkalov) as well as the Mephistophélès of his first and several subsequent Valentins. Boris, in fact, was a role that Tibbett always hoped to assume, though that never came to pass. So while it may be too much to say that Tibbett took Chaliapin as a model, there is a distinct resemblance between them in the melding of a great voice with extraordinary interpretive instincts in both the musical and theatrical spheres; in their paths upward from rough beginnings; and in their fusion of high artistic accomplishment with enormous popular appeal. And the generational difference makes it clear that any emulation involved is on the part of Tibbett, who brought the talents he shared with the great Russian into the context of American culture and its ever-advancing commercialization.

In the cases of these two selections, the Chaliapin paradigm is clearly at work, for they both owe their presence on the international scene primarily to his advocacy on his recital tours and, most influentially, on his widely distributed and fast-selling recordings. Tibbett sings them, as per his custom, in what became the standard English translations. While by definition this choice loses something, for English-speaking audiences of the time it was the logical one, and these are good examples (Paul England’s “The clarion winds in ceaseless motion,” for instance, or “The very path by which I follow/shows golden, glorious, bathed in light” really paint the scene). Tibbett ennobles the language and rises to the full stature of “The Pilgrim’s Song;” listen to how the controlled intensification of the vibrato makes the midrange ending a consummation. In a same-key comparison, it is also interesting to hear Chaliapin’s high bass sounding brighter than Tibbett’s baritone, and both singers “gathering” the vowels, despite language differences, at the same points. To take on “The Song of the Flea,” very much one of Chaliapin’s personal possessions, is to invite an invidious comparison. We can accept that any Americanization will be different from any original-language version. But Tibbett, despite having the song entirely at his vocal disposal, only applies his stock-in-trade gestures to it. Particularly bothersome is his blustery, all-purpose laugh—we get the picture of Méphistophélès as a booming life-of-the-party businessman laughing at his own jokes down there in Auerbach’s cellar, rather than Chaliapin’s nuanced, devilishly witty chuckles. It is not so much a matter of “overdoing,” but of lazy generalization, which is really a form of underdoing. As is so often the case, Tibbett’s second take is an improvement on the first, a little more pulled-in and with an occasional “heh-heh-heh” in place of another “ha-ha-ha.” Of no help at all is the wretchedly slack and unresponsive accompaniment of Shilkret and his minimal forces, where again the contrast with the alert, crisp collaboration on the Chaliapin version recorded in England, with Eugene Goossens conducting, could hardly be greater. Even at this remove, it is sometimes shocking to hear how Victor just slopped product onto its easy-mark market.

Sir Arthur Somervell/Edgar Alan Poe: A Kingdom by the Sea and Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein II: SHOW BOAT: Ol’ Man River, with Stewart Wille, piano (unpublished, 16 December 1932) (CD 3/18–19). The next two selections are personal recordings that Tibbett made for distribution as Christmas gifts for friends and, though assigned Victor matrix numbers, were not entered in the catalogue. The first is set to the famous Poe poem “Annabel Lee”, once included in high-school textbooks and a choice item for recitation—an expectably strange amalgam of Greek myth (the gods, here Christianized as angels, envy the love of two mortals, and so send a chill wind to carry off the eponymous female, who takes to visiting her lover in the form of a zephyr); class resentment (it’s her “highborn kinsman” who bears her away to her sepulchre by the sea); and necromance (the narrator lies beside her in the sepulchre for breezy trysts). Though not to be confused with one of the great art song settings, Somervell’s composition has some melodic profile and a nice feel for mood, and Tibbett’s voice and belief make a haunting thing of it, if you’re in a romantically morbid mood. “Ol’ Man River” is distinguished from most versions by its inclusion of the complete verse and retention of the N-word, as originally set and sung, and by transposition to a much higher key than was ever sung by Jules Bledsoe or Paul Robeson, which is exciting at the climax but not an overall gain for this deep bass song. Tibbett lays out the dynamics interestingly, with a strongly marked forte throughout the opening section of the chorus, then a pullback to piano at “You and me, we sweat and strain.” Both these are Tibbett in absolute prime, and Wille’s perfectly gauged support is well caught. For our passaggio sleuthing: note the big change at the very end, as Tibbett opens the vowel on the first syllable of “A-A-long” from almost an “uh” on the F to a clear “ah” as he brings it down to the E-flat. It’s a “closed-to-open” gesture typical of Italian Late Romantic and verismo vocalism, and makes a conclusive effect.

Howard Hanson/Richard Stokes: THE MERRY MOUNT: Oh, ’Tis an Earth Defiled and Louis Gruenberg/Eugene O’Neill: THE EMPEROR JONES: Oh, Lawd . . . Standin’ in de Need of Prayer, both with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Wilfrid Pelletier, conductor (19 January 1934) (CD 3/20–21). I said above that the role of Simon Boccanegra was widely regarded as Tibbett’s greatest, and he and the opera were duly given opening night honors for the Met season of 1932–3. At a matinee on January 7th of that same season, though, came the first performance of what some who saw it claimed was really his peak achievement—the title part of Louis Gruenberg’s setting of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones. It seems foolhardy to compare undertakings of such disparate musical, vocal, dramatic, and cultural characteristics. But to single-handedly carry to even temporary success a work that by general agreement was of little musical value, and put audiences through the emotional wringer in the process, certainly constitutes a feat. O’Neill’s demanding, virtually one-actor one-acter (which can still play powerfully, as was shown not long back in New York by an Irish Repertory Company revival starring the remarkable John Douglas Thompson) is exhausting enough to perform in its original form; to sing, declaim, and physically enact it in its strenuously set operatic guise is a formidable challenge. Of course there were not many performances, and those widely spaced. But Tibbett sang the role with the Chicago and San Francisco companies, too, and on the Met’s spring tour—seventeen times in all, not to mention a radio condensation, and including two Chicago performances as late as 1946. And as with Peter Ibbetson, he kept the piece going into a second season. In fact, if you’d been in town during the New Year’s week of the following year, you’d have been able to hear him as Emperor Jones on New Year’s Day and as Boccanegra on January 5th. Then, if you’d hung around till February 10th, you might have taken in the world premiere of Howard Hanson’s Hawthorne-inspired The Merry Mount, with Tibbett in the hyperbolic role of the Puritan preacher Wrestling Bradford (wrestling with Satan, that is. He loses). And before and after these occasions, he was still anchoring the occasional Peter Ibbetson.

It’s worth noting that in these vocally prime years, these American operas made up a significant (if not for Boccanegra, Rigoletto, and Germont, we could even say dominant) share of Tibbett’s operatic identity. He was still absenting himself from the Met for long recital tours, and though Basiola was now gone, the bulk of performances in the Italian and French repertories were being carried by de Luca and the recently arrived Armando Borgioli and Richard Bonelli—and, as of February 4th, 1934, another newcomer, the American John Charles Thomas, himself already in public favor as a concert and radio singer. Such was the growth of Tibbett’s popularity, however, and such the uniqueness of his then-modern singing-acting artistry, that each infrequent Germont, Amonasro, Tonio (or Mercutio!—recall his death scene for Maude Howell) was by way of a special occasion.

The Emperor Jones and Merry Mount excerpts are in reverse chronological order in the Victor numbering, so we’ll take them that way here. “’Tis an Earth Defiled” seeks its effect through rugged declamation, a demanding tessitura, and an excess of orchestral tremolando. It perspires heavily en route, but Tibbett grips the listener anyway, with his chiseled elocution, ringing top, foreboding colorations in the lower range—but above all with his sheer dramatic commitment to Bradford’s predicament of the soul. In both of these scenes we do benefit, relatively speaking, from the participation of Met orchestra musicians who’d rehearsed and performed the music with Tibbett under Serafin, though they are conducted here by Pelletier. So, after our parade of Victor studio orchestra numbers, we perk up as the low strings dig into the opening bars of the Emperor Jones scene as if they meant it (one of Gruenberg’s better moments, and we hear the throb of the jungle drum that beats throughout Brutus Jones’s night-time flight across the island), and when Tibbett’s voice enters, in his lower octave, with “O-o-h, Lawd,” straightened at first, then quivering, we are again in the hands of a music-theatre master performer. The song itself is an adaptation of a spiritual, “Standin’ in the Need of Prayer,” which Gruenberg chose for this moment when the “emperor,” pursued by his “haints,” gives in to his helpless terror. It doesn’t extend to the extreme compass of the Merry Mount piece, but does dwell persistently and loudly on the upper F, and of course Tibbett never holds back, never makes the “safe” choice. In both these solos, there are moments of shoutiness on open vowels (e.g., the American “ah” on “God,” and again on “need of”) that are a little concerning, though they seem to be giving the singer no pain. When we see that on a couple of the early Chicago occasions Tibbett sang Brutus Jones, then went on to Tonio in the Pagliacci that completed the evening’s double bill, we get another suggestion of a staunch belief in his own invulnerability.

Richard Wagner: TANNHÄUSER: Wie Todesahnung Dämmrung deckt die Lande . . . O du mein holder Abendstern and Charles Gounod/Jules Barbier/Michel Carré/Alexandre Onésime Pradère-Niquet: FAUST: O sainte médaille . . . Avant de quitter ces lieux (both 20 April 1934) (CD 4/1–2). Considering that Tibbett had a number of performances of the role of Wolfram under his belt by the time of this session, his rendition of The Ode to the Evening Star is curiously tentative. It benefits from the loveliness of tone that always invested his lyrical singing in these years, but between the rather beginnerish German, a treatment of the song itself (after a firm recitative) in a wispy piano that leads one to believe that a growing awareness of the microphone’s advantages in popular music might be invading his studio operatic mentality, and a puzzling series of seemingly unnecessary breath pauses that halt the parade at every street corner (we can almost sense the uncredited harpist’s fingers itching as they await the next fragment), the piece is stillborn. On his only broadcast of the part, less than two years later, all these deficiencies are ameliorated—but of course that’s with Artur Bodanzky and the Met orchestra, not Shilkret and his squad, and the rest of Tibbett’s performance, in the company of Flagstad and Melchior, is superb.

Tibbett’s “Avant de quitter ces lieux” reminds us that until recent decades, companies of international standing were able to cast major baritones as Valentin. (All the ones I’ve mentioned above, with the exception of Borgioli, sang it with some regularity at the Met, and were not thereupon considered “star casting.”) His interpretation is straightforward, without any embellishment like de Luca’s in the repeat of his Italian-language version, or the A-flat Robert Merrill later interpolated on the last “o ROI des cieux.” As with so many studio discs, we might find the final portion of urgency missing, but Tibbett sails through the aria with ease, the top free and resonant, and with good punch in the martial center section. Another passage of open “ah” in the upper-middle (at “J’irai comba-a-a-a-a-tre pour mon pays,” a phrase many baritones find awkward), contrasted with the perfectly formed closed vowels on the same pitches, points to the nagging frequency of this technical irritant.

Elizabetta Nina Mary Frederika Lehmann/Omar Khayam/translation by Edward Fitzgerald: IN A PERSIAN GARDEN: Myself When Young and Tchaikovsky/Goethe/translation by Mey: None But the Lonely Heart, Op. 6, No. 6 (both 20 April 1934) (CD 4/3–4). The next two selections are among Tibbett’s best in his classical recital ballad mode. “Myself When Young” is one of two songs from Liza Lehmann’s fragrant little cantata for four voices and piano, In a Persian Garden, that became stand-alone favorites (the other being the melting tenor solo “Ah, Moon of My Delight”). The words are taken from Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayam, and I have always found them eloquent in their evocation of human aspiration (or pretension) in the shadow of mortality. It’s a bass song, written in the key of D, which the baritone logically transposes a full step upward, also foregoing the low ending that deep bassos used to revel in. But how could the song be more fully rendered? At its very beginning, we again hear Tibbett’s remarkable breath sustainment carrying easily through the moderately paced “Myself when young did eagerly frequent/doctor and saint, and heard great argument,” gathering together the full sense of the extended phrase. At the song’s climax (“Their words to scorn are scattered”) there is the singer’s characteristic slight quickening of vibrato to intensify the chill, followed by the long hold—so steady and alive it seems to survive on its own inertia till subtly diminuendoed—on the final word of “Their mouths are stopped/with du-u-st.” All these effects are so readily at the singer’s bidding, so simply felt, as to seem utterly natural, without a trace of the exhibitionistic, and the song seems to sing itself. Only “seems.”

These same words could be applied to Tibbett’s voicing of Tchaikovsky’s familiar (Russian-language) setting of Goethe’s “Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt,” one of the Mignon Lieder (from Wilhelm Meister) whose settings were also undertaken by German Romantic composers, major and minor. It’s heard here in the English translation by which it became known even to Americans of little classical music background. We might once again wish that Victor had given us the undoubtedly beautiful piano accompaniment that Stewart Wille provided for it on so many Tibbett recitals. Yet there is, at least for me, something peculiarly touching about the combination of Tibbett’s voice, the uncredited solo violin, and Shilkret’s Palm Court contingent (on their toes in this instance) as they build as best they can into the emotional peak of the song (whose fame is deserved, after all) at “Alone and far away/from joy and gladness.” I imagine this is due in part to a period flavor that younger ears will not necessarily rejoice in, but I think that over and above this, a sense of emotional need is caught.

Wagner: DIE WALKÜRE: Leb’ wohl, du kühnes, herrliches Kind with the Philadelphia Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski, conductor (30 April 1934) (CD 4/5). With “Wotan’s Farewell” we meet up with Tibbett’s most ambitious recorded foray into Wagner, and one of the most ambitious efforts to that date to record solo voice with a full symphony orchestra. Although Wolfram was to remain his only major Wagnerian role onstage apart from a trio of Telramunds on the Met tour of 1927, he sang the “Abschied ” a number of times, starting with a Hollywood Bowl concert as early as 1923. And there is not a thing wrong with his singing per se, or with the playing of Stokowski’s PSO, in this traversal of the great scene; in fact, it is probably the prettiest version ever recorded. There is some of Tibbett’s blandishing soft singing, particularly in the center section, “Der Augen leuchtendes Paar,” and of course the grand peroration at the end holds no terrors for him. Similarly, while the characteristic string wash, mellow soft horn, and granitic brass for the Siegfried Motif of Stokey’s band are not to every Wagnerian’s taste (“too glamorous?”), there’s no gainsaying their sheer aesthetic quality. But there are two problems. One is that Tibbett, never having studied any part of the Ring for stage performance and not having the idiom in practiced grasp, has not penetrated the role beyond an excellent recitation of its musical and vocal indications, with the result that his interpretation hasn’t the complexity and depth, the acquaintance with pain, that would compensate for the relative baritonal narrowness of his instrument. The second is that the problem of voice/orchestra balance is not solved—Tibbett’s voice is too recessed, and thus deprived of the presence that is so vivid on most of his recordings. So it doesn’t quite all add up, except as a superlatively executed curiosity.

•     •     •     •     •

Following these last selections from April of 1934, there is an eighteen-month break in the sequence of Tibbett’s RCA Victor sessions. So I’ll pause a moment here to catch up on doings in his increasingly complicated life, and then to examine some of the surviving material from his many appearances on radio shows during this period. 1933 had seen the birth of a son, Michael, to add to the twins from his first marriage, and the first of the numerous awards, citations, and honorary degrees—the most notable from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, in recognition of his efforts on behalf of American opera and opera in English, as well as his exemplary elocution—that Tibbett was to accumulate, marking him as a public figure of stature. In 1934, he and Jane purchased and extensively remodeled a large working farm called Honey Hill in Wilton, Connecticut, where they were to spend much of their summertime in the years to follow. The fall of that year found the couple back in Hollywood, where they leased a luxurious Beverly Hills home while Larry worked on Metropolitan, his first of two films under new auspices (see below).

Meanwhile, Tibbett’s operatic appearances, including Met opening-night honors in every year from 1932 through 1939 save for two (1936 and 1937) that were given to the Flagstad/Melchior team in Wagner, and his long, far-flung recital tours by rail continued. And although in The Glory Road—first published in 1933, early in his marriage to Jane—he represents the couple’s lifestyle as that of a pair of quiet-loving homebodies, the truth seems to have been that, whether at their elegant Upper East Side New York apartment, the now-legal celebrity gathering places like Toots Shor’s, the Connecticut farmstead, the Beverly Hills manse, or the whistlestop hotels and receptions on the tour circuit, his love of the alcohol-fueled gala event not only endured, but grew.


Tibbett first sang on the radio for Station KHJ in Los Angeles in 1922, making him one of the true pioneers of the medium. He was then heard as a regular soloist on (in chronological order from 1922 to 1940): The Atwater Kent Radio Hour, The Voice of Firestone, The Packard Hour, The General Motors Concert Hour, Chesterfield Presents, Kellogg’s The Circle, The Ford Sunday Evening Hour, and The [Bell] Telephone Hour. He continued to make guest appearances through the war years, and in 1945 put in a stint as host of The Lucky Strike Hit Parade. As late as the early 1950s, he hosted a New York program on which he presented recordings of great singers and—on at least one occasion I can recall—undertook an a cappella solo with a still-vibrant but sadly wavering tone. During the Thirties, he certainly deserved the standard introductory appellation of “star of stage, screen, and radio,” reaching large audiences weekly (by classical music measurements), over and above his Metropolitan Opera broadcasts, in an era when listening choices were far more concentrated than today’s. He was a fervent believer in the power of both radio and film to extend the appeal of classical music, and saw that as part of his mission. He also argued for the quality of the best of American popular music, sometimes equating it with that of classical masterpieces, and while we may find that an overreach, we can also envy a listening environment in which all music was being presented in relation to classical models and performed by classical artists, of whom Tibbett was the foremost representative among singers.

The considerable quantity of surviving Tibbett performances from these programs includes multiple duplications of his most-requested selections, both operatic (e.g., the Pagliacci Prologue; “Di Provenza”) and non-operatic (such as “On the Road to Mandalay” and, of course, “De Glory Road”), as well as many that are of both dubious musical interest and outdated style. From them, we have tried to choose those that show something of Tibbett’s art that we don’t encounter, at least to similar effect, on his studio recordings; or that keep us on the trail of his vocal and artistic evolution; or that help us to vividly sense the cultural context of the times in which his remarkable career developed. Others, perhaps equally worthy of inclusion on their own merits, have been omitted either because they simply repeat Tibbett’s interpretations with no difference worth remarking, or in a few cases because they offer genre songs of no distinction from which—once Tibbett’s way with such efforts has been established—nothing more is to be learned. Where duplicates are included, the commentary will be relatively brief unless some vital issue is raised. It should be noted that, while in a majority of cases the broadcast dates can be attributed with certitude, in some the provenance of date and source can be only provisionally assigned. Wherever direct evidence (as with, for instance, the studio program of a broadcast, or an announcer’s introduction) is lacking, my principal reference source for these assignments has been the radio section of William R. Moran’s discography, included in the Farkas volume, which distinguishes, to the best of its author’s ability, among the verified dates, the questionable ones, and the plain guesses (see the bibliography at the end of this essay). Though much material discussed here has come to light since its publication (1989), it remains the primary discographic authority on Lawrence Tibbett’s broadcast material. To keep our chronological progress going, I’ve divided these extracts into three batches, with a roundup of a few late items toward the end. Uncertainties with respect to date and source attributions are flagged along the way.

No Tibbett material seems to have survived from the program underwritten by Atwater Kent, a prominent radio manufacturer. And though Tibbett sang regularly on The Voice of Firestone (forty-three appearances, in fact, alternating first with James Melton, then with Crooks, Gladys Swarthout, and Margaret Speaks), only one broadcast involving him, from December 18th, 1933, is so far known to have survived, in excellent sound, and the selections from it constitute our earliest mementos of Tibbett as a radio personality—in his greeting to the audience, we get our first sample of his spoken introductions. The date marks the broadcast at six days before Tibbett opened the Depression-shortened Metropolitan season of 1933–4 in Peter Ibbetson. He had just completed a long concert tour.

George Frideric Handel/Niccolò Minato/Silvio Stampilia: SERSE: Ombra mai fu (CD 4/7). Xerxes’ great curtain-raising address to his revered golden plane tree is unfortunately shorn of its fine recitative, which Tibbett would surely have declaimed magnificently. The aria itself is presented in the guise of the “melodious and familiar” classical hit number, dignified and vaguely religious, by which it was then known to audiences and performers—only the first stirrings of the Handel opera revival were detectable (and those mostly in Germany) at this time, and the Early Music movement as anything more than a nerdy niche preoccupation was two decades or so in the offing. So Tibbett’s voicing of it, a half-step down from its score key of F and of course in octave transposition, bears scant trace of what we would now consider informed Handelian style, or of acquaintance with the characters and situations of the opera from which it is taken. It is nonetheless a handsome interpretation, riding through the sustained line on a constant undercurrent of the messa di voce. A single perfect trill is the sole ornament employed; instead of more of that sort, we have several instances of lovely downward portamento, often accompanied by the little quickening of vibrato with which Tibbett liked to enhance it. As he carries the word “mai” from the lower F-sharp down to E, he renders it as a unitary sound, rather than syllabifying it (“ma-i”), as is commonly done. The plonky orchestral sludge of the introduction and postlude (the studio band under its regular conductor, William Brady) resurrects the whilom image of Handel as a nobly tuneful but hopelessly dull composer.

