Tenor  James  McCracken
 
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie



mccracken



A tenor with his own distinctive sound, James McCracken had a full, rich career with significant ups and downs.  He put his personal stamp on several heroic roles as he rose from comprimario parts to the largest and most demanding ones in the Italian and French repertoire.

He made several recordings of complete operas and solo recitals, though this was another case of highs and lows
artistic highs and contractual lows.  No matter, they now remain as landmarks to be enjoyed and studied.

It was my privilege to arrange to speak with McCracken
and his wife, the mezzo-sorpano Sandra Warfieldon one of my rare trips to New York City.  We met in a quiet and stylish room in his club, and spoke about many things.  He was jovial throughout, and was enthusiastic about many of the topics that arose.  As with other conversations from the late-1980s, we get into the "new" gimmick of supertitles, as well as the usual ideas about his current and previous roles, and advice from his vantage point.  I do not know if this was his final interview, but sadly, just five weeks later, he was dead.  This was even more poignant since he mentioned plans for a future production of an unusual role at the Met.

I spoke with each of the singers separately.  Here is the first conversation, with the tenor . . . . .


Bruce Duffie:    You have sung a number of roles in your long and distinguished career.  How do you decide which roles you will sing, which roles you will set aside, and which roles you will completely decline?

James McCracken:    In the beginning the roles picked me.  That made it easier.  At a certain point, a lot of Wagner was being offered to me.  I had to say no if I wanted to keep my high notes, and keep singing what I was singing.  I have a theory that there's just not enough high notes in Wagner for a real tenor to stay a real tenor.  So that's one of the reasons I haven't done much Wagner.  I did Tannhäuser, but that was the only one.  And it was early.  I suppose had it been offered to me somewhat later and under the right auspices, I might've done it.  But I was having too much fun doing the Trovatores and the Aïdas and so forth.

BD:    Did you enjoy the French operas?

JMcC:    Yes, I did.  I had a good time with that.

BD:    One of your first great successes was Prophète.

JMcC:    Yes, my wife and I did Prophète in Zurich and in Berlin!  But those performances we did in German, which wasn't all that much fun.

BD:    Why?  What does it lose in the translation?

mccrackenJMcC:    It's the difficulty of singing French music using a language other than French.  I don't know that it lost anything in the translation, it just loses something in the vocal cords.  You sing a little differently; I do at least.  Every language requires a certain adjustment in the way you sing, even though it's minute.

BD:    The French language is a completely different formation of the mouth and the throat?

JMcC:    Absolutely.  And there's the different vowels that you use, a different way of the nasals that you have to make sound French.  All that requires a certain adjustment in your singing.  When you do that same kind of music in the German language it's a completely different ball game.

BD:    So the Meyerbeer worked all right, but it wasn't authentic.

JMcC:    Yes, it wasn't authentic, that's right.

BD:    Why is this opera never done anymore?  It's occasionally revived, but you never see it as a repertoire work.

JMcC:    I don't understand that either because there's enough music in it for two operas
especially melodies.  There's an awful lot of melodies; he just brings them out and throws them away, similar toVerdi when he was young.   He never developed them very much; he'd just bring out a new one.  That's what Meyerbeer did.  There are lots of wonderful melodies in Prophète.

BD:    Is that what opera is
melody?

JMcC:    Yes, I suppose so.  Most of the great composers, later on in their lives, would take a melody and use it several different ways; develop it and refine it rather than waste it!  When they were younger, the same composers would find a new melody and put it.  Trovatore is a good example; I happen to be working on it right now.  There are so many melodies in Trovatore.

BD:    Sure.  It's almost like a ballad opera.

JMcC:    Yes!  It really is.

BD:    We talked a little bit about refining the sound for the languages.  Did you adjust your sound or your technique for the different size houses?

JMcC:    I don't.  One might, subconsciously or unconsciously, because we all try to some degree to hear ourselves.  I know that most everybody says you sing by sensation, and partially this is true.  The buzzing in your head has to be going on in the right spots.  You have to have the balance of this and of the breath; you have to feel the right things happening in your body as well as your face and head and back of your neck.  But you still try to listen to yourself, and in a place where there are good acoustics, chances are you don't sing as loud.  I can give you a good example.  I recently came back from California, and then I went to Washington, D.C. and did the same piece.  It was Fidelio, and they had a set where Florestan is almost sitting in the mouth of a megaphone!  I could hear myself so well that I probably sang Florestan as well as I've ever sung it, partially because I was able to control everything I did.  I didn't have to guess.  I could hear myself so well that I was able to do really fine singing, rather than just stand there and hope for the best.

BD:    You could be more subtle?

JMcC:    Oh, much more subtle.  That's exactly what I was trying to say.  Then in the last scene where I didn't have the megaphone anymore, suddenly I didn't have that acoustic for myself and I didn't hear myself as well.

BD:    In any set, do you try to find where there are good solid backs to stand in front of, to help force the voice out?