Wolfe: The Hand Organ Man (CD 4/8). “Der Leiermann” it’s not. The composer of “De Glory Road” tries his hand at treacly childhood sentimentality, and while I doubt that many today will follow him “back to Arkady,” he does find a lilt to the melody and some winsome touches in the accompaniment. Tibbett wafts through it with his most feathery touch, including one of his patented meltaways at the end. And assumin’ that’s Larry Tibbett doin’ the whistlin’, it’s mighty purty.

Youmans: THE PRODIGAL: Without a Song (CD 4/9). There are some differences in Tibbett’s treatment of this favorite from his earlier studio recording of it. They include a freer treatment of note values and, in the more lyrical bars (he “floats” the opening as buoyantly as a baritone possibly can), a lighter vocal engagement that, as in the Wolfe song, comes close to a pop “radio voice.” He lets it out manfully when called upon, of course, and gives us a fine longheld F on “… strong in my soul.”

Rossini: IL BARBIERE DI SIVIGLIA: Largo al factotum (CD 4/10). Some studio/radio adaptation is evident here, too, though in an operatic context. Again, the overall adjustment of the voice is slightly lighter. Not quite as rushed, the singer has a more fruitful dalliance at “V’è la risorsa,” etc. (and do we hear an appoggiatura sneak its way in there?), and at several places makes his points more deftly. The high G–A warble is not quite as extended and brilliant as in the Victor version, and the patter at the end still not quite trippingly on the tongue, but the old showpiece is given a good ride. Daly and his band are happy to be out of their Handel durance.

•     •     •     •     •

From The Voice of Firestone, Tibbett moved to the new program sponsored by the luxury carmaker Packard, and here we have more appearances to choose from, in variable but always quite listenable sound. The Packard Hour began as a half-hour music program on NBC’s Blue Network in the fall of 1934, transferring a year later to CBS, with Tibbett continuing as regular soloist. It became a full-hour variety show in the fall of 1936, ending Tibbett’s association with the program. This NBC series features a studio orchestra led by Wilfrid Pelletier.

Wagner: THE MASTERSINGERS OF NUREMBERG: The Scent of Elders Flow’ring (2 October 1934) (CD 4/11). Tibbett’s recording of the Walküre Wotan scene was soon followed by his most serious approach to the other greatest, longest Wagnerian bass-baritone role, Hans Sachs. He passionately wanted to sing this part, declaring Die Meistersinger his favorite opera for its “purity, mellowness, and . . . supreme beauty” and Sachs “one of the finest creations in all opera, a man with the height of tenderness and self-comprehension.” Naturally, he also wanted to sing it in English, as he does here, in a translation that has sometimes been mislabeled as “The Elders’ Scent is Waxing,” or even confused with the Act 3 “Wahnmonolog.” Assuming that the assigned provenance of this performance is correct (and I know of no other possible source) it reflects favorably on Pelletier and his studio orchestra, for the conductor shows admirable stylistic command and sensitivity of phrasing, and the orchestra a breadth of sound that I would not normally have associated with them.

It is probably fair to say that as with his “Wotans Abschied,” Tibbett’s “Fliedermonolog” is not the nuanced interpretation it would have become had he studied and performed the role—there is not much in the way of dynamic variation or shading until “The bird that sang today” (“Dem Vogel, der heut’ sang”), near the monologue’s end. But how perfectly his voice sits on this music, how noble and rich is the tone, how constantly engaged the sustainment of true singing line, and how superbly clear and persuasive his elocution of a text that in the hands of many accomplished singers could at times seem lame and trite! This straightforward, unfussed-over voicing would surely have deepened with time, but it already has stature and eloquence. Three months later, Tibbett programmed Sachs’ cobbling song, “Jerum! Jerum!” on another Packard transmission. And another three months along (12 April 1935), he sang the complete third act, in English and fully staged, in the second half of a concert in honor of the fiftieth anniversary of Walter Damrosch’s debut, with the newly arrived Helen Jepson as Eva and other American singers in principal roles. Although at least a part of this event is said to have been broadcast, none of that has come to light. Tibbett was well received, but the Damrosch celebration remained the closest he came to undertaking the coveted role.

Puccini: IL TABARRO: Scorri, fiume eterno! (30 October 1934) (CD 4/12). Here we have a choice of possible dates—three of them—and there is no basis for preferring one over another within such a short period. This one, the earliest, has the virtue of keeping our chronology intact. Tibbett cannot have known the opera at this time, or have heard his imposing predecessors as Michele (Luigi Montesanto at the world premiere in 1918, Pasquale Amato the following season), and why he was drawn to the earlier version of the monologue, finally rejected by the composer in favor of its familiar alternate, “Nulla!...Silenzio!”, is anyone’s guess. My own is that Tabarro had yet to be performed in the U.S. with the revised version, and Tibbett simply didn’t know of it. But I also imagine that he was intrigued by the psychology of this text, far more ruminative and focussed on Puccini’s original conception of the opera’s protagonist—the Seine itself—than its replacement. After several productions, Puccini had concluded that these musings were “too academic” and too detached from the forward movement toward the dénouement, clogging up the end of the opera. In this he was unquestionably right—in this version we hear most of the same thematic material used in “Nulla!...Silenzio! ”, but after a promising start the vocal line of the setting wanders until its final statement, and the orchestral writing has little of Puccini’s usual genius for color and development. Dramaturgically, too, the monologue lacks the connection to the fast-approaching conclusion of the romantic imbroglio that is the opera’s principal subject.

For lovers of dramatic singing, though, there is plenty of interest in following Tibbett’s involvement with the tortured shiftings of Michele’s mind as he ponders the meaning of this “Ol’ Man River’s” flow and the beneficent end it has brought to so many suffering, lamenting lives. Here is his gift for inwardly-directed dramatic declamation at its best: take a listen to “Sono i dolori che tu soffocasti/chiudendo l’urlo estremo in un gorgoglio?” (“Are they the sorrows you’ve stifled/drowning the final scream in a gurgle?”). The role was perfectly suited to Tibbett’s gifts, though regrettably he did not get to sing it until the revival of 1946 (now with the finished form of the monologue), of which a broadcast recording survives.

Verdi: LA TRAVIATA: Di Provenza (27 November 1934) (CD 4/13). It is astonishing that Victor never brought Tibbett into the studio to record this, one of the best-known of baritone arias, from perhaps his most popular role with audiences (only Rigoletto surpassed Germont among his career performance totals). He made up for the lack with a number of radio renditions, including no fewer than four within fifteen months for Packard. I have chosen the earliest attribution on the basis of the voice’s freshness of timbre (making the singer an improbably youthful Germont) and the presence of several imprecisions of pronunciation (especially with variants of the “e” vowel) that we associate with Tibbett in his learning stage. But in our time frame, this performance could have come from any of the indicated shows. And interestingly, quite a more mature impression in both vocal and linguistic authority is left by his magnificent Met broadcast of only six weeks later, with Ettore Panizza conducting (succeeding the departed Serafin) and Ponselle as Violetta, suggesting that a radio show was already a quite different matter from the full role under opera house conditions, however subconscious the singer’s adaptation might be. These reservations and speculations should not hinder our enjoyment of Tibbett’s blandishingly lyrical singing here, with its freely released climactic high Fs and G-flats. I particularly love the distinction between the softly evocative “e che pace colà sol” in the first verse—Germont luring his son back to the sunsoaked peace of his childhood home—and the rousing “se la voce dell’onor” at the equivalent moment in the second, challenging him to rise to his familial responsibility. We’ll return to Tibbett’s “Di Provenza” later.

Friedrich von Flotow/Wilhelm Friedrich Riese: MARTHA: Porter Song (18 December 1934) (CD 4/14). Flotow’s lovely-in-its-fashion opera, sustained through the first decades of the twentieth century at the Met (often in the repertory, but for few repetitions, and always in Italian) first by Caruso with Hempel, then by Gigli with Alda, was just fading from earshot in Tibbett’s early years with the company. (It had a brief revival in 1961, with de los Angeles and Tucker.) The role of Plunkett, written for bass and taken of old at the Met by such low-voice luminaries as Franco Novara and Edouard de Reszke, had by Tibbett’s time migrated to de Luca, to what must have been very different effect. Though like de Luca a baritone, Tibbett takes on the drinking song as full-fledged bravura basso showpiece, carrying the descending runs down to the low G (as de Luca surely cannot have done) and, of course, sending out ringing Es and Fs at the top. Mark Tibbett’s excellent trill, a too-rare example of his decorative aptitude. The antique English translation is an easy enough fit for an opera set at the Richmond Fair, mid-nineteenth century.

Franz Schubert/Johann Ladislaus Pyrker/translated by Baker: Die Allmacht, D.852 (The Omnipotence) (in English, 25 December 1934) (CD 4/15). Here is the first of three versions we will hear of Tibbett’s rendering of this song. It is arguably the best of the three in balancing the voice in prime estate with a tolerable presence of recorded sound. In its largeness of frame, length of range, and—in its alternation of daunting evocations of Godly power with lyrical odes to the beneficences of His natural bounty—dynamic contrasts, it is one of Schubert’s most demanding songs, and Tibbett’s one of the few voices and techniques to master it so completely. The instrument does not have the ideal sonority on the low A-naturals of “’Tis heard in the fierce raging storm” that a great bass-baritone voice (George London’s, let us say) could bring to them, but otherwise he is in complete command. Though he divides long phrases for breath where a few others might not, this is clearly consistent with his view of the text’s rhetoric, which of course at points falls differently on the musical line in English than in the original German. Of the renderings I’ve heard (and many gifted Lieder singers simply don’t tackle this song), Tibbett’s is also the one that sounds as though it might have come directly from the pulpit of an oratorically commanding preacher. It is regrettable that it is heard against the background of a sludgy orchestral accompaniment. But the singer surmounts that.

Offenbach: LES CONTES D’HOFFMANN: Scintille, diamant (unknown date, likely 1934) (CD 4/16). Since the question mark in Moran’s discography leaves the date of this performance in question, I’ll place it here, before we leave the probable year. Unlike the Barcarolle duet with Bori, Dappertutto’s aria does represent one of the opera’s four villain roles Tibbett was to undertake in 1937. He splits the difference between the score’s key and the downward transposition frequently made to accommodate bass-baritone claimants on the parts. (The key change for those singers is taken at “Je veux que Giulietta t’ensorcelle” in the preceding recitative, not heard here.) The primary vocal challenge of the piece for true baritones is not so much the (interpolated) high G-sharps, which Tibbett assuredly had at his disposal, as the tessitura, most specifically at the phrase immediately following the first of the interpolations—“et l’autre y perd son âme,” hanging directly on the upper edge of the passaggio at full voice, and yet with a graceful bravado flourish into the bargain. A half-step makes a large difference in ease of handling at this point, and Tibbett further promotes the cause by inserting a comma for breath: “et l’autre/y perd son âme,” though this may also be another example of his clarifying-the-sense rhetoric. The tempo taken by Tibbett and Voorhees is slightly too fast and too rigidly observed to allow the piece to open out to its full effect. (In this case and several others, one suspects that radio timing exigencies influenced the musical decision.) Tibbett is in excellent voice, the tessitura easily surmounted and the climactic Gs pealing forth excitingly. He solves the always awkward approach to the last one by changing “atti-RE-LA” to “fasci-ne” (breath to set, then:) “di-A-MANT.”

Gounod: FAUST: Vous qui faites l’endormie [Méphistophélès’ Serenade] (22 January 1935) (CD 4/17). The Gounod Mephisto is a role Tibbett kept poking at in his radio and film appearances, but to only superficial effect. One can imagine his voice, but not his personality, adapting to the part in the lighter French basse chantante manner, but he never made a serious approach to it. The Serenade is of course easily to hand for him vocally, including the laughing Gs on both ends, and there are moments of sardonic inflection that indicate the beginnings of an interpretation. Why he sings “supplie” correctly once, then as “SUH-plie” a moment later, is one of those little bafflements we encounter with this artist, who pays such close attention to so many things, yet not so much to others.

Verdi: FALSTAFF: È sogno? o realtà? (20 February 1935) (CD 4/18). This selection, along with the Andrea Chénier aria below, carries on from the Tabarro aria with Tibbett in full-fledged Italian dramatic baritone vein. Indeed, following on the suggestion that the top G of “Scorri, fiume,” though a good note, is not quite the logical outgrowth of the darkened heft of everything below it, some moments here for the first time raise a suspicion that the singer is loading up an overly darkened coloring to climb inside that skin—quite a switch from the raw, too-open approach to “Ford’s Monologue” of a decade earlier, and an indication that the aperto/coperto argument has not been fully reconciled in his voice. Indeed, the weighty coloration in these excerpts is a sharp enough contrast with that of “Di Provenza” or even the “Il balen” soon to come, that I initially questioned the date attributions—one could easily assume from these contrasts that we are hearing the same great voice at different career stages, by as much as ten or a dozen years. But, given the facts that all these performances do correspond to assigned dates in the Moran discography; that there are no known later dates to ponder as alternatives; and that even in the Met broadcasts from the final twelve-to-eighteen months before his 1940–1 crisis (after which he certainly sounds different, but not in this way—see the discussion in the concluding section of this article), I am convinced that our time frame is accurate.

Consider: when Tibbett arrived at the Metropolitan, with little prior live listening experience of great baritone voices and with a volatile dramatic temperament but an instrument judged on the lighter side, his models (and competition) in the heavier dramatic roles were Ruffo (in a late career stage, but with no diminution in vocal calibre), Basiola, and Danise. Tibbett’s mimetic talent (a mimesis of both body and voice) was, to understate, extraordinary, yielding a kaleidoscopic tumbling of colors, and was clearly instinctive, not a result of cogitation (I’m referring at the moment to vocal timbre itself, not the assumption of accents, which adds another mimetic layer). My sense is that, without any conscious imitative intent, when he came to these veristically written parts Tibbett donned the “Italian dramatic baritone” timbre like an overcoat, and so sturdy were the bones of the voice that, at least on these brief outings, he did so successfully. It’s probably just as well, though, that he did not go on to multiple complete performances of Michele and Gérard. We don’t really hear this combination of weight and darkness from Tibbett again, even as Scarpia. There, though, the sound in the mind’s ear would not have been the roar of a Ruffo or the bite of a Danise, but the lean, relatively plain tone of Scotti, irreplaceable in this role at the Met while the casting of the other roles rotated around him. When Scotti finally relinquished the part, Tosca fell out of the repertory for two seasons, and when it returned, the Scarpia was Lawrence Tibbett.

This vocal impasto now extends into the Wrestling Bradford tessitura of “È sogno?,” where we aren’t accustomed to hearing it (though the likes of Paolo Silveri and the young Tito Gobbi later took it on, and Leonard Warren made a daunting recording of it in the 1940s). If anything, the “covering” of the closed “o” of “e POI diranno” on the E-flat now sounds excessive, especially when contrasted with the very open “a” of “la gelosi-A” at the end, at the same pitch. There is still some of Tibbett’s questionable preference for shouted emphasis, but it sounds more “justified” now, and the reading as a whole builds in an almost deliberate manner to a splendid climax on the final G. But if this is our Ford, who on earth is our Falstaff?


Harold Arlen/Y.A. Harburg: Last Night, When We Were Young (10 October 1935) (CD 5/1). At the first of a series of October sessions in the Victor studios, he recorded two songs associated with Metropolitan, which was about to open (see below). The first was intended for the film—and indeed recorded for the soundtrack in a duet arrangement (ditto)—but not finally included in it. It is one of the best from one of the best among American popular song writers, Harold Arlen, to captivatingly bittersweet lyrics by “Yip” Harburg, and Tibbett’s flawless rendering is a heart-catching alternation between soft regrets (top E–naturals that float, yet are lightly tethered) and outbursts of perplexed virility.

Oley Speaks/Rudyard Kipling: On the Road to Mandalay (10 October 1935) (CD 5/2). Speaks’ setting of Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem about a British soldier dreaming of his time of colonial service in Burma and the girl he left behind was sung by many a low-voiced male around the English-speaking world, but in the U.S. it was Tibbett who, more than any other, popularized it, programming it often in recital and on the radio. It was always one of his most effective concert ballad offerings, notable for its pungent evocation of the narrator’s personality, the delicate brush strokes of its tender moments, and the opened-out swagger of the refrain, topped by a ringing G at the close. At least for me, in the final verse (“Oh, the temple bells are calling,” etc., and then the haunting pianissimo onset at “Come you back to Mandalay, where the old flotilla lay”), it also captures a deeper tone of lonely ache, of lost romance and adventure that will never return, that lifts it beyond the party-piece category. We should probably concede that the Cockney dialect, though on the whole quite flavorsome, doesn’t sit quite as well on Tibbett’s American operatic baritone structure as does the Afro-American. Apart from a rendering of the “ay” compound that doesn’t quite land in the proper No-Man’s Land between “ay” and “ie” (“Manda-lay/lie”; “flotilla lay/lie,” etc.), he must perforce drop the accent’s distortions to sing out in the upper range. The distraction is slight, though, from the overall tang of the accent and the sensationally effective vocalism.

Three versions of Tibbett’s rendition of this song are clustered around this date. The earliest in terms of recording is from Metropolitan, and next in the sequence is this studio recording. It suffers less by comparison with live versions than do many of his warhorses, and has all the verses set by Speaks.

George Gershwin/Ira Gershwin/D.B. Heyward: PORGY AND BESS: Summertime and Crap Game; A Woman Is a Sometime Thing (14 October 1935); I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’ (23 October 1935); The Buzzard Song (14 October 1935); Bess, You Is My Woman Now (14 October 1935); It Ain’t Necessarily So (23 October 1935); Where Is My Bess? (23 October 1935). With studio orchestra, Alexander Smallens, conductor, Helen Jepson, soprano, and The Trinity Choir, Clifford Cairns, conductor (CD 5/3–8).

On the evening of the same day on which Tibbett recorded the Arlen and Speaks songs we’ve just heard in RCA Victor’s Studio 2 in New York, Porgy and Bess opened at the Alvin Theatre on West 52nd Street, following a brief Boston shakedown run. Four days after that, Tibbett returned to the same studio, along with Helen Jepson, a studio orchestra, the Trinity Choir (much of its membership unchanged since the Crucifixion sessions of six years earlier), and the conductor of the Broadway production, Alexander Smallens, to record highlights from the groundbreaking new folk opera’s score. George Gershwin was in attendance in a supervisory capacity. Nine days later, Tibbett and Smallens with his forces recorded further selections, and a few days after that, Jepson and the orchestra (but now with Shilkret conducting) recorded Serena’s “My Man’s Gone Now” and a complete version of “Summertime” (these sides are not included here). The combined approved takes from these three sessions constituted a four-record album, the first music from Porgy to be recorded and released. That this was undertaken by white performers, even as the show was playing, must have been a source of some bitterness for the African-American cast members, though some of them, along with the original production’s Eva Jessye Choir, did record their numbers in two albums for American Decca several years later. But Victor was looking, as ever, to the bottom line. Tibbett was at the height of his fame, and Jepson a talented oncoming soprano on whom hopes rested, whereas the stage cast’s principals were unknowns to the Red Seal record-buying public—a familiar sort of commercial decision, but one that in this case gave us treasurable results. For listening sense, Tibbett’s excerpts are presented in sequence here, as they appear in the opera, entailing one displacement of date and catalogue number (for “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’”).

There have been many accomplished and compelling artists among those who have sung and acted the role of Porgy since Todd Duncan first played it in 1935. Apart from their inborn comfort with the character’s ethnicity, several of them acquired a deep experience with the role that, as we’ve been seeing with others from which Tibbett recorded major selections, he did not. But Tibbett remains the greatest singer to sing this music, and these sides unquestionably represent the artistic highwater mark of his work in an African-American identity. His voice’s status as a true baritone gives him access to not only a few exciting top notes but an unusual ease with the tessitura of several numbers, while the solidity and coloration of his lower range mean that we don’t lose much in passages that sit in bass-baritone territory. (It’s a shame that the Crown/Bess scene was not recorded; Tibbett’s conquest of its demanding range would have been complete.) Among his recorded successors, Lawrence Winters comes closest to matching these particular characteristics.

As the listings suggest, both Tibbett and Jepson perform the hits of not only the title characters, but others as well. Thus, the first solo voice we hear is Jepson’s as Clara, and the second is Tibbett’s as Jake. The music picks up at Clara’s reprise of “Summertime,” as the crap game proceeds among the men. The orchestral sound (here and throughout these sides) is probably close to what was being heard from the pit of the Alvin, though thin-sounding by operatic standards, and while Jepson makes no attempt at an African-American accent, her voice is full and fresh, her line smooth, her words clear. The limits of the 78-rpm side notwithstanding, Smallens lays out “A Woman Is a Sometime Thing” at an easy tempo that’s appropriate to Jake’s version of a lullaby, and which allows everything in the song’s words and Tibbett’s voicing to register. The Trinity folks, who do take on a blackish, or at least brownish, way with the words, bring the section to an enthusiastic close—is that Lambert Murphy’s tenor singing out at the end? No analysis is of any use when it comes to “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’.” Tibbett barrels it out, again at a compatible tempo and with many inflectional felicities (I’ve always especially liked “No use complainin’”), and crowns it with one of his sparkling top Gs.

“The Buzzard Song,” cued by the carrion-seeker’s shadow just as the “good white,” Archdale, is exiting the Catfish Row courtyard in Act 2 (“Boss, dat bird mean trouble”), is frequently cut (or, more nonsensically, trimmed to a single verse) in production. Porgy is a long and somewhat shambolically constructed work, and the title role is “a long pull to get there,” especially in a theater run. So cuts are by no means to be ruled out. It’s a shame to lose this song, though. It’s one of the most dramatically developed in the score, and marks a strong step in Porgy’s ascent toward full manhood. Here Tibbett summons the full weight of his voice and, again given a spacious tempo, takes that full step up pridefully. For once, his laugh (one indicated in the score, before “Buzzard, on yo’ way!”) sounds entirely in keeping with the circumstance.

The Tibbett/Jepson version of “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” stands among the most aesthetically satisfying and emotionally touching of recorded operatic duets. The combination of Jepson’s soprano sailing freely through Bess’s music, arcing up and over the high phrases unimpeded, and Tibbett’s accustomed combination of virile full voice, limpid half-voice, and command of the swell-and-diminish continuum between the two (hear the wonderfully even crescendo and slight quickening of vibrato at “Bess, you got yo’ ma-a-n’,” as the orchestra builds into the return of the main tune and beginning of the duet proper) gives us a vocal and musical realization of consummate finish. In addition, this partnership is, in this very different, more opened-out style of writing, as fortunate as Tibbett’s with Bori; the singers sound very comfortable with each other. There is a compatibility of phrasing and inflection, a close match in vibratos (narrow, just enough to keep the tone alive), as well as a fine balance between the voices, that conveys the coming-together intimacy of the moment.

Vocally speaking, Tibbett as Sporting Life is from the same production of Porgy and Bess that has, say, Birgit Nilsson as Bess and Ezio Pinza as Porgy. It would be difficult to assign a Fach to the role’s original, the charming song-and-dance man John Bubbles, or indeed to successors like Avon Long or Cab Calloway—we’d just call them “vocalists.” In full-opera productions, the role is usually assigned to a tenor. But Tibbett makes a full three-course meal of “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” full of tinted insinuations that escape many singers more “right” for the part, and even the scatty interpolations (“Wadoo—Zim bam boodle-oo,” etc.) are pretty persuasive, at least to these pale ears. He sings the piece in key, incidentally, though without the high A-naturals to start the descending arpeggios between verses. Both soloist and ensemble depart from the scored note values at several points, but before tut-tutting we must remember that the composer was there.

“Where Is My Bess?”, presented strictly as a solo without the interpolations from other characters and with a single chord as “concert ending,” is, as it should be, the emotional climax of the sequence. It has all the technical virtues we would cite in describing any piece of great operatic singing. But the paramount virtue is the palpable presence of the ache of desperate need and longing, of feeling that fills the voice to the brim and is barely contained within the vibrant tone and finish of phrase, so that the welling of emotion and the visceral act of singing are one. It’s a rare and powerful consummation, all the more so for being achieved in a recording studio by an artist encountering material just newborn.


Wolfe: De Glory Road; Speaks: On the Road to Mandalay; Rossini: IL BARBIERE DI SIVIGLIA: Largo al factotum; Bizet: CARMEN: Votre toast; Leoncavallo: PAGLIACCI: Si può? [Prologue] and Vesti la giubba; Harold Arlen/Y.A. Harburg: Last Night, When We Were Young (CD 5/9–15). (We have placed these tracks here, at the time of Metropolitan’s release on November 8th, 1935, although they had been recorded during the filming in the fall of 1934.)

This, the motion picture that brings us the closest of any he made to Lawrence Tibbett as an opera singer, was filmed as the first part of a two-movie contract with producer Darryl F. Zanuck at 20th Century Fox, then a newly merged entity. The closeness is only relative: the operatic excerpts are staged in skewed contexts on flimsy sets, in a slickly choreographed manner clearly aimed outside the opera-connoisseur box, and enabled by the freedom of action made possible by the de-coupling of microphone and film—Tibbett can now roam the soundstage, and is relieved of the burden of singing out for every take and patch, not to mention the necessity of observing favorable acoustical positioning in the live performance circumstance. So from an “operatic reality” p.o.v., a basic implausibility underlies all these sequences, and the most successful numbers are his familiar concert pieces “De Glory Road” and “On the Road to Mandalay,” which Tibbett sings and acts, to the hilt, in business-suit mufti in a domestic setting.

Though short as movies go, Metropolitan requires patience in the viewing, not only because it is dated in style, but because even by period standards it has a foolish, semi-­incoherent script and absurd caricatures instead of people as dramatis personae. I nonetheless recommend watching it, because it does give us a sense of Tibbett’s almost preternatural exuberance and theatrical skills. Whether one “likes” the “interpretation” or not, one is still in wonderment at the joyous aplomb with which he dispatches what amounts to an especially elaborate, hypervirilized Danny Kaye routine in the “Largo al factotum,” or the infectious bravado of the “Toreador Song,” staged as if it were a cheery up-tempo musical comedy scene. A viewing also allows us to see, close-up, that he really did achieve the unity of facial, bodily, and vocal mimesis that was his own ideal of operatic performance, and that of all artistically ambitious singing-actors. Finally, a viewing helps us pin down, through eye-ear association, some of the expressive points of the Wolfe and Speaks numbers, which, as in Loewe’s “Edward” and all such wordy ballads sung with accents, can be hard to take in by ear alone.

There is not much to add to what I’ve said above with respect to Tibbett’s nonpareil “De Glory Road,” except that if anything, the Metropolitan version seems a tad fresher and more released than the studio take. Tibbett never liked the recording studio’s stand-still-and-sing requirements, or its lack of someone to sing to and be applauded by. The movie set, for all its artificialities, more closely resembled the live situation, and gave Tibbett permission to behave more as his true performing self. The “Mandalay” performance, which in the film follows almost immediately on “De Glory Road,” is vocally and rhetorically very close to the Packard Hour one discussed above. It clocks in, however, at under four minutes by virtue of omitting the first verse and picking up the narrative with “Oh, her petticoat was yaller,” etc.—very nice, but I wanted to get oriented with the wind in the palm trees, and to start the story at the beginning. The movie’s credits identify Luis Alberni, who plays one of Metropolitan’s prominent character roles, as the accompanist for both “Mandalay” and “De Glory Road.” He is perfectly competent, but the balance doesn’t give him enough presence, especially between verses. While we’re at it, we should note that the film’s female lead, Virginia Bruce, who gets to sing about half of Micaëla’s aria, shows what the trade would term “legit chops.”

The Metropolitan performances of the Barbiere and Carmen arias, as heard on audio, are not sufficiently distinct from the previous versions to arouse much comment, save to note that in the “Votre toast” (freer with tempo modifications than is customary) Tibbett adds parlando downward glisses to his repetitions of “Toréador, toréador” in the refrain (bad), but that those E-flats (“ils ont,” “bondissant”) are now well centered (good). This outing of the Pagliacci Prologue, though, deserves some attention. Tibbett professed a love for the grand gesture. He identified it with the African-American and Latin races, noting that “. . .they love to strut around, fling their arms about, and in general express their thoughts by their gestures.” His predilection for this kind of physical expression, which he defended as no less “real” than contemporaneous styles of realism in acting, is on display in the Barbiere and Carmen extracts. With the Prologue, though, he is faced with a direct-address monologue that involves no interaction with other characters and no opportunities for “strutting around,” and his mimetic genius rather goes into hibernation—he seems concerned primarily with presenting himself with dignity and a generalized sincerity. He is not helped by the makeup and costume decisions, which evoke Canio in the Act 2 commedia, not Tonio at any point in the opera, and which white out any affect of facial expression.

All this notwithstanding, Tibbett is in prodigious vocal form. The voice has ripened since the 1926 studio recording, and the tendency to overly open vowels around the passaggio has been completely tamed. He no longer takes the long phrase starting at “Un nido di memorie” on a single breath, but the legato and continuity of thought is maintained, and the effect still ensorceling. The rhetorical climax from “le nostr’anime considerate” into “poichè siam uomini” is now nailed down with a tightly bound portamento. At the close, the high A-flat is held longer and released more suavely, and is followed by a prodigious G on “incomin-CIA-te!” More arguably, the insistence on isolating the components of compound vowels (e.g., “sono-il,” “ver-o-i-spi-ravasi,” etc.,) has grown more pronounced, and a couple of passages (“le lacrime che noi versiam son false,” etc.; “vedrete dell’odio i tristi frutti,” etc.) have now gone the way of declamation. These choices can’t be called stylistically fluent, but Tibbett does them with such clear belief in their dramatic value, including their touches of the old elocutionary vibration, that one is inclined to go along with them as being of a piece with a great singer’s way. (At the one juncture where Leoncavallo created some leeway for a mélodrame effect—just before the end, at “il concetto vi dissi/or ascoltate com’egli è svolto”, marked “quasi recitato”—Tibbett stays with singing.)

There seems to have been an early-stage plan to close the film with a rendition of Canio’s “Vesti la giubba”—“the sob song,” as one producer put it. Second thoughts prevailed, but not before the aria had been recorded, and the resulting disc has floated about in collectors’ limbo ever since. It unfortunately lacks the opening recitative (“Recitar!”, etc.), and is sung a full step down to accommodate the reach of a powerful high baritone. As a consequence, it does not turn around the passaggio with the balance of elastic forces for which it was written, and loses a measure of its intended effect. It also comprises several of Tibbett’s Americanizations of syllabic elisions and accentings. Purely as singing, though, the performance is tremendous, and while as usual Tibbett sounds far too manly to give in to weepiness, he sneaks in enough sob song-isms to fill the requirement without going quite overboard.

A sidenote to Metropolitan is the previously mentioned deleted duet version of Arlen’s “Last Night, When We Were Young,” in which Tibbett is partnered by Carroll Weiskopf. How it was first envisioned for the film is a puzzle, unless it was originally thought that Weiskopf would do the singing for Virginia Bruce; but then, a number of things that did get into the movie make no sense. Weiskopf actually takes the lead in the song, with Tibbett joining in on the repeat verse. She’s an accomplished, technically polished soprano of the old-fashioned operetta type, with a lighter voice than Bruce’s, and the duet portion makes for mellifluous listening.

•     •     •     •     •

In the Winter of 1935–36 Tibbett, who had already been active in the fundraising efforts to pull the Metropolitan through the parlous Depression years, took on a role that was to exact a heavy toll on his energies over the next few years. This was the founding and—against entrenched opposition—ensuring the continuance of a union for singers and other musical artists. There is some prevarication among sources as to who played the more determinant part, but there is no doubt that Tibbett and Jascha Heifetz were both in the forefront of this monumental effort, and that Tibbett was the more publicly prominent and energetic of the two in relation to it. The major opera companies (the Metropolitan by far the most important) and concert managements (above all Sol Hurok and Columbia Artists under Arthur Judson) had till this time exerted a monopolistic and highly exploitative control over all contracts in the field, just as the theatre managers’ syndicate had over theatre performers at the time of the founding of Actors’ Equity Association in 1919 (necessitating a prolonged and bitter strike), and they were not easily moved to any concessions. In addition, the acquiescence of a small and not very influential, but already-extant, rival union for opera singers, and of a union for choristers, whose acceptance was necessary for the granting of the charter from the AFL-CIO, was not easily won. The establishment of this union, the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA), was the most significant step forward that had ever been taken on behalf of its constituency. A couple of years later, Tibbett was also constructively involved in the creation of AFRA, the radio performers’ union, which with the advent of television became AFTRA (now SAG-AFTRA). Every time a performer in these fields signs a contract, cashes a paycheck or residuals payment, qualifies for medical insurance or a pension, a murmured “Thanks” to Lawrence Tibbett would be in order.

Following the Porgy recording sessions and the release of Metropolitan, Tibbett opened the Met season as Germont, with Bori the Violetta (it was to be her farewell season) and Crooks the Alfredo. These were tough times at the Met, as elsewhere. Giulio Gatti-Casazza had retired at the end of the previous season, and the management succession, following the sudden death of the first annointee, the American bass-baritone Herbert Witherspoon, had fallen on Tibbett’s tenor colleague Edward Johnson, amid re-structuring and grave financial pressures. Seasons were now shorter, productions fewer, attendance sparser.

Johnson began to enlist untried young American singers in greater numbers, only occasionally striking gold. It was during this season, though, that Tibbett first undertook one of his greatest roles, Rigoletto. He also essayed, in English, Gianni Schicchi, the sort of comic character part that never won him much critical approval—though one cannot imagine that the climax of his scheming narrative (“è tale da sfidar l’eternità!”) did not bring down whatever house may have gathered.

Radio Programs, Series 2
(all Packard Hour)

With this program’s transfer from NBC to CBS, Donald Voorhees, later long associated with The Telephone Hour, has taken over the musical leadership from Pelletier.

André Messager/Michel Carré/Fred E. Weatherly: MIRETTE: Long Ago in Alcalà (8 October 1935) (CD 5/16). Here is the perfect model of the sort of operetta incidental song—this one an intentionally nonsensical hearty swab/coy maiden one that Kern and Hammerstein were affectionately parodying in “And Love Was Born” (see above). Messager wrote Mirette in the typical comique style, with a French-language libretto by Carré. This version was never staged, however, and the piece opened in 1894 at the Savoy Theatre, London, to a new book by Adrian Ross and English-language lyrics by Fred E. Weatherly. It was not one of Messager’s several successes, but this song survived to be recorded by a number of lusty-voiced baritones and basses. The character who sings it, Bobinet, is designated in the original as a “comic baritone,” which would indicate a much lighter voice and style, but Tibbett renders it flavorsomely in his demonstrative concert-ballad manner—though the preciosity of some of the girl’s utterances and of that last “là” will make some contemporary skins crawl.

La Forge/R.W. Lillard: Flanders Requiem (12 November 1935) (CD 5/17). As Tibbett’s spoken introduction makes clear, this song, with its marcia funebre beat set by tympani strokes, is a tribute to the fallen of World War I, with the dedicatory promise that “freedom’s light shall never die.” Tibbett’s reference to gathering war clouds must pertain either to Mussolini’s Ethiopian campaign, then in full swing, or to the announced separation of five Northern provinces of China from the central government, with its threat of intervention by Japanese troops stationed in occupied Manchuria (Manchukuo), or both. While an entirely conventional piece of the patriotic-anthem sort, the song is effectively enough set, and could have been written for Tibbett’s voice. Given that happy circumstance and the clarity of tone his native language brings out, he sings it with complete command, indubitable sincerity, and no trace of overloading for “dramatic baritone” coloration.

Vera Eakin/Velma Hitchcock: Ay, Gitanos! (12 November 1935) (CD 5/18). Another song in praise of the wandering life. In this one, one of several of faux-Iberian flavor with music by Eakin and lyrics by Hitchcock, the singer asks if his Gypsy listeners have forgotten their itinerant birthright, and summons memories of long-ago nights by the sea and of snow-capped mountains. Evidently his Romany audience has grown contentedly domesticated, for the singer concludes by softly asking “Do you remember nothing?” He concludes so softly, in fact, that we recognize the mic-only croon, as opposed to the classical mezza-voce. It’s lovely in its way, of course, and easily traded off with Tibbett’s roaming-outlaw full voice. As with the other numbers from the same broadcast, he’s in freshest form.

Speaks: On the Road to Mandalay (12 November 1935) (CD 5/19). Though Tibbett had been singing the piece over the air since the first Firestone days, this is the earliest example of his radio performances of it that is known to have survived. It came three weeks after the film’s release, and probably before the Victor discs hit the market. While it’s a close call (for Tibbett kept his favorites remarkably alive through many repetitions, and truly, you can’t go wrong), this one might be the best of these three “Mandalays,” with the voice in such heady, well-oiled condition, the dialect inflections at their least self-conscious, and the text more complete than the movie version’s.

Mussorgsky/Alexander Pushkin/orchestration by Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov: BORIS GODUNOV: I Stand Supreme in Power [Boris’ Monologue] (3 December 1935) (CD 5/20–21). As the singer notes in his brief spoken introduction, Boris was a role he coveted. Like Hans Sachs, it’s a low-baritone or bass part of great dramatic reach (but not Wagnerian length) that he hoped to sing in English, as he does in this excerpt. His interpretive gifts were clearly ideal for the assignment; the issue for his pronouncedly baritone instrument would have been one of sufficient midrange weight. That is not problematic here, in Rimsky-Korsakov’s setting of the Monologue, which rides in baritone tessitura. Tibbett sings it with a committed dignity, his usual nobility of English elocution, and without extramusical theatrics. It is a pity that the recording of this broadcast cuts off shortly before the prayerful close. But there is more than enough here to convey the potential for a characterization of tragic power.

Umberto Giordano/Illica: ANDREA CHÉNIER: Nemico della patria?! (1935–1936?) (CD 6/1). This equivocation on dates is the closest we have to a discographic attribution, so Gérard’s monologue goes here. Although Chénier was in the Metropolitan’s repertory regularly during Tibbett’s first decade in the company (he was given the small role of Fléville early on) he never sang Gérard there or anywhere else, and this is again the sole representation we have of what would have been an effective role for him. After a somewhat hollow-sounding opening, when he comes to “Nato a Costantinopoli,” etc., he is the only baritone I can recall who conveys the sense that he is actually reading the warrant. From there, the voice is potent throughout; there are many thoughtful interpretive touches in the meditative center section (“Io, della Redentrice figlio,” etc.); and as the visionary concluding section begins with “La coscienza nei cuor ridestar delle genti,” the shaded tone opens and brightens. Nits to pick: there are several instances here of what was an intermittent tendency of Tibbett’s when singing in Italian—and not only with a new role—namely, to drop one of the vowels from an elision, as in “bev’il popolo” (instead of “beve_il”) or “in un sol bacio” (instead of “e_in un sol bacio”). The latter, at least, is something one might well hear an Italian do, for vocal expediency, but such instances do add up to an American revisionism.

Verdi: IL TROVATORE: Il balen del suo sorriso (25 January 1936) (CD 6/2). Yet another role that Tibbett never sang, though it was in the Met’s repertory throughout his prime years (Bonelli, Borgioli, and Carlo Morelli were Di Lunas in these mid-thirties seasons), and once again this is apparently the only extant example of his way with this aria. That’s a way we would now think of as extremely permissive in terms of the stretching of phrases and what I would call rubato except for the fact that the time “borrowed” is never returned, as with many small loans. Examples are the broadening-out of the triplet turn over E-flat on “vince il raggio” (few singers take the figure at strict tempo, but not many extend it as dreamily as Tibbett—or could), or the very deliberate, almost literal-sounding meander through the grace-note figurations on the first iteration of “l’amo-o-o-o-re ond’ardo” (and this is clearly a choice, for he flips fluently through graces at other points). There’s also another instance of breaking a written elision that I mentioned just above, and this may be a good place to speculate on the reasons for this in individual moments.

At the end of Iago’s Credo (and this is the choice that prevails in all of Tibbett’s renderings of the aria, regardless of venue), he breaks the elision of “fola_il ciel” into “fola/il ciel,” putting both syllables of “fola” on the D-flat and turning its dotted quarter-note into two eighths, then giving full quarter-note value to the “il” on E-flat (and that IS rubato) before proceeding to the climactic F on “ciel.” This cannot be for breath—Tibbett had that to burn (and did). Nor can it be an awkwardness with the compound vowel, as demonstrated by our “Ombra mai fu” example. Maybe he wanted that second to set the voice’s position for an especially adamantine close. Perhaps American common-sense literalism played a part (“It just doesn’t make any damned sense to roll those words together.”) In any case, it creates a radically different impression from the traditional (and written) one, putting a distinct hold on the usual headlong rush and turning Iago’s defiant denial into an almost homiletic proclamation of a dark faith, a true Credo. He makes a similar decision in the Pagliacci Prologue, where instead of carrying through at “che l’artista_è_un uom,” he breaks at “artista/è_un UOM,” putting the second and third syllables of “ar-tis-ta” on the D natural to finish that word, then going on to “the reveal,” “è_un UOM.” This again changes the emphasis, for whereas Leoncavallo has subtly divided the whole phrase with a comma, thus: “Egli ha per massimo sol/che l’artista è un UOM,” (“He takes as maxim only/that the artist is a MAN”), Tibbett makes of it two phrases that read “He takes as his maxim only that the artist/is a MAN,” which is not quite the same declaration. Here one might suspect that the elision of not two, but three of the Italian pure vowels, plus one sibilant and one fricative consonant, into a unified sound (“staèun”) on a single quickly passing eighth note might be a problem (such instances can be for American students), but I don’t think so. I think it’s a making-sense American Tibbettism of the “Here’s what I think” sort.