JMcC:    On a set, you can find certain places.  Sometimes in Otello, for example, people say, "Why do you sing the whole thing sitting down?"  Well, because that's where I was comfortable and I could hear my voice!  I sit in the throne, for example, and sing the whole Dio! mi potevi rather than stand up towards the end and come forward, simply because I was in control.  The throne had a back on it, and I was able to use that to keep my voice in control.

BD:    It helped focus the voice?

JMcC:    Sure!

BD:    Is there anything that you can do if a house is just dead?

JMcC:    You pay more attention to the sensation of your singing.  If you know you're not going to hear yourself, you quit listening and begin to try to sing by sensation.

BD:    When you're singing by sensation, are you hearing what's going out, or are you hearing what's coming back?

JMcC:    In some places you don't hear what's going out or coming back.  [Both chuckle]  I shouldn't really say that; you hear something coming out because that's the way you sound.  But as far as getting any idea of what might be being heard by the ears of the audience, you just don't have it.  It's really true!  People say, "Oh, they're just being foolish and it's not really that way at all," but a pianist or a violinist
or a singer, under certain conditionsperforms better and easier because of the acoustics; and when you haven't got good acoustics, it's hard!  A lot of pianists will say, "Oh boy, it's tough out there!" because they, too, like to know how loud they are and what's happening.  Of course vocalists all do, too.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let's talk a little bit about Florestan; you've just come from a couple of productions.  Tell me about the character; what kind of a man is he?

mccrackenJMcC:    Florestan is a great role.  When I was much younger, I saw it as symphony.  I didn't know whether I wanted to sing it or not because there wasn't an awful lot of acting involved.  I liked roles very much that were kind of verismo, and this is a role that is larger than life.  He is sort of all men that have been persecuted.  It's a great role for that reason, and the music is magnificent.  I often thought, "Well, why bother to stage it?  The music is magnificent; let's do concert versions of it."  But I've been in some really good productions of it where the staging really did enhance the situation.

BD:    You've also done some concert performances of it?

JMcC:    Oh, yes!  It works in concert!

BD:    Is one better than the other, or are they just different?

JMcC:    They're just different.  I think a bad performance, in terms of sets and staging, and if people make too many mistakes with it, then probably a concert version is fine; but if it's done well, then that's the way to do it!  It's interesting he only did the one opera.
 
BD:    Have you ever sung the earlier versions of it, Leonore?

JMcC:    No, I never have.  I've read about it, but I've never been involved in one like that.

BD:    In that opera you have to go from singing to speaking.  Does that pose a special problem for the voice?

JMcC:    It would; my speaking voice is terrible.  You can hear right now that there is no real support.  When I do Florestan, I half-sing my dialogue.  It's like singing!  I've got my body involved, my breath involved, but I can't go around talking like that all the time.  [Chuckles]  My natural speaking voice is not handled well at all.

BD:    But when you are on the stage, you support and you pay attention.

JMcC:    Absolutely!!  It's the same way with Shakespearean actors
they're standing there singing!  They're singing!  They're using the same muscles.  The only thing they don't have is a melody or notes to sing, but they have that rhythm.  The only thing missing is the music with a really good Shakespearean actor or actress.

BD:    Are there other operas that you've done that have dialogue?  You're not a Tamino...

JMcC:    No.  I've did Freischütz when I first went to Europe.  I learned all the dialogue here in New York before I went over there, because I knew that was going to be my first performance.  As it turned out, a great deal of it was cut and nobody told me!  But I enjoyed doing it, and I was very well reviewed for my dialogue.  One of the critics in the little town of Bonn said that my German colleagues could take note as to the way I did my dialogue!  The reason is very simple
when it's their mother tongue, people tend to get sloppy.  In English, for example, [speaks slowly and very deliberately] I don't make a great effort to have my words understood and have it be clear.  [Returns to normal speech pattern]  People don't talk English that way.  When singing in German, I would make it so Deutlich so that they understood me so well.  I suspect that it had some kind of a slight accent when all the "T"s and "ch"s are exactly where they should be!  But the average person just does not speak their mother tongue as well as they should!

BD:    Have you sung some operas in English?

JMcC:    A very long time ago.

BD:    Did you pay attention to your English the way you were paying attention to your German?

JMcC:    Ahhhhhh!  Good question.  Probably not.  [Both laugh]  You just sing it unless people say, "I didn't get that word," or "What are you saying there?"  Then you make a special effort.  I remember I did La Bohème and I did Samson, and those are the only two that I can recall having done in English before I did them in their original language.

BD:    Is doing opera in translation a good idea or a bad idea?

JMcC:    Everybody in certain locales says it's a good idea, but I've never been for it.  Maybe with comedies, because if you don't get the joke you haven't got much.  But if you've got a beautiful score and a symphonic orchestra, when the oboe has a solo he hasn't got any words, but you somehow get the idea what that oboist is trying to say.  The violin section suddenly takes off on a flurry and they don't have words either, but they give you a feeling, they give you an emotion.  I think a lot of opera does that if the audience knows the details of the story
not just a sketch or an outline.  They should know what's happening, and pretty much what's being said.  But to tell you the absolute truth, with the orchestras the sizes they are and the opera houses the sizes they are, you don't get a lot of the words no matter what the language is.  People have complimented me, and I pride myself on trying to use the words to help my singing, and as a consequence, my diction is good and I am fairly well understood.  But when you get the female voice up above a G-sharp, whatever words she's singing are going to come out "Ah" anyhow.  So it's really a kind of a moot question whether or not translating it into English is going to help any.  English is a difficult language to sing in, and I suppose you might get a few people into the opera house because they'll say, "It's in English, so I'll go hear it."  Maybe they've never been to an opera and that might be the deciding factor!  They might otherwise say, "Since it's all done in Italian, I'm not going near the place!"