The “Il balen” example occurs in the same part of the range as the other two and on a similar ascending line—though of a more lyrical character—moving at a slow tempo (largo) from D to E to F on “le favelli in MI-o” (etc.). The score’s indication is to marry the the final syllable of “favelli” to the “in” on the E and proceed merrily over the top and on to the end of the phrase without a break for breath—an impossibility for any baritone I know of at the tempo marked. The traditional way of singing this is to carry the last syllable of “favelli” to the E, break there for the “in” (broadening out the already slow pace), then make the mini-climax with “mi-” on the F, and thence onward. It’s a natural-sounding progress, and in the voices of many good baritones has served the phrasing well, allowing for breath and support all the way to a finished low phrase ending on “favor.” (As we might expect, it is Riccardo Muti who insists on the elision, with an overparted and postprime Leo Nucci as his Di Luna. Nucci obeys, but must then take a breath at the least favorable of spots, just before the concluding “favor.”) Tibbett breaks with both score and tradition, staying on the D for all three syllables of “favelli” (again, two eighths for a quarter—and keep the change) and taking a breath there before moving onto the E for “in.” It isn’t usual, and seems a disruption until we hear what follows, for on the descending line of “MI-i-i-o-o” and the lingering, tapering turns; the settling finish to the first verse; and the poised set for the start of the second on the last syllable of “fa-vor” (slowing the tempo nearly to a standstill), Tibbett creates a unique suspension of time. It seems he could have created it as well with the traditional choice, but this one is consistent with our other examples. Tibbett’s insistence on stepping up the tempo only minimally for the aria’s second half also helps to avoid the organ-grinder curse that can easily overtake that passage.

Vocally, this “Il balen” is a fine case study of major positives and nagging negatives in Tibbett’s singing. In the main, his tonal richness and brilliance (the top Gs ringing forth, with the first possessing a special gleam through his decision to rise to it on the second syllable of “tem-pe-E-sta,” rather than the more muscular “-sta”—another uncommon selection), his aristocratic extension of phrase, and his spotless intonation all make for one of the outstanding voicings of the piece. Yet passing moments of deadened or carelessly open tone, capped by the raw open “a” of “sguardo” on the top F in the cadenza, while not seriously detracting from the impression, cannot be overlooked in a white-glove inspection.

Puccini: TOSCA: Già, mi dicon venal (25 January 1936) (CD 6/3). A noteworthy feature of the Packard show in its original half-hour format was its willingness to give over a higher proportion of its time to operatic material than were the other programs of the era. On one occasion it devoted its entire content allotment (about twenty-five minutes) to the Emperor Jones condensation mentioned earlier, and on another to nearly the whole Act 2 Violetta/Germont scene with a decorously groomed young soprano (yes! a La Forge pupil!). And on this broadcast, we find a second major operatic excerpt to go with the Trovatore aria. Since nothing in the role of Scarpia except the “Te Deum” comes to a proper end, this passage, so riveting in its action- packed context, seems a trifle lonely when sent forth on its own, and requires one of the “ta-da” concert endings that always leave an empty feeling (though this one at least gives Tibbett a crack at a resounding concluding G-flat). The lie of the piece gives Tibbett’s voice no troublesome moments, and there is only a certain studiousness of presentation (again a byproduct, I think, of his determination to make every single word register) to detract from the otherwise convincing impression.

Jules Massenet/Paul Milliet/Henri Grémont/Angelo Zanardini: HÉRODIADE: Vision fugitive (11 February 1936) (CD 6/4). From two possible dates only three months apart, I have again chosen the one that falls into chronological line. Though we are forced to indulge some of Tibbett’s unexamined pronunciation (most flagrantly, “fu-ZHUH-ti-ve”), the French language has the effect of easing some of the obligation to dramatic weight that the Italian arias have been imposing on his voice, and considering that Herod is once again a role Tibbett never sang and probably had no native model for unless he had heard, say, Maurice Renaud’s recording of the piece (a habit Tibbett doesn’t seem to have practiced), there is much of interest here. His free treatment of the opening recitative again proceeds in accordance with his own way of hearing its rhetorical sense—as, for example, when he interrupts the forward motion of “espérance trop brève” with a slow, soft rendering of “qui vient bercer mon coeur,” then singing out a tempo for “et troubler ma raison”—unconventional, but persuasive. The aria itself benefits from a plenitude of handsome full-voiced tone touched up with deft brush-strokes of mezza voce augmented by superior breath control; Renaud himself might have envied the powerful ascent to G-flat (“je donnerai mon A-ME”), then the pullback to a delicate piano for “mon amour/mon espoir” and, without pause for breath, back to “Vision,” etc.

Gounod: ROMÉO ET JULIETTE: Mab, la reine des mensonges (10 March 1936) (CD 6/5). Contemporary listeners, accustomed to wispy mélodie-oriented baritones in this part, may be surprised to find it among Tibbett’s assignments. But he sang eleven performances of the role in his earlier Met seasons, probably reminiscising the while over his high-school triumph under Maude Howell’s guidance. (De Luca sang it, too, in these years, and as the broadcast of 1935 shows, with a great deal less stylistic and linguistic acumen than Tibbett brings to it.) Despite an overly quick tempo (why does everyone except Martial Singher think that’s the way to make this song work?), he tosses off the opening verse with considerable sparkle, brings some unexaggerated characterization to Mercutio’s descriptions (e.g., “à l’avare en son gîte sombre”) and, when the dreamier passage beginning with “et toi qu’un soupir effarouche” arrives, relaxes into some beautiful lyrical singing—all without once suggesting a Poulenc song. Throughout, he decides when a final neutral “e” syllable (“pass-e,” “toilett-e,”) is or is not convenient.


General Motors sponsored classical music on the radio in shifting formats and time slots from 1929 into 1937, at first over NBC’s Red Network and later over the Blue. The series to which the following selection belongs aired at 10:00 PM on Sundays for an hour, and featured many of the prominent vocal and instrumental soloists of the time, with a studio orchestra led by Erno Rapée.

Gounod: FAUST: O sainte médaille … Avant de quitter ces lieux (3 May 1936) (CD 6/6). Back in his proper role in this opera, Tibbett voices Valentin’s prayer with noticeably greater vitality than he had brought to his Victor effort two years earlier. The timbre is meatier, he crests into the top G’s with greater command, and the martial B section has been brought more convincingly into line. All in all, it’s a thrilling account that instantly establishes the character’s stature.

The Worcester Festival, October 10th, 1936

Handel/Paolo Antonio Rolli/translation by Theodore Marzials: SCIPIONE: Hear Me, Ye Winds and Waves; Hugo Wolf/Eduard Mörike: Lebe Wohl (Fare Thee Well), (No. 36 from MÖRIKE LIEDER, in English); Brahms: Minnelied, Op. 71, No. 5 (Love Song) (in English); Schubert/Pyrker: Die Allmacht, D.852 (The Omnipotence) (in English); Victor Hely-Hutchinson: Old Mother Hubbard (set in the manner of Handel); Gershwin: PORGY AND BESS: I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’; Wolfe: De Glory Road; Jonson/traditional: Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes; Howard D. McKinney/Nancy Byrd Tuner: The Bagpipe Man; Massenet: HÉRODIADE: Vision fugitive. With Stewart Wille, piano (CD 6/7–15). Here is an opportunity—the only one that has come to light—to hear Tibbett and his customary pianistic partner as recorded live in recital. Even as improved with contemporary restorative techniques, the audio quality is at points problematic, and includes odd “on and off mic” wanderings of both voice and piano. But apart from affording us five selections that are not duplicated elsewhere, the sense it conveys of Tibbett and Wille unbuttoned, free of the timing, programming, and balancing worries of recording, broadcasting, or filming situations, and in interaction with an audience (including the taking of encore requests), is too precious to forego. The program had begun with four of Tibbett’s operatic standards, with an orchestra conducted by Albert Stoessel. Since they offer nothing markedly different in terms of interpretation or vocal form, and are all represented more than once in this collection in better sound, we have not included them.

“Hear Me, Ye Winds and Waves” is another in that little handful of arias that kept the operatic Handel alive at least as historical reference for the two centuries during which the complete works were in eclipse. It is even farther removed than most from its original context, sung here in transposition with a custom-made English text, and without the noble recitative that was married to it for concert and recital outings. It is also presented with the utmost gravity and eloquence, making a powerful statement of its own.

Tibbett’s handsome and emotionally committed singing of the Wolf and Brahms songs present both the reasons that German-speaking audiences had reservations about his Lieder interpretations, and the reasons those reservations matter so little to us when the singing is this compelling. True, the pieces take on a different character, even when compared with the more “operatic” of male German-language art-song singers (e.g., Schlusnus, Schwarz, Rehkemper, Hotter). It’s not only a question of a different language, with its different colors and ways of melding with given pitches. For no matter how nuanced and contemplative Tibbett’s tone, it will always sound outer-directed; it will never take on the particular quality that signals Innigkeit. And no matter how melancholy the utterance, it will always sound commanding in a way that suggests long-run optimism. But if we make the necessary adjustment of expectations, these interpretations are inferior to none—the flow of the line in the “Minnelied,” gentle yet always “on the voice,” is especially striking. In “Die Allmacht,” little is changed in Tibbett’s singing from his splendid Christmas 1934 performance on the Packard Hour, though that little does tend to go in the direction of more “open” tone in the upper-middle range coupled with a couple of “swallowed” closed vowels higher up—probably the difference between a few selections for a radio engagement versus being well along in a generous live program of arias and songs. The presence of Wille with a proper piano accompaniment is welcome, though both he and the singer are at moments penalized by the recording’s failure to fully register some of those low-lying phrases.

After his arias, the Handel homage, and the trio of “serious” art songs, Tibbett turns to a series of lighter favorites—though, as he noted of his singing of religious music, sung with all the commitment and artistic imagination he would bring to an operatic role. With its runs, “beaten” trills, and echo effects, Hely-Hutchinson’s clever “Mother Hubbard” lark tells us more about the virtuosic aspects of Tibbett as Handelian than any of the actual selections he’s left us by that composer, and he tosses it off blithely and wittily. This rollout of “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’” (the song still a contemporary hit, less than a year before the public) is a cheerful ramble, capped by a thrillingly developed crescendo on that final G. And of all the known versions of “De Glory Road,” this one sets up the discrete episodes the most completely, with several variations in the treatment of dynamics (apart from the peculiarities of the sound levels) and a strong sense of the singer holding the audience in expectation of the next little event. That same sense is present in the lingering, caressing rendition of “Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes,” which in its fullness of sentiment surpasses even the lovely Victor version. (Wille’s unerring timing instinct, born of an experienced rapport with his singer that was unavailable to Bourdon and his ensemble, makes a major contribution.) This grouping of encores and requests concludes with McKinney’s novelty number—inconsequential but cheery—about a bagpipe player who won’t reveal the name of his presumably catchy tune. Tibbett affects no Scots accent here, but does contribute a concluding bagpipe imitation that leaves ’em chuckling.

The Worcester concert ends—by request, we are told—with a version of “Vision fugitive” that, with Wille playing, allows even greater space for Tibbett’s idiosyncratic phrasings than any of the conducted ones. Whether one “agrees” with this one or that becomes rather beside the point; together, they leave no doubt that the singer has incorporated the aria as his personal, intimately held possession. He rather muscles through (though in a manner most baritones would be happy to muscle through) the upper Fs and G-flats. It was the end of the evening, after all. A little exasperation, with a shrug of the shoulders—I wouldn’t be without any of these voicings of “Vision fu-ZHUH- tive.”


Verdi: RIGOLETTO: Cortigiani, vil razza dannata (unpublished, 19 October 1936) (CD 6/16). It’s interesting that when Tibbett resumed his Victor series with this and the following two items, the studio orchestra was under the guidance of Smallens. (Shilkret, brought in for that last Porgy session with Jepson, did not appear again on the Tibbett recordings, and Bourdon had been gone since 1929.) The ensemble sounds slightly reinforced (especially evident in the non-operatic numbers), and the playing is at the best level achieved by these Victor groups. Tibbett, with a few performances of the role of Rigoletto under his belt, offers a powerful, emotion-soaked reading of the aria, the opening outburst marked by strongly vibrated tone and filled–out note values that at a couple of points threaten the unanimity of tempo (but Smallens stays with him), and the subsequent plea by a sturdy, clean line that is certainly legato, but without the aid of much in the way of portamento, except on the sweep up to the Fs of “ridate a me la figlia.” Near the end, he substitutes the singular “signore” on the first of two plurals (“signori”), and at first I thought this might reflect a shift from addressing the courtiers as a group to once more pleading with Marullo, then back again in desperation to the group. It’s a point a good actor could make poignant in performance, and a Tibbettish thing to do. But he doesn’t do it on any other version of the aria, including the Met broadcast. So it is undoubtedly just a mistake, and a likely reason this superb take was not released.

Wolfe: Hallelujah Rhythm (unpublished, 19 October 1936) (CD 6/17). Another Jacques Wolfe song that Tibbett advocated for in his radio engagements, this sounds like an effort to meld “De Glory Road” with “Without a Song.” It is less distinctive than either, pushing breathlessly along through a pileup of derivative gestures, and though the busy accompaniment is well played by Smallens and his band, it probably would have benefitted, as does “De Glory Road,” from a simpler piano version (see below). Tibbett does all that could be done for it.

Antonin Dvoˇrák/William Arms Fisher: Goin’ Home (19 October 1936) (CD 6/18). The lyrics and arrangement by Fisher of the haunting English horn melody from the “Largo” of Dvoˇrák’s New World Symphony have become an object of cultural and historical controversy. Wherever one stands in relation to that, it is a fact that “Goin’ Home” assumed the identity of a reverse-engineered African-American spiritual, embraced by choirs, choruses, and concert singers of color (notably Paul Robeson), as well as by school children and listeners of all ethnicities. Fisher was a pupil of Dvoˇrák’s, whose own belief in African-American and Indigenous-American music as the foundation for a true American style was genuine. It’s also true that while the orchestral arrangement is soupy, the song can nonetheless be touching when sung with Tibbett’s tone, control, and evident sincerity. We do make note of the ascent to an overly open F at “lots o’ folks gathered DERE,” as if the singer senses that a classically centered vowel would be “unnatural” in the context.

Following this session, there was another pause, of over two and a half years, in Tibbett’s recording studio activities. But there was plenty going on in his life and career, and fortunately a fair quantity of material survives as testimony.


Despite a good reception based mostly on its sung portions, Metropolitan had fared poorly at the box office, and after trying to abrogate the two-film deal (but Tibbett wouldn’t settle), Zanuck fulfilled the contract by palming the project off on an untried emigré director, Otto Preminger. The result was Under Your Spell, a re-make of an earlier Spanish-language movie, with original songs by Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz, in which Tibbett’s co-star was Eleanor Powell. It was filmed over the summer of 1936 and released that November as the B part of a double feature. Saddled with a silly romantic plot, it has left the lightest of footprints, but for the Tibbett fan or scholar has also bequeathed us a few items of interest. The musical director is Alfred Newman, with a crack crew of Hollywood studio musicians.

Schwartz/Dietz: Under Your Spell (CD 6/19). The title song is a typical 1930s romantic ballad, among neither the best nor the worst of that breed. It gives Tibbett a pleasing and easefully sung tune, then modulates upward amid harp arpeggiations to take him to one of his fine high Gs at the close.

Schwartz/Dietz: Amigo (CD 6/20). This is notable for what surely belongs among the greatest baritone top F-sharps/G-flats ever recorded, on the ascent of “with my comrades GAY” in the verse. Only Tibbett could have chomped into this diphthong on this pitch, then sustained and quickened it with such beaming intensity. The song itself is of the roving tomcat genre, caballero variety, pumped up with a big-band-and-backup-chorus accompaniment. That’s red meat for Tibbett.

Schwartz/Dietz: My Little Mule Wagon (CD 6/21). One has to imagine oneself well along in an oldtime Saturday afternoon’s double feature and in a sugary daze, unmindful of the ripoff of Grofé’s “On the Trail” and of some rhymes of extraordinary sappiness even for its genre, to receive this ditty with equanimity. Still, Tibbett sprinkles some of the magic dust that makes one willing to hear him in nearly anything, and adds a snatch of his whistling besides.

Gounod: FAUST: Le veau d’or . . . Merci de ta chanson (CD 6/22). It is a sure sign of times gone by that a B movie would accommodate this entire sequence, from Wagner’s “Song of the Rat” through to the cue for the Sword Chorale. Tibbett probably had good clean fun taking on a chunk of the role Chaliapin had sung when Tibbett essayed his first Valentins back during his first Met season, but this is not among his better efforts at normally bass roles. The voice sounds open and shallow on the repeated E-naturals of the “Golden Calf” song (here transposed up a semitone while the remainder of the scene reverts to score pitch). The French sounds like a regression to his tyro seasons; and musically he rather plonks along. The contributions of the supporting singers are amateurish.

•     •     •     •     •

The season of 1936–1937, while to all appearances quite successful, was a trying one for Tibbett and his family. At the time of Under Your Spell’s release, he was in first San Francisco, then Chicago, singing a typical mix of roles that included his first Iagos. He returned to the Met on December 24th as Germont, and for the most part his season there went forward with well-received performances of his Italian repertory. In January, though, he took up the challenge of the four antagonist roles in Les contes d’Hoffmann. This elicited at best a mixed reception, and the aircheck of one of the performances, though not lacking in moments of effectiveness, is one of the few pre-crisis broadcast recordings to show some real strain. Four days later, an incident occurred that seems to have left a traumatic mark. The Met was preparing what proved to be the last in the sequence of American operas featuring Tibbett that had begun with The King’s Henchman. This was Caponsacchi, with a libretto by Arthur Goodrich drawn from Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book, and music by Richard Hageman. Tibbett was cast as the violent Guido Franceschini. At a rehearsal on the afternoon of January 26th, in a scene in which Guido stabs his father to death, the hand of a chorister involved in the action, the bass Joseph Sterzini, got in the way of Tibbett’s thrust, and a severe cut was inflicted, causing heavy bleeding. Owing to ill-prepared backstage efforts, a late medical response, and underlying conditions (diabetes, heart disease), Sterzini died. Tibbett, unaware of Sterzini’s mortal condition, left the scene to sing Germont in a run-out performance in Newark that evening, and returned to find a full-scale police investigation in progress. Although the death was ruled accidental (the result of a heart attack that followed on the mishap) and Tibbett was exonerated, the incident left him shaken and, despite his popularity with colleagues and chorus members, his relations with some of them were negatively affected, at least temporarily. Contemporary witness that must be classified as hearsay, yet seems to have amounted to a consensus, held that Tibbett’s drinking problem worsened after the tragedy. As for Caponsacchi itself, though it had received some praise in earlier European presentations, it gathered none here, and vanished after a pair of performances.

Sometime early in 1937 (his biographers don’t quite pin this down), there was also a fracas involving the five Tibbett/Burgard melded-family boys, air rifles, a distraught housekeeper, a frantic two-hour drive from Connecticut to Manhattan, and, again, a squad of police. At the close of the season, Tibbett and Jane sailed for a lengthy European tour (Tibbett’s first professional excursion outside his home country) that was to carry them to London, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Vienna, Budapest, and back to the U.K., with operatic appearances (including another “creation,” the title role in Eugene Goossens’ Don Juan de Mañara at Covent Garden) alternating with generously programmed recitals and concerts. In these long-established musical and operatic capitals, with their strong national schools of opinion on performance, the critical reception of this quintessentially American singer was not unmixed, but audience response was, according to all reports, uniformly enthusiastic. In England, Tibbett also worked on behalf of AGMA to promote closer relations with performers’ guilds there. A midtour return to America was necessitated by the news that the couple’s son Michael had contracted polio, which was then at an epidemic level in the U.S. With the boy’s condition stabilized and attentive care in hand, the Tibbetts resumed the tour, but not before a serious altercation over the responsibilities of parenthood. The cumulative impact of these events has to have been meaningful. But in November of 1937, Tibbett was back in the U.S., the extraordinary career careening on. He once again made stops in San Francisco and Chicago before his seasonal return to the Metropolitan. This came as Iago in the company’s first presentation of Otello in a quarter-century on December 22nd, 1937, with Martinelli and Rethberg as co-principals, under Ettore Panizza—a now-legendary collaboration. As the season proceeded, Tibbett added to his Iago repetitions of several of his Verdi parts, plus his less-enthusiastically received English-language Gianni Schicchi. Despite the continued presence of the formidable Thomas and Bonelli, and the new one of Carlo Tagliabue, he was at this point unquestionably the Met’s leading “Italian” baritone.

Radio Programs, Series 3
(Chesterfield Presents)

Exactly one week after the triumphant Otello, Tibbett began a weekly series for the tobacco company’s long-established show. This group of appearances from the winter of 1937–1938 sustains the highest consistent quality of any of the Tibbett shows that have come down to us. While the elaborate arrangements of Andre Kostelanetz are reflective of what we might term the “high pop” culture of their time and the accusations of commercial slickness that have trailed them on through the years of Coca-Cola’s Pause That Refreshes airings are not unfair, these concoctions are also extremely skilled and inventive, and the contributions of his orchestra, across a wide range of classical and popular styles, are superb. When
it comes to the operatic material, Kostelanetz and company play it straight, and usually very well.

As the composer of two full-scale grand operas produced by the Met, both much enhanced by Tibbett’s presence, Deems Taylor was the most highly credentialed of several “crossover” musical popularizers then on the airwaves, and he provides the spoken introductions, often enhanced by Tibbett’s descriptions of plot points. Since the scripted banter between Taylor and Tibbett, in a tone probably best described as “joshing,” can prove wearing and only occasionally holds educational value for knowledgeable listeners now, we have included it only where it bears on our story in some illuminating way. Production values are high, and fortunately the sonics of these examples are generally excellent. Finally, Tibbett is for the most part at his nonpareil best.

Verdi: LA TRAVIATA: Di Provenza il mar (29 December 1937) (CD 7/1). The touch of maturation that has infused the Tibbett timbre since his Packard Hour voicing of three years earlier (or that he has simply injected into it, as he was capable of doing) only enhances the marvelous interpretation, which otherwise is marked by some improvements in the pronuncia and a couple of different commas for breath. The command of swell-and-diminish, especially noticeable at the ends of the verses and seemingly almost improvisational, as if he might on an impulse of the moment decide to reverse direction, is intact, and even more effective in this slightly more paternal-sounding format.

Gershwin: PORGY AND BESS: I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’ (29 December 1937) (CD 7/2). Think of this as the Easy Listening version of the song. Gone is the banjo (or Wille’s piano, for that matter), replaced by little string swirls and curlicues, and gone is some of the grit and sense of the character singing. But of course that fits with the essentially soothing quality of evening radio programming. The rendition thus starts the piece on its road toward the status of a popular song that may be styled at will, as opposed to an operatic excerpt performed in accordance with the score. Presumably Gershwin would not have objected—or would he have? Tibbett sails along without a worry (which, I guess, is in the spirit of the song) and knocks off the ending rousingly.

Cole Porter: ROSALIE: In the Still of the Night (29 December 1937) (CD 7/3).
Having touched on Kern, Arlen, and Gershwin, we come to a fourth great songwriter to emerge from the interwar American culture, Cole Porter. The song was new at the time, having been written for the film version of the musical Rosalie, wherein it was sung by Nelson Eddy. (Eddy had in fact objected to the song, and its inclusion was uncertain until Porter appealed on its behalf directly to Louis B. Mayer, who was uncharacteristically reduced to tears by it.) Tibbett’s soft-to-loud gifts, so instinctively available that there is no “transition” from one to the other, are perfectly suited to its initial mood of lonely longing, as is his passionate operatic full voice to the almost desperate plea of “Do you love me/as I love you?”, bursting with masculine power and masculine need (and hence, vulnerability—I suspect that’s what got to L.B. Mayer) at once.

Federico Longás: Gitana (5 January 1938) (CD 7/4). Not to be confused with the Eakin/Hitchcock “Ay, Gitanos” (see above) or any of the many other songs of similar title, this lusty paean to a “Gypsy princess” is by the Barcelona-born Longás, a well-regarded accompanist (notably for Tito Schipa, with whom he recorded some Victor sides) and composer of many songs and piano pieces. Its accompaniment shows rather more inventiveness than many songs of its genre, but how much of this owes to an original piano setting and how much to Kostelanetz’s arrangement, I can’t verify. Tibbett barrels through it with full-throated authority, including a couple of his patented wide-open top Fs.

Schubert/Ludwig Rellstab: Ständchen (Serenade) (5 January 1938) (CD 7/5). As with all of Tibbett’s Lieder renditions, this “Ständchen” is sung in English and, as was customary in Radioland, with an orchestral accompaniment, the Kostelanetz strings bombing in obtrusively. However, it is also sung as beautifully as any version I know, and with more voice and less affectation than most.

Massenet: HÉRODIADE: Vision fugitive (5 January 1938) (CD 7/6). For the operatic climax to this broadcast, Tibbett again addresses one of his favorite concert arias. Interpretively, it is close to identical with both the imaginative and impressive Packard performance of two years earlier and the Worcester rendition with Wille, with the voice sounding, if anything, a mite fresher here. Among the Kostelanetz re-touchings is the puzzling substitution of clarinet for the solo saxophone (the latter a characteristic and evocative Massenet usage) in the intro to the aria proper. One would have thought that this top-of-the-line big-band/symphonic ensemble would have had a sax on hand, and that Kostelanetz would have been glad to use it. No, Tibbett has still not reformed his pronunciation of the word fugitive.

O. Straus: THE PRODIGAL: Life is a Dream (12 January 1938) (CD 7/7). Seven years down the road from the shooting of the film and the Victor studio release (and singing now for a live audience), Tibbett is taking the song a half-step down and re-arranging the words of the pianissimo ending. So we no longer have quite the brilliant development of that top G. But those phrases still sit well up in the range, and Tibbett is still in total control of them, as well as of the suavity with which he launches the melody. And the ending is still entrancing. The Kostelanetz orchestra and Kostelanetz notions (e.g., the tune’s descending phrases—“a dream/from which/we wake”—are now sung and played in a more accented dotted rhythm, emphasizing the waltziness) lend the piece an updated, more glamorously dressed air than Shilkret’s folks provided. They are, in a way, “improvements,” but for me they oversell the song. Though on several grounds I prefer the earlier version, had I heard only this one I would have marveled.

Ernesto Lecuona: Siboney (12 January 1938) (CD 7/8). Lecuona, pupil of Joaquin Nín, formidable pianist and composer of songs, piano pieces, film music, and a zarzuela, was the foremost disseminator to the wider world of Cuban rhythms and instrumental flavorings (unless we give a pioneering nod to Georges Bizet with his “Habañera”). Along with “Malagueña,” “Siboney” was one of his enduring hits, encountered in dozens of pop-singer and instrumental renditions from the late 1920s into the 1960s. It is often—and, given the romantic sensuousness of its lyrics, understandably—taken as an expression of longing for a woman, but actually sings of longing for Cuba itself, for which the titular name is symbolic. Tibbett sang it frequently, in slightly different arrangements, sometimes alternating Spanish and English verses. Here, it’s Spanish all the way, and in Tibbett’s effortlessly macho tone, especially hotblooded.

Gershwin: PORGY AND BESS: Oh, Where’s My Bess? (12 January 1938) (CD 7/9). Perhaps a smidgen of heat has been lost since the occasion of the Victor impression, so close on the heels of the opening and with the show’s conductor in charge. Or perhaps our awareness of that difference in circumstance only makes it seem so. Either way, Tibbett has refined a few moments in the interpretation: the pleading repetitions of his gal’s name have a touch of onset from the softer side, and there is now a captivating little arc of mezza voce at “to see her face.” The voice does not dominate the balance quite as much as in the studio version (the filled-in orchestral sound is pure advantage here), and if anything Tibbett’s voice sounds marginally lighter. But the singing remains incomparable, and the emotional commitment complete.

Rossini: IL BARBIERE DI SIVIGLIA: Largo al factotum (12 January 1938) (CD 7/10). One more bash at the old warhorse. Tibbett proves that his full two-octaves-plus stretch of range is still on hand, his spirits still ebullient, and his tempo still better suited to a semblance of virtuosity than to ultimate verbal precision. The accompaniment sparkles.

Porter: ROSALIE: Close (19 January 1938) (CD 7/11). The Rosalie movie produced one top-flight Porter song, “In the Still of the Night.” This is among the others, a formulaic imitation Viennese waltz. At least it gives Tibbett opportunities to show both his accustomed purling legato and another of the climactic closing phrases on closed vowels he reveled in.

Charles Bates/Johnny Mercer: On the Nodaway Road (19 January 1938) (CD 7/12). One more clippity-clop song, music by Bates, with lyrics by the better-known Johnny Mercer. If its tweakiness, reinforced by Kostelanetz’s introductory embellishments, suggest an overdone children’s song, that could be because it originated in a 1936 Porky Pig animated feature, Porky the Rainmaker. We are in the realm of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies. Bearable because of baritone blandishments.

Mussorgsky: The Song of the Flea (19 January 1938) (CD 7/13). Though Tibbett’s way with this song continues to suffer from the manufactured variations on his all-purpose laugh, this is in some ways preferable to the studio version. Some of the lines are more subtly inflected, and, following the limp showing of Shilkret and his players for Victor, it’s wonderful to hear the orchestration rendered with sharp accentuation, zest, and precision.

Leoncavallo: PAGLIACCI: Si può? [Prologue] (19 January 1938) (CD 7/14–15). A curiosity here is the singer’s spoken synopsis of the text—a rather good one—that invokes the golden curtains of the old Metropolitan Opera House and reminds us of a long-gone technique of stage illumination, footlights. The interpretation is much the same mix of thoughtful ideas and stylistically dubious Americanisms that it’s always been, and we again get the feeling that when away from home base at the Met, his attention to textual detail wanders. The singing is as splendid as ever, with the E-natural at “il tem-PO gli battevano” and the E-flat at “le nostre PO-vere gabbane d’istrioni” yet more smoothly taken and the concluding high notes sung with exciting containment—that is, fully realized but without any telltale trace of discomfort.

Schwartz/Dietz: BETWEEN THE DEVIL: I See Your Face Before Me (26 January 1938) (CD 7/16). The stage musical that introduced this romantic ballad, starring Evelyn Laye and Jack Buchanan, was not a hit, but the song was, and it has been covered by many pop singers and bands over the years. It’s a nice one, provided the singer can “get behind” its clichéd rhymes, as Tibbett assuredly does. Special moments: the perfectly suspended soft E-naturals on “ . . . how FAIR you are” and “ . . . knowing I WANT you so,” followed by the full-voiced repeat of the latter, a half-step up, after the instrumental break; and the winding path of the concluding pianissimo “me-e-e.”

Gershwin: PORGY AND BESS: A Woman is a Sometime Thing (26 January 1938) (CD 7/17). Tibbett continues his campaign on behalf of Porgy’s songs—and, I find myself wondering, on behalf of the dream of a Metropolitan Opera production of the work? That had been the ambition of Otto H. Kahn, the chairman of the Met’s Board of Directors, before the Broadway premiere, and in his intro here Taylor, while being careful to say he’d love to see the show again with its original cast, plumps for a revival with Tibbett. However that might have turned out: as fine as the version of Jake’s mansplaining lullaby is on the Victor set (see above), this is even better. With plenty of time to lay the song out and with the willing connivance of Kostelanetz, Tibbett takes the piece a good deal further into highly inflected blackish territory, and while we can’t expect a rhythmic clapping response from the (presumably all-white) studio audience in the extended final bars, Tibbett evokes all that anyway, then gives us a crackling top G at the close.

Arthur Sullivan/W.S. Gilbert: IOLANTHE: Love Unrequited Robs Me of My Rest . . . When You’re Lying Awake with a Dismal Headache [the Lord Chancellor’s Song] (26 January 1938) (CD 7/18). We hark back seventeen years to the tyro Tibbett’s G&S beginnings with Basil Ruysdael. The Lord Chancellor is a far cry from Pish-Tush, though—it’s one of the great team’s noted comedy baritone roles, traditionally modeled on the D’Oyly Carte’s reigning player of such parts (at this time, Martyn Green), for which patter-song deftness was a principal qualification. Tibbett presents the opening recitative in his native High American Stage English, but when the patter starts, the accent is of little consequence, and the rapid-fire slinging of verbal darts, always inflected on the fly with descriptive intent (e.g., “by the bye, the ship’s now a four-wheeler”) and always clear in meaning provided we pay active attention (our part of the bargain), is a simply astonishing feat of articulation from a “real voice,” which emerges unscathed at the end.

Verdi/Boito: OTELLO: Vanne; la tua meta già vedo . . . Credo in un Dio crudel (26 January 1938) (CD 7/19). Once again, the spaciousness that Tibbett and Kostelanetz allow themselves; the fullness of sound and theatrical alertness of this splendid radio studio orchestra; and the singer’s interpretive liberties with note values and the timing of silences (not “sloppy musicianship,” but measurements of maximum rhetorical impact and dramatic suspense) give us not only one of many great voiced renderings of Verdi’s setting of Boito’s monologue, but a truly disturbing look into a malevolent spirit. Any objections on behalf of textual obedience or oratorical choice that one might enter (I, for instance, don’t like Tibbett’s puffy pronouncement of “la morte è il nulla”) pale in the face of the performer’s absolute ownership of the scene. We do note overly open E-flats at “simile a SÈ” and “sacrifiCIO-O ed onor,” but Tibbett is otherwise in sovereign voice.

Altogether, if I had to select one of Lawrence Tibbett’s many extant radio programs to illustrate his total command and near-flawless execution across a range of cross-cultural shapeshifting—from classy American Pop lover to Jake of Catfish Row to the Lord Chancellor to Iago—I think it would be this broadcast of January 26th, 1938. The next broadcast, I’m afraid, carries us from the sublime to the distinctly earthbound. It includes a dreadful roustabout-style concert ballad by Deems Taylor, “Captain Paton’s Fancy,” which is by no means improved by Tibbett’s blustery and often incomprehensible splutterings, and a misconceived, up-tempo version of Porter’s “Night and Day” that ruins its obsessive, solitudinous mood—an opportunity missed, since it’s a haunting song that Tibbett should have sung memorably. We won’t detain you with those. But one item from this show is of value as we keep track of the singer’s technical adventures:

Bizet: CARMEN: Votre toast [Toreador Song] (2 February 1938) (CD 7/20). The interpretation continues in the déclassé condition that makes one understand old complaints that Tibbett was “ruined by Hollywood,” or at least by a variety of American showbiz swagger that does not merely push on the boundaries of style, but obliterates them altogether. Along with that is the unsettling fact that the singer’s indecisiveness concerning his technical approach to the upper-middle notes is turning positively erratic. The E-flats and E-naturals sound callow and open until the final E (on “re-GA-Ard”) and the Fs, though secure, are dry in timbre when compared with his best.

Speaks: On the Road to Mandalay (9 February 1938) (CD 8/1). The great baritone returns to peak form on this week’s show. Perhaps due to his collaboration with Kostelanetz and his men, this is the most martial, the most “operatic,” of all the Tibbett versions of the calling-card song we have in captivity, and I think the most persuasively Cockney-ized as well. There’s still an alluring dreaminess for the temple bells and “lookin’ lazy at the sea,” but it’s the sheer overall, full-voiced exuberance that carries us away here.

Verdi: RIGOLETTO: Cortigiani, vil razza dannata (9 February 1938) (CD 8/2). Here is my first choice among the known Tibbett renderings (all first-class) of the aria. The opening assault is laid out with ample bite and rhythmic energy, but it is the surrender of “Ah! Ebben, piango,” and the melting lyricism from “Miei signori” to the end, marked by the free run of the vibrato and the mezzo-piano attack on the F of the final “Pietà, pietà” that set this voicing even above the others, at least for me. This time through, there is no confusion as to how many courtiers he is imploring.

McHugh: Cuban Love Song (9 February 1938) (CD 8/3–4). We are back in E-flat (see above), with a kick up after the instrumental bridge, so that the attack on “Dear one” is now on one of Tibbett’s beloved high Gs, where it actually sounds more in line with the arrangement’s vocal format than the lower options. Tibbett sails through blithely, and the accompaniment exudes pop glamor, complete with a dose of Kostelanetz “whistling strings.” In the preceding conversation with Deems Taylor, Tibbett’s not-altogether-fictional lifestyle is trotted out for suggestive myth-building. I wonder how Jane felt about that.

Schubert/Goethe: Der Erlkönig (The Erl King) (in English, 16 February 1938) (CD 8/5). We have passed over two other Tibbett broadcast renditions of this song—including one in which La Forge pupils take the lines assigned to the characters, leaving Tibbett as only the narrator—in favor of this one. While it’s regrettable that it leaves us without a version employing the original piano accompaniment (none has turned up), this orchestral arrangement is at least lively, unmuddied, and well played. Compared with the melodramatics of Loewe’s “Edward” (to say nothing of “Mandalay” or “De Glory Road”), Tibbett stays within the bounds of what we might call Lieder propriety here, characterizing with relative restraint, yet capturing the setting’s contrasts and accumulating suspense.

Verdi: UN BALLO IN MASCHERA: Alzati! Là tuo figlio . . . Eri tu che macchiavi quell’ anima (16 February 1938) (CD 8/6). As fine as the 1930 Victor takes are, this riveting performance augments our sense of what Tibbett’s Renato would have been had he ever sung the role. (The 1940 Met revival of Ballo, with Milanov and Bjoerling, fell exactly at the time of Tibbett’s vocal crisis. The role went to Alexander Sved, and in subsequent revivals usually to Leonard Warren.) Here we are given the preceding recitative, powerfully sung, and with a couple of Tibbett’s individual phrasings (“Là,_il tuo rossore”; “Non è su lei,_nel suo fragile petto”), and then a more expansive consideration of the aria itself. As with “Di Provenza,” we sacrifice a jot or tittle of lyrical ease (e.g., that attack on the F of “O speranze”—though this one is still perfectly controlled) for a maturation of tonal format and interpretive fulfillment.

Clarence Olmstead: All of My Heart (16 February 1938) (CD 8/7). Like several American composers and writers of greater prominence, Olmstead held a full-time day job (in his case, as advertising executive), but when away from the office pursued artistic interests. A few of his songs were published by G. Schirmer, and this one was recorded by Crooks for Victor less than three months after this broadcast. It’s a waltz-rhythm ballad whose generic melody and treacly rhymes are redeemed by Tibbett, at least for lovers of wonderful singing. In the final phrase, Tibbett stretches a half-step beyond his customary top G for such songs, and to good effect.

Stothart: CUBAN LOVE SONG: Tramps at Sea (23 February 1938) (CD 8/8). All the reservations voiced earlier about this song, and Tibbett’s habits with such numbers, stand. But the combined presence of a live audience and the Kostelanetz crew give the song something more of color and shape without losing any of the zest.

Foster: I Dream of Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair (23 February 1938) (CD 8/9). One of the things that can help us understand Tibbett’s convictions concerning his own indestructibility is his ability, often demonstrated, to immediately and unconcernedly follow a stretch of technical disregard like the preceding item with an unblemished gem like this one. And among the renditions I’ve heard of this, one of Foster’s most alluring ballads, only Jussi Bjoerling’s can compare for tonal beauty and polished simplicity of musical form.

Gounod: FAUST: Avant de quitter ces lieux (23 February 1938) (CD 8/10). In comparison with the 1936 General Motors performance, Tibbett’s conception of Valentin’s leavetaking seems to have returned to the more laid-back approach of his Victor studio recording—reverential and introspective rather than grand with the main tune—and so have some of the puzzling inconsistencies in vowel formation (since he can “gather” the diphthong for “mieux” on an E-flat, why does he not do so for “aïeux” on D, or carry some of this “gathering” into open vowels in the same territory?). The seeming effortlessness of the ascents to those shining top Gs is still here, but not to the full climactic effect of the 1936 version, and we are again reminded of an odd variability in Tibbett’s treatment of some of his repertoire items.

Schwartz/Dietz: Under Your Spell (23 February 1938) (CD 8/11). It’s not only Kostelanetz’s glittery wrap that makes this version of the song a contrast with that taken from the film’s soundtrack (see above). Though both were sung for the microphone, the film voicing is very much in Tibbett’s commanding full-voice mode, with the softer phrases in the upper-midrange a “connected” mezzo-piano and the fabulous diminuendo on the top F (at “DE-ear to me”) tapered back from an operatic forte, whereas this one is oriented entirely toward a relaxed, ultra-suave “radio voice,” with those same soft passages “finessed” in a way that begins to sound detached from the voice’s seating. It is all expertly done and enjoyable, but not in a fashion that fully supports the integrity of the voice.

Loewe: Edward (1 March 1938) (CD 8/12). For one of only two times in this series of shows, Kostelanetz and his fine orchestra step aside in favor of Stewart Wille—surely a wise decision, as one can hardly imagine orchestral textures doing much but interfere with the wordy, Scots- accented narrative. The histrionics of Tibbett’s interpretation have not changed in any essential way since the 1931 Victor recording, but the slight change in ambience and, I think, the singer’s interim radio experience, make for differences in the impression at several points. The virile presence of the son’s voice, fully caught by the Victor mike, is slightly softened here, while the mounting anxieties of the mother are yet more delicately inserted; a deliciously chilling quiver has been added to one of the son’s downward glisses of “Oh!”; and the climactic condemnation of the mother “that counseled me!” is more controlled. Whether one prefers this or the second of the two Victor takes is purely a matter of taste.

Verdi: FALSTAFF: È sogno? o realtà? (1 March 1938) (CD 8/13). Here’s an instance of a voicing that has advanced over previous outings. It’s true that the topmost notes, though firm, haven’t quite their sheerest brilliance. But in all other ways, this is preferable to both the vocal and interpretive rawness of the early Victor attempt, and the impressive but rather thick-toned Packard Hour version (and, incidentally, helps us confirm that those weighted “Dramatic Baritone” aria renditions of 1934–35 represent a somewhat aberrational patch Tibbett was passing through). In this performance, the debates between “open” and “covered” in the passaggio vicinity have been resolved in favor of a raccolto balance, and the tendency to shouted emphasis has retreated in the face of carved-into-the-note inflection. We don’t know exactly how Tibbett sounded when he brought down the house thirteen years earlier, but this is the most convincing of the versions of the Monologue he has left us.

Schwartz/Dietz: FLYING COLORS: Alone Together (1 March 1938) (CD 8/14). This song is from a 1932 revue, wherein it was performed by Clifton Webb and Tamara Geva. Tibbett’s beautifully sung rendition must be quite different from their turn with it (neither was a singer in any “legitimate” sense), as well as from the many jazz treatments later accorded it. A couple of unusual modulations give the piece a touch more interest than most such. The absence of a typical instrumental bridge and reprise is probably due to time constraints.

Taylor/Constance Collier/Alfred de Musset: PETER IBBETSON: You Ask in Vain [Colonel Ibbetson’s Recitation] (9 March 1938) (CD 8/15–16). Here is the only remnant of the original cast of this, the most successful of the American operas presented by the Met during the Gatti-Casazza and Johnson directorships, apart from the sonically challenged broadcasts from the opera house (1932 excerpts, 1934 complete). This is in far better sound, and in the English translation of the de Musset poem that the composer provided for this broadcast. (In the opera, the perfidious Colonel renders it in the French original.) Taylor’s setting is at first hearing rather generic, but several listenings have won me over to its lyricism and careful craftsmanship. In any event, Tibbett’s singing of it is of such surpassing eloquence that there is no gainsaying the effect.

Wolfe: Hallelujah Rhythm (16 March 1938) (CD 8/17). My speculation that this song would fare better with piano accompaniment rather than even a good orchestral one (see above) is borne out here. Wille’s playing has a rhythmic drive and clarity of gesture that set Tibbett’s tangy inflections out in bolder relief, and the singer’s confidence in singing with his accustomed partner is evident—the performance is a tour de force. Nothing will lift “Hallelujah Rhythm” to the level of “De Glory Road,” but this brings it in a closer second.

Puccini: TOSCA: Già, mi dicon venal (16 March 1938) (CD 8/18). Getting two quibbles out of the way first: the setting of the phrase “ne voglio altra mercede” leads Tibbett to misplace the accent onto the second syllable of “altra” (“al-TRA”) and, hanging about as it does on the upper F-flat (combined with his habitual insistence on making every syllable of every word distinct), also betrays a trace of the passaggio vowel quarrels (decidedly “covered” for “voglio,” then painstakingly opened for “al-tra”). But: the coincidence of the slight shading on the Tibbett tone in the direction of what we think of as the typical Scarpia timbre and the enlivening effect of Kostelanetz’s conducting (that opening is electrifying) and the presence of an audience makes for a more persuasive voicing of this excerpt than the well-sung one of two years earlier for the Packard Hour.

Kern/Otto Harbach: ROBERTA: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes (23 March 1938) (CD 8/19). This is one of Kern’s most affecting songs, a perfect setting of Harbach’s rueful, touching lyrics about love’s evanescence. And it could not be better suited to Tibbett’s gifts—no “styling,” just a consummate rendering of a deep, wistful sentiment. Only ultimate artistic mastery can sound so “natural.”

Verdi: LA TRAVIATA: Di Provenza (23 March 1938) (CD 8/20). That same mastery is evident here, in an interpretation that is almost daringly intimate-sounding without for a moment forsaking its operatic bona fides.

•     •     •     •     •

As Tibbett confides in a little farewell to the Chesterfield audience, he was by way of embarking on another farflung concert tour, this time westward to Hawaii, New Zealand, and Australia. Marjorie Lawrence, Australia’s greatest soprano export between Nellie Melba and Joan Sutherland, was evidently instrumental in persuading Tibbett to head in the direction of her home country. The tour, which embraced fifty-five appearances (with Tibbett’s typically lengthy recital programs) over a seven-month period, was a tremendous success, and the Tibbetts apparently dazzled on the social scene, as well. This entailed evermore-concerning bouts of imbibing for both of the couple partners, but according to Claude Kingston, the impresario who booked the tour, Tibbett always showed up at the advertised hours, and without any evidence of ill effects on the voice. The tour’s only untoward incident occurred on the last leg of the return voyage, from Hawaii to Los Angeles, when $50,000 worth of Jane’s jewelry, which she had neglected to secure in the ship’s safe, went missing. A partial recovery was made before disembarkation, and one crewman went to jail, but presumably one or more others lived well on the larger unrecovered portion for some time afterward.

On the eastward coast-to-coast journey upon return, Tibbett stopped in Chicago to sing Iago, Rigoletto, and the Hoffmann villains. Then, on November 25th, he opened the 1938–39 Metropolitan season with his Iago, in the company of Martinelli and Maria Caniglia. His one new role during the season was Falstaff, which, like all his other efforts at character parts with a strong comic element (Schicchi, Melitone, Kothner) did not meet with rapture unalloyed. It must have sounded pretty good, though: in all his other undertakings of the season (his major Verdi parts, plus Scarpia) he was deemed to be in his best form, vocally and dramatically. He continued his involvement in union battles, and along with other prominent classical music artists was active in the protests over Marian Anderson’s banishment from Constitution Hall. Concerned with the lack of improvement in their son Michael’s condition, he and Jane began a search for alternative treatment that was to lead them to Sister Kenny and to active support of her foundation. They also continued to lead the High Life. In May, Tibbett at last returned to the RCA Victor studios, and in the sessions of May 3rd and 9th, left collectors a taste of one of his greatest roles, Simon Boccanegra, and a more extended sampling of another, Iago. Also squeezed into the May 3rd session were the first two songs considered below.


William Steffe/Julia Ward Howe, arranged by Bruno Reibold: The Battle Hymn of the Republic and Julian Edwards/Stanislaus Stangé, arranged by Bruno Reibold, with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Wilfrid Pelletier, conductor: WHEN JOHNNY COMES MARCHING HOME: My Own United States (3 May 1939) (CD 9/1–2). These two sides remind us of the year’s building warlike tensions, and the revival of patriotic sentiments from conflicts long past. “The Battle Hymn” has the famous words that Julia Ward Howe fit to the tune of “John Brown’s Body,” which was in turn taken from an older camping song of religious caste collected by William Steffe, and thus attributed to him. To either set of words, it was a true Civil War marching-into-battle song that needs no introduction, at least to American listeners. “My Own United States” is from a piece billed as a “spectacular three-act comic opera” from 1902, which presumably incorporated some version of its title song (also of Civil War origin). It’s of a generic martial-anthem sort. As arranged by Reibold, both numbers follow a pattern that allows for a slower, somewhat more lyrical middle verse. There is no important exception to be taken to Tibbett’s rousing voicing of them.

Verdi/Francesco Maria Piave/Giuseppe Montanelli: SIMON BOCCANEGRA: Dinne … Alcun là non vedesti? … Figlia! … a tal nome io palpito and Plebe! Patrizi! Popolo … Piango su voi, sul placido (3 May 1939). With Rose Bampton, soprano; Giovanni Martinelli, tenor; Leonard Warren, baritone; Roberts Nicholson, baritone; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Wilfrid Pelletier, conductor (CD 9/3–4).

As noted earlier, Verdi’s darkling masterpiece was first introduced to the Metropolitan’s audience in 1932, with Tibbett’s singing and acting of the title role immediately acclaimed as a characterization of stature and tragic depth. With a team of distinguished partners that remained intact for the rest of the decade (Martinelli, Ezio Pinza, and Maria Müller, the last soon succeeded by Elizabeth Rethberg), and with Panizza following Serafin as conductor, the opera became a repertory staple, with Tibbett always the anchor. Today, when historically minded collectors have access to complete broadcast airchecks from the 1930s and 1940s, and when many of the new recordings released, even by major labels, are taken from live performances, it is easy to see this offering (parts of two scenes, totaling around nine minutes) as much too little, if not quite too late. However, the aircheck recordings did not begin to circulate until the 1950s, and for some years thereafter only on a restricted basis. Thus, a generation of opera lovers had only these sides to give them an idea of the beauty, depth, and majesty of Tibbett’s Simon—an idea only, since those qualities do not emerge in full force until Act 3. But as the role contains no tuneful signature aria (indeed, Fiesco’s “Il lacerato spirito” was up to this time the only one of the opera’s excerpts to be often sung outside of opera house performances, or much recorded), these two passages were at least the natural selections. And some listeners, even today, will find value in the presence of the voices afforded by the studio process.

In the poignant father-daughter recognition scene, Tibbett somewhat compromises his normally exemplary legato on the flowing line of “Figlia! . . . a tal nome palpito” with a superfluity of intrusive h’s, and the ascent to the E and F at “di mia corona il raggio” is a tad more effortful than we would have expected a few years earlier. But the nobility and authority of utterance, as well as a tenderness of inflection, are unimpeded, and the piano F of “Figlia!” at the close is a stunner, not so much for itself (many baritones manage an effective headvoice note here) as for the sense, once again, that it emerges not as a special, isolated effect, but as a logical continuation of everything else in the voice.

No quibbles attach to Tibbett’s contributions to the center section of the Council Chamber Scene. From the command of the opening “Plebe! . . . Patrizi!” through the contained sostenuto of “Piango su voi” and on to the repeated Grand Phrase of “E vo gridando: pace! E vo gri-DA-An-do: amor!”, we get the unmistakeable impression of a man dominating the fractious scene through the sheer force of what we’d now call his personal charisma. Some of the scene’s other elements are less persuasive. Martinelli, caught two or three seasons too late, certainly cuts through the ensemble, but with a grinding, sour tone; and the absence of Pinza is noticeable at Fiesco’s moments of prominence. I do, though, rise to the defense of Rose Bampton in both of these scenes. Yes, it’s too bad that the still-yare Rethberg was not enlisted for the session. But Bampton, then recently embarked on the soprano stage of her career (not, one gathers, with any technical re-working of a transition from her contralto beginnings, but simply by a decision to start singing soprano roles) shows a bright, clear tone, sufficient amplitude, good line, free top notes, and a more than adequate trill. She holds up her end.

Verdi: OTELLO: Inaffia l’ugola [Brindisi]; Vanne! La tua meta … Credo in un Dio crudel; Non pensateci più; E qual certezza sognate … Era la notte; Oh, mostruosa colpa … Sì, pel ciel; Vieni, l’aula è deserto … Questa è una ragna (3 and 9 May 1939). With Giovanni Martinelli, tenor; Nicolas Massue, tenor; Herman Dreeben, tenor; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and chorus, Wilfrid Pelletier, conductor (CD 9/5–11). When the Metropolitan unveiled its new production of Otello on December 22nd, 1937, it marked the work’s first performance at the house since 1913, when Leo Slezak had sung the title role, with Tibbett’s early benefactress Frances Alda as Desdemona and Scotti alternating with Amato as Iago, Arturo Toscanini conducting. The new trio of Martinelli, Rethberg, and Tibbett, under the baton of Toscanini’s old associate Panizza, restored Verdi’s tragic masterpiece in full. Tibbett’s Iago met with great public acclaim and general critical approval, with some reservations related mostly to his physical interpretation and costuming, which some found too theatricalized in a melodramatically Mephistophelian fashion. (One is reminded of Shaw’s strictures on the Iago of the role’s originator, Victor Maurel, as “illustrative rather than impersonative,” and with “… too much of Lucifer, the fallen angel, about it.”) Whether well taken or not, these observations don’t concern us here, and when it comes to recordings I think that notwithstanding the Iagos of Granforte, Taddei, Warren, and Gobbi, Tibbett’s must stand at the apex when it comes to a combination of insights born of artistic imagination with the vocal means of bringing them vividly forth. And with Otello, Victor went beyond the fragmentary Boccanegra effort to record more extended scenes, originally released as a six-record album, this time with Jepson taking the soprano role that had been Rethberg’s during most of the production’s run. We present here the sides in which Tibbett had significant involvement.

Perhaps he barges into the opening of the “Brindisi” a bit crudely. But that’s in line with the face he’s showing in this scene, one of a lusty hail-fellow-well-met persona, companionably pushing things over the edge. The banter with Cassio and the asides to Roderigo are sharp and the song’s verses swing along with great back-slapping verve, the descending chromatic runs on “beva” falling perfectly into line. While for reasons outlined above the Chesterfield Credo remains my first choice among Tibbett’s iterations of the piece, this one is splendid enough, the clumsily “covered” E-flat at “sa-cri-fi-CIO . . . ed onor” being the only technically worrisome moment (note, though, that in the recitative he gathers another E- flat, at “simile a sè” into a lean, closed form, where in other renditions he sings the more open, “natural” vowel).

The heart of the Victor album is the sequence beginning with Iago’s “Non pensateci più” through to the end of Act 2. And the heart of Tibbett’s portion of this sequence is the Dream Narrative, beginning with an unusually broad, almost threatening intoning of “E qual certezza v’abbisogna?” before drawing down to the “confided to the ear” (not whispered) mezza-voce of the dream itself. Tibbett’s rendering of “Era la notte” is paradigmatic, its effect hard to convey because it consists simply of succeeding completely where others succeed not quite completely—all baritones seek to control the pointillistic dynamics with voices of dramatic format, to whiten or otherwise find a special inflection for Cassio’s words, to float that final pianissimo E at “E allora il so-o-GNO-O…” without resorting to a detached falsetto, etc., and the best ones do well with all or most of it. So you must listen through here, attending especially to the moments of withheld tension and insinuation at the upper end (“… lente movea, NELL’abbandono”; “qua-SI baciando”; and of course “il so-o-GNO” to see if you agree with me that, fine as some others’ are, these are incomparable, and that the main reason lies in their absolute continuity with the virile core and unique timbre of Tibbett’s full voice.

The demands of the Oath Duet are more straightforward, viz., to sing out with good intonation and biting pronuncia with a great voice, if you have one. Tibbett does, and does.

The final excerpt, the Act 3 trio, was especially welcome as a part of the original album, since it would have been an unlikely choice for a single disc. Once again the exchanges with Cassio have a lifelike ease that disguises the necessary precision and alacrity, and the “Questa è una ragna” is brilliantly tossed off. Altogether, this set gave collectors of the time a more-than-fair notion of this classic characterization.

Not quite the same can be said of Martinelli’s Otello, for the reasons cited regarding the Boccanegra sides. Just a couple of seasons earlier, there was a touch of vibrato in notes above the staff sufficient to avoid the painful impression of squeezed, straight tone. But by the time of these sessions, that had fled. There is still the keenly centered tone, the metallic cut, and the continuity of line to recommend his singing, but the frequent excursions to the top compromise the overall effect. Nicolas Massue’s Cassio has met with general disapprobation, but seems to me entirely competent, clear of tone and word, and fully into the repartee of both his scenes. Naturally, the cutting of 78-rpm sides in the studio under Pelletier does not yield the excitement of live performance under Panizza. But the Met orchestra had found its way with this music, and is especially compelling in the Act 2 sequence.

•     •     •     •     •

Tibbett had planned another tour of Europe for the summer of 1939, but the worsening political circumstances there forced him to undertake American dates instead, including one at the White House on the occasion of the visit of King George and Queen Elizabeth, and another in his old stomping grounds, at the Hollywood Bowl. He continued his involvement with union and other political activities (e.g., testimony in favor of the WPA, then under threat of Congressional defunding). Faced with the empty-nester transition, he and Jane gave up the big East Side apartment and moved into a suite at the Savoy Plaza, with complete hotel services and plenty of entertainment space. In the fall he sang three of his Verdi roles in San Francisco, and on November 27th opened the Metropolitan season as Boccanegra, with his usual collaborators, Rethberg, Martinelli, and Pinza, but a young American, Leonard Warren, as the new Paolo. The 1939–40 Met season was to be his last before the onset of his vocal crisis, and a highly successful one, with all his standard Italian roles in the mix and favorable critical response to everything except his Wolfram, of which it was complained that he was singing it in a distressingly open fashion. First, though, he made a couple of interesting radio appearances, and in mid-season participated in an all-star war relief broadcast.


The conceit of the ambitious Kellogg-sponsored The Circle, supposedly inspired by the Algonquin Round Table, was a weekly gathering of personalities who indulged in banter and commentary, with musical and dramatic sequences mixed in. Regular members (“officers” of the Circle) were movie stars Ronald Colman, Cary Grant, Carole Lombard, and The Marx Brothers, and Tibbett, the only radio veteran in the group, supported by Robert Emmett Dolan’s orchestra. The scripted “spontaneous” palaver evidently did not play well, and despite its glamorous lineup, the show, broadcast over NBC’s Red Network, was short-lived.

Porter: JUBILEE: Begin the Beguine (12 June 1939) (CD 9/12). Whatever credence we wish to attach to any of Porter’s stories of this song’s origins and a dance called the Beguine (Martiniquois dancers in a Left Bank nightclub, South Seas indigenous performers, or ingredients of both), two facts are certain: the song was first heard in the lavish 1935 musical Jubilee (with a book by Moss Hart); and it is one of Porter’s most beguiling, with a subdued, seductive Caribbean throb opening out into a passionate confession. Like several of the composer’s best, it captures the bittersweet ache of a romance lately ended despite “never to part” avowals, and it is again hard to think of another male classical singer who could give the song its full vocal and emotional value without sounding “too operatic.” There’s also another bewitching soft ending, the long-sustained middle C of the last “Be-gui-i-i-ne.”

Private records for presentation to
President and Mrs. Roosevelt, ca. June 1939

Joseph Marx/Paul Heyse/translation by S. Langford: Hat dich die Liebe berührt (If Love Hath Entered Thy Heart) and Speaks/Clinton Scollard: Sylvia (CD 9/13–14). The exact provenance of these sides is uncertain, but since Tibbett tells us in his spoken introduction that they are in commemoration of his visit to the White House in June of 1939, it seems certain that they belong to the late months of that year, and that Wille is the accompanist. The Marx song, from 1908, is typical of his late-Romantic style, well-built but not truly distinctive, while the Speaks—one of that composer’s best-known items—is lifted above the general level of sentimental parlor songs by its quite lovely ascending melody. Tibbett is in sovereign voice for both, one or two of those questionable open upper-midrange tones aside.


In contrast with “The Circle,” this program had a long, though war-interrupted, life that had begun in 1934. For most of its duration, it emanated from the vast Masonic Temple Auditorium in Detroit. It boasted that city’s fine symphony orchestra under some highly credentialed conductors (on all the following, Eugene Ormandy), and drew some equally distinguished guest soloists, among whom Tibbett appeared with fair frequency.

Johannes Brahms/Hermann Almers: Feldeinsamkeit, Op. 86, No. 2 (In Summer Fields) (in English, 23 October 1938) (CD 9/15). Here is one of Tibbett’s more successful adaptations of his basically open, optimistic American sound to a sensuous, inward Lied. It is also one instance in which, if we do not actually prefer an orchestral setting to the original for piano, we can at least concede that this one provides an atmospheric bedding for the song. In Tibbett’s singing there is perhaps a touch of the less-than-ideal comfort with upper mezza-voce phrases on open vowels, but his firm tone and well-traced line are otherwise in evidence, and from the pp entrance at “It seems/to me/as though” (“Mir ist/als ob/ich war”) to the woven close of “joy un-end-ing,” perfection reigns.

Damrosch/Kipling: Danny Deever (23 October 1938) (CD 9/16). After “On the Road to Mandalay,” this is probably the most successful of the many efforts to set a Kipling poem, and for a couple of decades nearly as often heard and as frequently recorded. And here we can say that the orchestral setting (Damrosch’s original, I assume), with its drum rolls and evocative dead-march coloration, is a positive asset. Though we can hardly condone Danny’s shooting of a sleeping comrade-in-arms (upon what provocation, we do not know), we can share the moral anxiety in the questioning of his buddy, “Files on Parade,” and feel the iron-hard sense of regimental disgrace and military discipline of the Colour Sergeant as Danny walks to the scaffold. This is red meat for Tibbett’s voice and dramatic predilections, and the song registers its full impact.

Felix Mendelssohn/Karl Klingemann: DIE HEIMKEHR AUS DER FREMDE: Ich bin ein Vielgereister Mann (I Am a Roamer Bold) (in English, 24 September 1939) (CD 9/17). This wide-ranged patter song from Mendelssohn’s little Singspiel (known in English as Son and Stranger and written in 1829, but not publicly performed or published till 1851) was no doubt intended, like Flotow’s Porter Song, to take advantage of the deep-down sonorities of that now-extinct species, the true low bass, while showcasing the alacrity and reach at the top of the best of those voices. Tibbett does not quite have that sort of plangency in the lower range, but does have the notes (Gs), and again displays an excellent low trill while dispatching the song’s demands on the high end with virtuosic brilliance.


On November 30th, 1939, Soviet troops crossed the border with Finland, initiating the brief but hard-fought “Winter War.” A Finnish Relief Fund was organized in the U.S., under the leadership of Herbert Hoover, and on December 27th it sponsored a concert at Carnegie Hall, with the soloists volunteering their services. We again present Tibbett’s contributions to the proceedings.

Albert Hay Malotte: The Lord’s Prayer; Handel/Thomas Morell: THEODORA: Defend Her, Heav’n; La Forge: Hills; and traditional, arranged by Frank Black: Suomi [Song of Finland]. With Edward Harris, organ; Stewart Wille, piano; Kirsten Flagstad, soprano; Karin Branzell, contralto; Lauritz Melchior, tenor; The NBC Concert Orchestra, Eugene Goossens, conductor (unnumbered Melotone pressings) (CD 10/1–4).

Malotte’s setting of the “Protestant wording” of the Biblical text became so popular so rapidly that it’s hard to realize that it was only four years old when Tibbett sang it as the dedicatory opening number of this concert. While any voice type can sing it to good purpose, it always seems to lie particularly well for baritone (John Charles Thomas premiered it and made the first recording of it). Listen to Tibbett’s typically wonderful continuation from forte (“Thy will be done”) to piano (“on earth as it is in Heaven.”) On the F and G of “glo-ry for-E-ver” we get a hint of the good-top-that-doesn’t-quite-match-the-middle syndrome we’ve noted once or twice earlier. Perhaps he just wasn’t quite warmed up.

In the Theodora aria, a regular Tibbett recital offering, we hear once more his remarkable breath sustainment through long phrases at a restrained dynamic. At several points, he seems at a conclusion, only to renew for another lengthy extension, then finally take a whiff of oxygen before a stronger plea. His habit of “finessing” some of the upper softer notes (passaggio territory) also surfaces at a couple of points. He sings the piece, of course, in transposition, it having been written for a mezzo-soprano character. The La Forge song, like most of his, at every juncture makes exactly the gesture expected of its genre, and so is at once effective if well sung and utterly generic. It’s perfect for Tibbett, and here his beloved top G is in good balance with the rest of his rolling-hills utterance.

How moving it must have been, for those present, to hear “The Song of Finland” from these four great voices, with full orchestral backing. “Suomi” is a simple, heartfelt folk melody, here repeated several times. But in Black’s custom SATB arrangement it does not wear out its welcome. The unique tone of Flagstad, at once broad and pure, asserting the start of each verse and riding the upper line of the quartet, naturally dominates, with the responses from Melchior’s equally matchless tenor the other prominent element. Tibbett’s job here, which he effortlessly fulfills, is to provide solid, steady underpinning on what amounts to the bass line, emerging at two or three moments with his own immediately identifiable sound.


Teresa del Riego/Frances Hoare: A Star Was His Candle (unpublished, 15 December 1939), with Stewart Wille, piano (CD 9/18). As noted earlier, Tibbett sometimes made use of the Victor facilities to cut items, often designated “special,” intended as gifts for friends, and not for general release. This is one such, though its intended recipient is unknown. With music by del Riego, an accomplished pianist and a composer of salon songs (Homing is probably the best known) and words by Hoare, herself a composer, it’s a Christmas song, evoking the journey, the manger, and The Virgin. Tibbett’s singing, alternating his most manly narrative tone offset by his melting lyrical one, is unexceptionable, as is Wille’s crystalline playing. Attend once again to the baritone’s exploitation of the expressive potential of the sounded consonants, as with the “m” and “n” of “A-men.”

Then, on January 4th, 1940, eight days after the Finnish War Relief concert and three days after a New Year’s Day broadcast matinee of Rigoletto, Tibbett and Wille returned to the RCA Victor studios for what would prove to be the last time—though none of those involved, or in Tibbett’s vast listening, record-buying, and ticket-buying audience could possibly have suspected that. They recorded the following six sides:

Handel/William Congreve: SEMELE: Where’er You Walk (CD 10/5). Transposition is again entailed, though this time down only a minor third from the original’s tenor setting, and not the full octave necessitated by so many of Handel’s arias, where a change of sex is involved. And there are a number of splendid tenor voicings on record. But it is hard to imagine anyone, even a tenor, objecting to the way Tibbett feeds the long, winding build of “shall crowd into/a sha-a-a-de” from the piano lower D up to the completed crescendo on A on a single breath; the similar filling-out in the B section from “Where’er you tread” through “the blushing flow’rs shall RISE;” or the exemplary etched clarity of his pronunciation—or a stylistic purist complaining of the absence of ornamentation or the presence of the little downward portamentos on “in-to-oo [a shade].” The vocal mastery and patrician taste carry us well beyond such considerations.

Handel/Morell: THEODORA: Defend Her, Heav’n (CD 10/6). This is one instance in which we might well prefer the studio recording to others of a familiar Tibbett item. The differences are not great—indications of better support in a couple of those softer, higher passages, an even better gathering of the voice for the high (E and F-sharp) forte proclamation of “Defend her”—but taken with the superior presence of the voice, they bring the remarkable performance into even sharper focus. One more detail of vowel formation to remark, in both this and the Semele aria: the perfectly closed but unconstricted “u” of words like “you,” “pure,” and “secure.” It’s akin to that of the best Italian baritones on words like più or laggiù, but unique in its “shut-in” sonority among Americans that come to mind.

The Bailiff’s Daughter (old English ballad) (CD 10/7). This charming traditional song about a “forlorn maid’s” highly improbable love test and marriage scheme is one we would associate with an earlier stage of Tibbett’s career, but apparently was included in this session to become (as the catalogue numbers show) the second side of the “Goin’ Home” release, which, like the young woman in question, had been awaiting a partner. The man-and-maiden dialogue is perfectly suited to Tibbett’s gifts; accordingly, he renders the piece impeccably.

Somervell/Poe: A Kingdom by the Sea (unpublished) (CD 10/8). Here is “Annabel Lee” again, and again in unreleased form. Tibbett sings it even more suavely than he had in 1932; at this last session, all the delicacy of vocal touch and expression are completely at his disposal.

Schubert/Georg Schmidt von Lübeck: Der Wanderer, D.489 (The Wanderer) (in English) (CD 10/9). Tibbett gives this quintessential expression of the German Romantic outsider’s complaint a compelling interpretation, if one that is somewhat unconventional, possibly owing to the odd fit of the English translation at some points, or perhaps due simply to the singer’s choice. For instance: he barrels out the D and E-flat of “always where?” the first time around, seemingly because the open vowels and diphthong of “always where?” do not lend themselves to ppp rendering on the D and E-flat as easily as the closed ones of “immer wo?”; but in the final bars he shades the same words more toward the Kopfstimme side, and tapers off beautifully on the “where?” Similarly, his treatment of triplets and grace notes sometimes departs from strict text—yet both here and in the next song, his command of graces at other points is fluent. Also peculiar is his insistence on ending the B section (at “Oh land, where art thou”—“O Land, wo bist du?”) with the concluding two syllables firmly on repeated B-naturals, rather than on C-B (“where ART thou?”). Though the C has the effect of an appoggiatura, it is a full-value eighth note, and the expressive sense of Tibbett’s revision eludes me. Finally, Wille’s playing of the intro (an almost rushed pace, as if the singer had “entered” on the run, then come to a sudden stop; this is marked sehr langsam, with a quarter note at 63) is another unusual departure. Probably these are among the things that some in the German and Austrian audiences did not care for (as they did not care for this repertoire in English) on Tibbett’s concert tours. But they work well enough for him.

Schubert: Die Allmacht, D.852 (The Omnipotence) (in English) (CD 10/10). Victor finally got around to preserving Tibbett’s singing of this song, and it is wonderful to have it in studio sound, with Wille’s accompaniment in decent balance. The recording is still a mighty traversal of the great, rangey sermon, though not quite as fluent as the 1934 Packard version or, at places, the Worcester Festival performance—the lyrically descriptive passages are again slightly “finessed,” as if the light contact required some work-around. But Tibbett sings fearlessly through all else, and as he rises to a splendid G and then bites almost savagely into the F-sharp of the last “GREAT is Jehovah the Lord” (the same combination of pitch and diphthong that made such an effect in the very different context of the Schwartz/Dietz “Amigo”), we take appropriate leave of the commercially sanctioned recording career of Lawrence Tibbett.


Earl Robinson/John Latouche: Ballad for Americans (17 March 1940) (CD 10/11). It may not be easy for the contemporary ear and sensibility to quite grasp the reasons for the wild popularity of this work, one of several songs or “ballad-cantatas” by Robinson on patriotic themes (e.g., “Joe Hill,” “The House I Live In”, or “The Lonesome Train” about Lincoln’s funeral rail journey), or even at first understand that both the political sentiments and the musical aesthetic are coming from the populist left of the 1930s, not the right. But “Ballad” originated (in somewhat different form) in a Federal Theatre Project revue called Sing for Your Supper (a particular target for Congressional critics on the right, who soon succeeded in defunding the entire WPA), and from the moment of its first radio performance in September of 1939 (produced by Norman Corwin, with Paul Robeson as soloist), it aroused a fervent response. Robeson sang it at venues that included Carnegie Hall, Yankee Stadium, and Lewisohn Stadium, and RCA Victor leapt to record it with Robeson and the American People’s Chorus. It had hundreds of performances by high school and college glee clubs and by professional and community choral groups, and with its message of unity amid the harsh political divisions of the Depression times, was sung at the 1940 presidential conventions of both the Communist and Republican parties. The fact that Tibbett and the Ford forces took it up a few months after its premiere is a mark of its instant impact, and it went on to recordings by Bing Crosby, Odetta, and others.

The text for “Ballad for Americans” by John Latouche (later librettist of Douglas Moore’s “The Ballad of Baby Doe”, among other accomplishments), with its plea for an inclusiveness based on foundational American understandings currently under interrogation, sounds sincere but naïve to us now. The same can be said for Robinson’s music, with its thin orchestration and soupy choral writing—it’s closer to spoken choral recitations of Sandburg’s “The People, Yes” than to, say, Copland’s “A Lincoln Portrait.” Yet the recurrent opening theme, announced by the horn and then by the soloist, has a sturdy usefulness; the little narrative device of “Nobody who was anybody believed it,” etc., sticks in the ear after a hearing or two; and the finale is uplifting to anyone open to its sentiment and simplicity. Robeson’s deep bass was the ideal instrument for the piece, but Tibbett brings his customary rhetorical talents to bear. The setting is not challenging enough to give us much insight into his vocal condition (see the discussion below), though the concluding E-naturals of “America!” do sound a bit threadbare.


Following a New Year’s Day Rigoletto and the January 4th recording session, Tibbett was away from the Met for six weeks, presumably devoted to run-out or tour recital dates. Upon his return, he sang two Iagos (one in Philadelphia) and single performances of Scarpia and Germont before the season ended on March 23rd. The “Ballad for Americans” broadcast, in fact, seems to have been his last public singing till the end of the year, for he then canceled all five of his scheduled spring tour dates with the company, and over the summer of 1940, for the first time in many years, did no concertizing. He and Jane repaired to the Honey Hill farm, and to whatever routines of domesticity and socializing they had in place. Late in the summer, his function as President of AGMA drew him into a draining jurisdictional battle with the American Federation of Musicians and its President, James C. Petrillo, who in an era of pugnacious labor leaders was one of the most pugnacious. The resulting lawsuits dragged on well into 1941 and resulted in instrumentalists coming under the purview of the AFM—not the outcome for which Tibbett and his team had striven.

Tibbett’s spring performances at the Met seem to have set off no alarm bells (Weinstein and Wechsler assert that he was “at the top of his form . . . singing superbly,” though it’s not clear what this is based on, and see my comments on the Otello broadcast, below). Nevertheless, something of vocal consequence had occurred, for after his tour cancelations and summer of no public engagements, he also canceled all his engagements for the fall season, including a San Francisco production of Fanciulla del West in which he was to have sung Rance opposite Marjorie Lawrence. By September, Tibbett was under the care of Dr. Wilhelm Meyer-Hermann (or Mayer-Hermann), a throat specialist eminent enough to have sat for one of Otto Dix’s famous and not altogether flattering portraits of socially prominent Berliners of the 1920s. The doctor announced that Tibbett was suffering from a “spasticity of the laryngeal muscle” that would require a series of treatments, and would be able to resume performing by the turn of the year. Tibbett himself stated that the problem had been bothering him “for many months.”

The relative vagueness of the announced diagnosis, the scattered and conflicted press reports about it, the rarity of the complaint and the severity of its effects (especially among star singers, of whom Tibbett remains, to the best of my knowledge, the unique examplar) all contributed to the Great Secrets of Medicine atmosphere that still clings to this episode, and the aftershocks of the unexpected decline of so celebrated and apparently impregnable a singer continue to sound far-off rumblings for all who remain interested. With benefit of the hindsight afforded by eighty-some years of medical and vocological advancement, it appears most likely that Tibbett had encountered the onset of spastic dysphonia (“dysphonia”: any disruption of normal phonation; “spastic”: sudden and unpredictable). Unlike the vocal maladies most commonly met up with among singers and actors (nodes or pre-nodal inflammation of the vocal folds, polyps, burst blood vessels, bowing of the folds, etc.), spastic dysphonia is not a result of a growth or of tissue damage, but a disturbance of the nerve pathways responsible for phonative innervation. A laryngologist might examine a complainant’s throat and pronounce it in perfect health; yet the disruptions would persist. There are two types of spastic dysphonia, adductive and abductive. As the names would suggest, in the former a spasm jams the glottis shut, rendering phonation momentarily impossible, putting a constrictive squeeze on the voice’s acoustical potential, and increasing subglottal compression; while in the latter a spasm jerks the glottis open, again disabling phonation, “de-tuning” the acoustical spaces, and allowing air to escape unrestrainedly. It is possible for both types to occur in the same individual. The difficulty is said to lie beyond the technical ameliorations accessible to vocal pedagogy through work on registration, resonance, support, etc., and once the spasmodic disturbances have been activated, therapeutic interventions are usually of minimal help. We don’t know what treatment Dr. Meyer-Hermann was attempting in the fall of 1940, but even with today’s understandings and techniques (they’re resorting to Botox in some cases), the record of marked improvement, let alone “cure,” is marginal. Tibbett must have had the mildest of cases of this syndrome to be able to continue singing at all. But, as with injuries or nerve re-routings in professional athletes or dancers, it takes only the lightest of touches to throw the complex of neuromuscular co-ordinations sufficiently off-balance to seriously impair the desired outcome. And the impossibility of anticipating a recurrence, or of identifying what might trigger it, is, literally, nerve-wracking for a performer. The intralaryngeal actions themselves, along with the respiratory responses to them, being central to our fight-or-flight reflexes, the presence of constant fear cannot but make episodes more likely.

What was the cause of Lawrence Tibbett’s spastic dysphonia? Weinstein and Wechsler (who were not privy to the precise diagnosis) run through them, along with their own speculations and those of others with some claim to inside information. I will give those some attention in a moment. First, though, let us listen to Tibbett’s first public singing appearance following his period of vocal rest and treatment. That occurred a couple of days before Dr. Meyer-Hermann’s target date, on December 29th, 1940, on another Ford Sunday Evening Hour broadcast.

Verdi: UN BALLO IN MASCHERA: Eri tu che macchiavi quell’anima; and Gounod/Alfred, Lord Tennyson: Ring Out, Wild Bells, both with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Sir John Barbirolli, conductor (CD 10/12–13). I long doubted this date attribution. The voice sounds suspiciously healthy, and the singing suspiciously confident, for a man who’s just come off treatment for so grave a condition. Further, there is said to have been an earlier broadcast that included these same items, though it has not surfaced. The “Eri tu” had always been one of Tibbett’s favorite aria choices, and he must have sung Gounod’s setting of Tennyson’s New Year’s poem more than once at this seasonal juncture. So I’ve often wondered about this dating, as I did about some of those “heavy baritone” Packard voicings of five years’ earlier provenance. The date, however, is now solidly confirmed, so we know we are listening to Tibbett in the immediate aftermath of the hiatus for treatment.

And the Ballo aria does reveal differences in vocal response, not only from the Victor and Chesterfield traversals, but even from the Tibbett last heard from in the early months of the same year. At the opening, the voice sounds reluctant to get going (the tempo is slow, too, whether from singer’s or conductor’s preference), and the open vowels (“E” and “A”) are so darkened that “che” emerges almost as “kuh.” The palatal consonants of “che compensi in tal guisa” lack crispness, as if the tongue couldn’t be mobilized quickly enough. Throughout, the vowel colorings now incline in the darker, more “covered” direction, and while this is preferable to a blaring openness, it robs certain notes and phrases of some of their life, and lends a slightly weighty feel to the whole. Nonetheless: this is an extremely impressive account of this aria, the voice solid and rich, the phrasing firmly guided along the legato line, and the high notes, capped by a fine G, if anything more complete and dominant than ever. “Ring Out, Wild Bells” is, in a word, terrific, as good as anything along these lines that Tibbett ever sang.

Taken all in all, I think we’d say of this outing that while professional ears, or those of a connoisseur familiar with Tibbett’s singing, would have noticed these differences and considered them signs of a gradual darkening and weightening process not unexpected of a baritone instrument of this age and past use, they would not have been unduly alarmed about the voice’s near future; and further, that at evening’s end Tibbett would have been justified in feeling he was on the right track and past the worst of his worries.

But now, listen to these selections:


This weekly program, begun on NBC radio in 1940 and succeeded by a televised version in 1959 (with “Bell” added to its title to ensure proper sponsor ID), at one time or another presented virtually every classical vocal and instrumental soloist of any American reputation. Along with The Voice of Firestone, it was a familiar part of music lovers’ experience throughout the 1940s and 1950s. Donald Voorhees was the conductor of its studio orchestra for its entire duration.

Sergei Rachmaninoff: To the Children, Op. 26, No. 7, and Verdi: UN BALLO IN MASCHERA: Eri tu che macchiavi quell’anima (CD 10/14–15). These are taken from two Telephone Hour broadcasts of 1942, the first from that of September 21st, and the second from that of November 23rd. The Rachmaninoff is included because we have no other Tibbett performance of this song. Except for one attack on the upper F, which the singer handles securely enough, this is a midrange piece of tender affect. In it, we hear that Tibbett is still quite able to treat it with a light touch and evoke the appropriate feeling, though if we are familiar with his earlier performances of similar material, we are also aware that some of the magical delicacy and timbral light amidst the shade are missing. As for the “Eri tu,” Tibbett negotiates it without cracking or quavering—but only just. It is sung at a single dynamic, forte, in a uniformly grey timbre and with no room left for elastic play or elegance in the phrasing. The limberness is gone, and the core of the voice is barely hinted at in one or two moments. If the recording were presented to us as the work of an unknown sixty-five-year-old baritone, we’d say, “Well, it must have been a fine voice, and he’s hanging in there.” But he wasn’t sixty-five. He’d just turned forty-six, and we’ve heard nothing this close to dysfunctional from him before.

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As to what may have precipitated the laryngeal spasms, and as to what else may have contributed to the struggles that this great artist had from this time on, Tibbett checks every box I can think of: vocal abuse or heedlessness; substance abuses (alcohol, tobacco); personal stress and psychological factors; and plain old bad luck. No one of them, I think, can be fingered as the culprit. They are collectively responsible. To briefly sort through:

Vocal abuse or heedlessness: From that first RCA Victor test of Ford’s Monologue, we have been tracking Tibbett’s adventures with the passaggio, combined with his headlong attack on such parts as “Emperor” Brutus Jones or Wrestling Bradford, and the way that the same aggressive energy applied to music of more normal tessitura could lead the voice into perilous territory, as with that Chesterfield Hour Toreador Song. We’ve also noted the extraordinary changes of vocal personality he slipped into so easily, as if he sensed a mandate to illuminate in turn all the ethnic/cultural elements of the American melting pot, and we have registered his capacity for taking on different weights and timbral settings, like the “dramatic baritone” format he adopted for “Scorri, fiume,” “Nemico della patria,” etc.—so different from the voice’s sound and behavior on other material at the same time. These seem to have been instinctive adaptations, aspects of his singingacting genius. And truly, I cannot think of another singer of quite that chameleonic span. Even if we listen attentively to other baritones of highly demonstrative temperament and the functional capacity to deploy it—let us say to the ultimate Italian virtuoso of baritonal weights and measures, of color and movement, Mattia Battistini; or to the ultimate master of applied dynamics and shadings in the world of German song, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau; or to a singer like Renato Capecchi, who made of an orderly but rather modest “leading baritone” voice an instrument of unusual nuance and specificity in character roles—we will not find someone so challenging the constraints of vocal structure (and in sometimes contradictory directions) as did Tibbett. Chaliapin himself, who of all such singers most persuades us that his supreme rhetorical gifts are but the means of direct,
visceral emotional expression, nevertheless maintained a consistency and stability of technical approach throughout his long career.

I am not fond of the “open versus covered” way of describing Tibbett’s passaggio inconsistencies, because it puts all the problem’s burden on the question of vowel formation—aka the acoustics of voice, aka “resonance,”—without embracing the interrelationship of that factor with the dynamics of registration right at the glottal level, or with the governance of air and the actions of the respiratory tract, i.e., “support.” But the vowel distinctions are the most easily spotted of vocal symptoms, and the most easily manipulated by the singer and his or her advisors, so they are also the handiest to use for purposes of illustration. And so, while we have in the course of this survey encountered only a few instances of disturbingly raw “open” tone on one hand, of excessively “covered” tone on the other, or of a “backing off” on softer notes to avoid the issue, it is nonetheless unusual (I am tempted to again say “unique”) to find a world-class singer in his prime with this question of balance on the passaggio pitches (around which the structure of the entire voice revolves) left unsettled. While Tibbett’s early teachers may not have picked up on the matter (indeed, it is possible that Ruysdael inadvertently contributed to it with his insistence on the “natural” sounds of American English), it seems impossible that Serafin, Panizza, and other conductors and coaches of stature did not proffer advice about it, and it’s obvious that Tibbett concluded early on that singing big arias the way he sang the 1926 test of “È sogno” wasn’t a good idea. Yet the indecision had persisted to this point.

With all this conceded, however, it makes little sense to conclude that this intermittent fault was the primary cause of a sudden crisis in an otherwise healthy voice. There is somewhat more reason to suspect an overloading of the instrument. By the late 1930s, Tibbett’s operatic repertoire consisted almost exclusively of major Verdi roles and Scarpia, with a few Wolframs thrown in, and his recital programs had not gotten less generous. Still, in the Chesterfield Hour broadcasts as late as 1938 (with the single exception noted); in the Finnish Relief program; and even in the Victor sessions of 1939 and 1940, there is nothing to make us apprehensive of imminent doom.

On the heedlessness front, Weinstat and Wechsler turn up several reports of Tibbett singing through recitals and operatic performances while suffering from a heavy cold, laryngitis, or strep throat. Except for one they are inexact and conflicting as to place and date, and that one, though it comes from a singer of standing who sang with Tibbett often (the baritone George Cehanovsky), is in my judgment open to question. (I’m sorry, but no one sings through performances of the role of Rigoletto “as no one ever had” with strep throat.) None of the reports corresponds closely in time to what we are able to hear. That sort of bravado, though, was very much in Tibbett’s line, and spastic dysphonia is said to sometimes emerge in the aftermath of a severe infection, so I think we must consider it plausible that some such incident, or series of incidents, triggered the 1940 onset.

Substance abuse: Tibbett was an immoderate drinker from early on, and it seems clear that around this time he was sliding toward true alcoholism. Where the tipping point came is impossible to say; he was obviously a high-functioning alcoholic, able to answer the call when others might not. So we can surmise that the cumulative effects of his drinking played some role. Among them would be the characteristic euphoric/depressive swings; the repeated dehydration of the vocal tract; and above all, a loss of motor control that interferes with vocal co-ordinations as it does with others, and concerning which those subject to it are often in a state of denial. (Those lazy consonants—the singing equivalent of slurred speech—might be a clue.) And I wonder how soon Tibbett sensed that something was wrong. How many months was “many?” The singer knows, at some level, before anyone else. An inner panic is the normal response, and for a person of Tibbett’s inclinations, drink a normal palliative. Excessive alcohol use is cited as another possible cause of spastic dysphonia. And Tibbett was an enthusiastic smoker as well, at a time when smoking was almost a social requirement, and endorsements of this or that brand of cigarette from medical authorities and famous singers proliferated—not an accident that two of Tibbett’s extended radio series were sponsored by Chesterfield and Lucky Strike. The constant irritation and, again, dehydration of the vocal tissues and respiratory system was, at minimum, unhelpful, though impossible to declare causative.

Personal stress and psychological factors: During the period of peak psychoanalytic influence in our culture (the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s), it was common to find in serious books on vocal function (like those of Kaplan, Greene, and Boone—see bibliography) some emphasis on a psychosomatic element in spastic dysphonia. It ranged all the way from speculations on emotional response to psychologically important events to an outright definition of the condition as psychogenic, or attributed to psychoneurotic origins. I wonder if, in our turn away from such explanations, we may not have thrown out a few babies with some admittedly murky bathwater. In any event, in Lawrence Tibbett’s life we’ve seen, in addition to the expected stresses and tensions of his métier, and exacerbated by his predilection to override obstacles with sheer exuberance, a gathering perfect storm of personal and professional pressures and conflicts. The more public elements of it (e.g., the Sterzini tragedy, the union battles) must have left marks, and the more private ones (his mother’s death; his stepson’s polio; evidently increasing tensions in his second marriage; his avoidance strategies for dealing with these) must also have tightened the inner winch.

•     •     •     •     •

With respect to what happened to Tibbett’s voice after his return to action, there is something that does not quite fit, and though my purview here extends only through the end of his commercial recording career, I think that for the sake of historical accuracy it’s worth addressing. That is best done with some reference to Met broadcasts, particularly of operas that give us before/after comparisons in the same role, viz., La Traviata and Otello. The first of these would be the Traviata of December 23rd, 1939, at the beginning of a two-week span that included a Rigoletto performance (December 25th), the Finnish Relief concert (December 27th), another Rigoletto (January 1st), and the January 4th Victor session. In the Traviata, while one familiar with the 1935 broadcast with Ponselle might be aware of a slight darkening of tone and a suggestion of “off the voice” finessing of a few mezza-voce bars, Tibbett’s Germont goes its accustomed way, by turns at imposing full voice and the tenderest of softer legatos, right up to the cadenza of “Di Provenza,” which is suddenly labored in a way he has not shown previously—perhaps the “many months” were underway. He recovers quickly, and even interpolates a high A-flat at “Ah, ferma!”—but it’s been an ominous moment. Following this, we have the Finnish Relief and last Victor recordings, already reported on.

From his spring of 1940 Met performances, we have the Otello of February 24th, which gives us a rather rough first act, with the ends of some lines in the colloquy with Roderigo not quite finished off, and several raw attacks on F in the “Brindisi.” The remainder of the performance, though, shows Tibbett in command of his full range of effects, as described in my commentary on the Victor sides. As a whole, this Iago is less wonderful than his previous broadcast ones, but only to a degree that could easily be ascribed as a slightly “off” day. After the summer and fall of cancelations and treatment and the return to action on the December 29th, 1940 Ford Hour broadcast, we next pick Tibbett up with the Otello of January 18th, 1941. In it, I hear nothing suggestive of dysphonia. I do hear a change in technique, quite in line with the approach to “Eri tu” on the Ford show. He has resolved the aperto/coperto issue in favor of coperto—never again will we hear a wide-open E-flat, E-natural, or F from his throat. This has also had the effect of lowering the center of the passaggio by a half or whole step, depending on the vowel and dynamic, and further darkening the voice’s overall timbre. One would prefer that he had found a way to split the difference; yet the voice sounds entirely functional here, in its new way, and in some respects this performance is preferable to the 1940 one. Those attacks on “Beva” are now well centered, and even in the “Dream,” all the fabulous p and pp phrases are intact, though more pharyngeal in their coloration. The Pagliacci of February 1st creates a similar impression—certainly not as tonally brilliant or carefree as his Tonio of 1934 (the Tibbett of the mid-Thirties is a tough comparison for any baritone, including the Tibbett of 1941), but in any ranking among recorded Tonios still well in the upper echelon, and with no sign of impending vocal collapse. In addition to Iago and Tonio, Tibbett sang several Rigolettos as this season progressed, and this time did participate in the postseason tour, with the same three roles. He seems to have encountered no disasters, though some reviews at this time begin to describe his singing as “cautious” or lacking in projection—something that would not be out of line with the dulling effect of a consistently “covered” approach.

Tibbett may have decided on his own that he needed a purportedly safer and more consistent technique, or may have taken the advice being proffered by conductors or other singers, or even by Dr. Meyer-Hermann. Weinstat and Wechsler mention a new coach, Vito Mirsky, whom they blame for urging Tibbett to sing through a heavy schedule rather than further resting his voice. Unfortunately, they cite no source for their information about Mirsky, and I have been unable to turn up anything about him. Nor does the singing schedule Tibbett was pursuing in early 1941 appear to have been particularly crowded. What does make some sense is the speculation that Mirsky may have been influential in the “covering” solution; that both he and Tibbett concluded, with some justice, that it was working, and should be pursued. And here is what doesn’t fit: what went on over the summer of 1941? Apparently, Tibbett again did not concertize, and the accounts we have pick up with the fall of 1941, when he sang first in San Francisco, then in Chicago, as Rigoletto and Iago, and as Figaro in his only staged Barbiere. The San Francisco performances brought the first critical reactions signalling “vocal tragedy,” but we have no recorded evidence of it. What we have is Tibbett’s next Met broadcast, a Traviata of November 29th, 1941, which began with genuine tragedy (the death that morning of the scheduled conductor, Gennaro Papi), and which marked the company debut of Jan Peerce, with Jarmila Novotná as Violetta. In this performance Tibbett’s tone remains impressive, the top of the voice as dominant as ever. But there’s a ponderous feel to the musical progression— a sense that the effort is costing the singer more, so that we are pleasantly surprised when softer phrases work as well as they still do. This performance also confirms the downward migration of the passaggio, which can further burden the singing by leaning too much on a “head voice” balance brought too low in the range. Closer listening discloses something new, though surely related to the “slowness” at the beginning of the Ford “Eri tu”: an abiding lack of quickness in moving from one pitch to the next, one vowel form to the next, so that tiny gaps appear among these transitions, and we become aware that there is not a true continuity in the vibration. An established note is reluctant to let go, the next one a little slow to replace it. Triggers are being pulled, but there’s a delay before firing. Tibbett knows what he wants, and has run this track many times, so he still creates a simulation of legato. But it is a stitching-together of separate events, each happening a fraction of a second late. We wait with growing impatience for the line to move, even though the tempo itself does not seem unduly slow.

This problem will interfere intermittently with Tibbett’s singing for the rest of his career, sometimes accompanied by the absence of sonority evident in the Telephone Hour “Eri tu.” Is this a manifestation of spastic dysphonia? I don’t think we can be certain—it’s like trying to arrive at the fair price of a unique collectible: there are no known comparisons to serve as guidelines. But in any case, why do we not hear this symptom in the spring of 1940, or in the preceding “many months,” only to have it, and accompanying problems, emerge in force after the inactive summer of 1941, a year after his period of rest and treatment? And why does it seem to have eased off, at least at times, in the mid-1940s? In the Pelléas et Mélisande of January 1945, the instrument sounds healthy, like that of the Tibbett of old. He tussles momentarily with the top in the “Une grande innocence!” confrontation, and we hear a Golaud sung almost entirely at forte-to-fortissimo dynamics, which surely would not have been the case ten years earlier. But in terms of fresh sonority and strength, the voice sounds quite restored, and when it is required to flash out with quick articulations, there is no trace of the delay. A Tosca as late as February 1946 begins dolefully, the voice needing to regroup for each new utterance, the tone thick and dry. Then, at the beginning of the “Te Deum,” in what seems an almost atavistic recall of muscle memory, something very close to the Tibbett of the 1930s steps forth, and this level is maintained through long stretches of Act 2. It is frustrating and puzzling, but true, that in most of Tibbett’s broadcasts of the 1940s, saddening as they are in comparison with those of the 1930s, there are moments, and sometimes extended passages, in which the voice seems to right itself—something that is not easy to reconcile with the presence of the diagnosed condition. We can get an idea of the voice’s struggles of the 1940s, as well as the sometimes-surprising moments of lingering mastery, from the final entry in our compilation, taken from the Telephone Hour broadcast of March 8th, 1943:

Verdi/Francesco Maria Piave: LA FORZA DEL DESTINO: Urna fatale del mio destino (CD 10/16). The Met restored this opera to the repertory in January of 1943, and though Sved might now have seemed a logical candidate for the role of Carlo, and Warren was rising fast in terms of major assignments, Johnson cast Tibbett, who sang it a half-dozen times (including two broadcasts) over this season and the one following. It was to be his last new Verdi part, and it is a demanding one, with its requirements of length and weight combined with the occasional need (in the two arias) for a lightness and ductility of touch we would associate with an earlier Carlo, that of Ernani. In general, we would have to characterize Tibbett’s singing here as labored and clumsy, with many an aspirate “h” hacking at the line and numerous breaks for breath, some of which he can use for rhetorical effect but others certainly not (for instance, after nicely tying together the compound at “disperso vada_il”, where he could have chosen to separate the words for a quick intake, he finds himself on the top E, having to grab some breath at “mal/pensiero,” where both music and words urge the line onward. The timbre is prevailingly sombre and a little dulled, again suggesting the reason for the impression of a “weakened” instrument, one that sounds big close up, but doesn’t carry well. On the other hand: the voice still has steadiness and inflectional authority; is still able to surmount the high-hanging phrases with their crowning F-sharps; and can still execute a mezza-voce D-sharp (“all’atto inde-e-e-gna”) that most baritones of dramatic weight would envy. There is an overall lack of quickness in forming tone and word, but not the hundred little misfires of the 1941 Traviata. This is a voice that is overweighted and inefficient, but not “gone.”

•     •     •     •     •

My own best guess about The Tibbett Case, speaking as a medical amateur but a vocal professional of some experience, is as follows: a feeling of peril, of precarity while singing, had nagged Tibbett off and on for some time. He was probably sensing it by the last months of 1939, but with his extraordinary adaptability made instinctive compensations that nearly always kept it from intruding on performance in any alarming way. But by the end of the 1939–40 season, it was bothering him enough for him to cancel the tour and summer dates, and by September to forego his fall season and seek medical help. Laryngeal spasms were detected. Dr. Meyer-Hermann’s description and prescribed treatment does not indicate surgery, and Weinstat and Wechsler flatly state that none was involved. Rumors did fly, though, and on page 497 of Irving Kolodin’s The Story of the Metropolitan Opera (the standard critical history of the company for many years), we find this assertion: “Less happy was the news on September 17, 1940 that Lawrence Tibbett would be inactive for some time to recuperate from ‘a rare throat ailment’ that had interfered with his work for many months and that had recently resulted in an operation [my italics].” No more than any of us was Kolodin immune to error, but this is an oddly specific claim for a journalist of long standing to make without basis, or leave uncorrected by the time the second edition of his book was published (1953). Kolodin was also of sufficient prominence to have had informational privileges not available to others. So I find it impossible to dismiss the possibility of something requiring minor surgical attention—let us say a tiny polyp tucked in under one of the vocal folds, which under certain stimuli sticks itself momentarily in the way of the phonation. (This happens, though rarely, and polyps often arise after a serious cold or infection.) Surgery for such a condition, however expert, might itself have been sufficiently disruptive to the nerve pathways to set spastic responses in motion, perhaps only temporarily. (There is another type of dysphonia, called “hyperkinetic” and referred to as “hysterical” back in the day, that is said to be similar to, but less often longstanding, than the spastic variety.) And it would have been to everyone’s advantage to keep knowledge of any surgery very closely held.

In any case, Dr. Meyer-Hermann’s treatments apparently calmed the problem down. Tibbett, armed with his new and “safe-feeling” technical adjustment, resumed singing, and held things together through the spring of 1941. But this technical “fix” proved temporary. It had ameliorated the audible symptoms without confronting the underlying functional cause, and worry about resumption of the dysphonia remained, so when he resumed his operatic schedule in the fall, the structure of the voice began to give way, and on the basis of what we can hear (as opposed to bits of the written record from observers of uncertain qualifications), it does seem that the definitive breakdown occurred in the fall of 1941, and not in the immediate aftermath of the original complaint.

•     •     •     •     •

Eight days after the November 29th Traviata matinee, the U.S. was at war. And only a couple of weeks after that, Tibbett underwent an emergency appendectomy, resulting in cancelation of the remainder of that season. Throughout the war, Tibbett plunged into patriotic activities, singing at USO events and at bond rallies, and making appearances for other charitable causes, while maintaining a reduced schedule of opera performances. (His old tenor colleague from the glory days, Edward Johnson, remained loyal, though Sved, Thomas, Brownlee, Valentino, and above all Warren and—as the war was ending—Robert Merrill, were acceding to most of the dates that would once have been Tibbett’s.) The six-month Lucky Strike Hit Parade stint in 1945 (succeeding Frank Sinatra) at least boosted morale for a time, and in the same year the Tibbetts purchased a tract of land in Naples, Florida, where construction of a new house and landscaping of the property occupied them happily for a time. Tibbett remained involved with union affairs (though over the years the drinking problem made him increasingly a figurehead), and he retained a full measure of respect and affection from colleagues and others in his circle. After the January 21st, 1949 matinee of Peter Grimes, in which he had sung Balstrode, the cast, friends, and other company members threw an on-set surprise party to mark the silver anniversary of his Met debut.

The only time I saw Lawrence Tibbett perform was in the role for which Olin Downes paid his respects early in 1950, Ivan Khovansky. This was, as it turned out, his last performance with the Metropolitan Opera. I, being only fifteen at the time and completely unfamiliar with the opera, remember only some large but woolly tone, a presence that held the stage in his farewell to the Streltsy, and a (by this time) moonfaced smile at the curtain call. During that season, he had sung the four presentations of Khovanshchina and a single Scarpia, the latter as an emergency replacement for Paul Schöffler at a benefit performance honoring Johnson, whose retirement was impending. He hadn’t recorded commercially in ten years, and Columbia Artists had dropped him from its roster in 1947, because of the drinking. For a true, self-transformative artist like Tibbett, life is at its most intense and meaningful in the act of singing, and inhabiting the personalities and characters that await release through song and action. Whatever “real life” presents, it is transcended so long as the artistic realm is inhabited. So it is beyond depressing to read of Tibbett’s post-Met years, of his efforts to keep performing with straight acting, an early television opera venture, and Broadway musicals; of the cancelation of the contract for a European/Russian tour of Porgy and Bess; of the self-deceptive, hard-to-hear 1955 LP with dubbed orchestra; of the falls and accidents; benders and dryouts; his final breakup with Jane and ensuing loneliness, and many other travails. It’s all in the biographical record for those who wish to learn of it.

The last scrap of Tibbett’s recorded voice that I know of is an intermission conversation with Boris Goldovsky. The date is April 2nd, 1960, and the subject is a character Tibbett knew well—Simon Boccanegra. This is a scripted exchange of about twenty minutes, typical of the intermission features of the time. It makes some nice observations and reminds us of Goldovsky’s skilled piano illustrations. Tibbett’s speech, including recitations of a few translated passages from his old role, is as sonorous and expressive as ever, clear of any suggestion of phonative difficulty. The baritone of the afternoon’s performance is Frank Guarrera, who stepped into the title role after the onstage death of Warren, for whom the new production of the opera had been staged. Tibbett had outlived his most significant successor, but by only three and a half months. He died on July 15th, 1960, at the age of sixty-three, after two weeks in a coma following a fall in his home that had fractured his skull.


(N.B.: Obviously, many sources are consulted in the course of putting together as extended a critical and biographical consideration as the present one. I have listed here only those that have provided information or food for thought that has contributed materially to my efforts.)

Davis, Peter G.: The American Opera Singer, Doubleday, NY, 1997. In a sense, Davis’ book is an extension of Oscar Thompson’s (see below). That book, published when Tibbett was in his prime, is still worth consulting, but Davis’ is much the more incisive and detailed from an evaluative standpoint, and of course more up-to-date. Both books pay extensive attention to Tibbett.

Eaton, Quaintance: Opera Caravan. Farrar, Straus, & Cudahy, NY, 1957. Contains the annals of the Metropolitan Opera tours through 1956.

Farkas, Andrew, ed.: Lawrence Tibbett, Singing Actor. Amadeus Press, Portland, 1989. This volume includes the discography by W. R. Moran as well as an introduction by him; a survey of Tibbett recordings by Thomas R. Bullard; Tibbett’s autobiographical article The Glory Road; and nine other articles by, or interviews with, Tibbett, plus a wealth of well-reproduced and generously sized photographs. It is one of the two main available biographical resources on Tibbett, along with the Weinstat and Wechsler volume listed below.

Kolodin, Irving: The Story of the Metropolitan Opera, 1883–1950, 2nd Edition. Alfred A. Knopf, NY, 1953.

Seltsam, William H.: Metropolitan Opera Annals, H.W. Wilson Co., NY, 1947/1949, and First Supplement, 1957.

Thompson, Oscar: The American Singer, A Hundred Years of Success in Opera. Dial Press, NY, 1937. For the sixty years preceding publication of Davis’ book (see above), Thompson’s stood as the most thorough and informed overview of the subject. Singing enthusiasts of an antiquarian bent will also find the series by Henry C. Lahee, published in the 1890s and early 1900s, of interest.

Villamil, Victoria Etnier: From Johnson’s Kids to Lemonade Opera. Northeastern Univ. Press, Boston, 2004. A deeply resourced and entertainingly written account of the rise of American opera singers that is exactly contemporaneous with Tibbett’s career. Profusely illustrated, with an appendix comprising thumbnail biographies of many singers, famous and not.

Weinstat, Hertzel, and Wechsler, Bert: Dear Rogue. Amadeus Press, Portland, 1996. The only full biography of the singer, with many photographic illustrations that do not duplicate those of the Farkas volume. Despite a few exceptions noted in the above text, a generally well-sourced book that tells the story clearly and bespeaks devotion to its subject.

On spastic dysphonia and related issues:

Boone, Daniel R.: Voice and Voice Therapy. Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1977. (An especially useful bibliography of articles on spastic dysphonia.)

Green, Margaret C.L.: The Voice and Its Disorders. Pitman Medical Publishing Co., 2nd Ed., London, 1964.

Kaplan, Harold M.: Anatomy and Physiology of Speech. McGraw-Hill, NY, 1971.

Van Riper, Charles, and Irwin, John W.: Voice and Articulation. Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NY, 1958.

And online: the internet in general, Wikipedia, IMBD, the NY Times archive, the Metropolitan Opera archive, and the websites of The National Spasmodic Dysphonia Association, The American Systonia Society, and The Voice Foundation. Special thanks to Will Crutchfield, and to Peter Clark of the Metropolitan Opera, for their discographic and informational assistance.