BD:    Do you like this new gimmick of the supertitles in the theater?

JMcC:    I don't, but lots of people do, and I guess it is being helpful.  I can't use them even on the television.  I am either looking there, reading those words, or I'm looking at the face of the artist.  You can't do both!  People say, "Oh, yes, I can," but the eyes can only do so much.  I've got very good peripheral vision, but I can't take it all in at once.  So I'm very I'm amazed that it went over as well as it did.  It says just one thing.  It says that a great many people go to the opera and have no idea what that libretto is.  The average person just goes and knows a little bit about the story, so suddenly now they're able to follow the story because they can read the words.  In the meantime, they're missing out on any emotion that might be coming from the actor's face.

BD:    But aren't they hearing the music?  It's all coming into their ears...

JMcC:    It is coming into their ears, but when I am performing roles like Otello, Samson, Canio, there's an awful lot of expression that comes through my body and my face.  If it doesn't, then I'm not doing the role well.  So that is being missed if somebody's reading a bunch of words somewhere.  So I'm not for it, but I'm very much in the minority.  Most people say it's done a lot for opera, and it's a wonderful thing.  I am a very good friend of the man that first did it, Lotfi Mansouri up in Toronto.  He and I have talked about it, and I said pretty much what I said just now, but the truth is that it has been helpful to a lot of people.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    When you are on stage, are you portraying a character, or do you actually become that character?

JMcC:    I go back and forth a little bit.  That's a very good question.  I don't know if I've ever had that question asked before.  There are times when I'm recreating to what I've done before, and there are times that I'm finding something new at that moment.  That's because I'm really involved, I'm really in that character, so it is a kind of a combination.  Most of the time you come out and sing Exultate, for example, which you've sung so many times when you're playing Otello.  There is no way that you couldn't be.  But under certain conditions, such as in Dio! mi potevi, when everything is working right, the first thing you know you become involved and you become Otello!  In other spots, you're just repeating what you've done before.

BD:    Then does it take you a while to throw off that character and get back to being James McCracken again?

JMcC:    Oh, yes!  There are times, early in my career and even recently, too, where tears begin to come into my own eyes as the death scene is progressing.  That's bad because you cannot sing very well or perform very well if it's getting too much to you.  There's a dividing line where you have to put the brakes on.  There's a fine line beyond which an actor cannot become more involved in that part without the effect being detrimental.

mccrackenBD:    Do you approve of all of the new innovations that are going on in stage direction?

JMcC:    I think that they're all right if it's a new opera, but to take some of the old masterpieces and make them whatever you want to make them, I don't think is quite right, no.  I was in a Pagliacci not too long ago that I kinda liked.  It wasn't bad at all.  We have a circus come to the little town in Switzerland where we live in the summer, and that little circus was typical.  They put the tents up and it reminded me a lot of Pagliacci.  These kinds of things do happen today.  So anyway, in this Pagliacci, Silvio rode a motorcycle.  [Both laugh]  There were neon lights on the bar and there were television aerials above the houses.  Just a few things to bring it up to date, and everybody wore clothes of today.  It worked and nobody objected to the ideas.  The only thing is that the jealousies and the passions of today are so different.  Women are no longer running around in black for twenty years after their husbands die; the morality has all changed.  But they played it in a little village somewhere and it worked! 
  After all, they didn't place it in downtown Brooklyn!  When they do things like that, they go a little too far.  I don't quite agree with any of that kind of thing, but certain things they can do and not disturb me in any case.

BD:    Do these characters you play speak to the audiences today the same way they spoke to the audiences when the operas were written?

JMcC:    It's a different audience.  Certainly the people in audience are involved with different things in their lives.  When these operas were written, there wasn't even any radio!  The opera house or the theater was the place to go if you were going to see anything of this nature!  Now we have movie theaters, and the audience is so different that I would say yes, there's a big difference.  There has to be.

BD:    Do you reflect that in your portrayals at all?

JMcC:    No!!  I don't think so.  I must say that when I do Otello at Covent Garden in England, I don't have to be nearly as jealous as when I do it down in Rome!

BD:    Why?

JMcC:    Look at the kind of people you're doing it for!  I don't believe that the English people in the audience would rave and rant nearly as much when he finds out that his wife is playing around as the Italians in Rome!  You can gear your performance for your audience in some cases, to some degree.  In the northern countries, you don't want to tear up the scenery.  That doesn't go over, whereas down south you can do it and it's okay.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You've made a number of recordings over the years.  Are you pleased with those recordings?

JMcC:    The one recording I'm not as pleased with as I would like to be was the Otello.  I wasn't feeling very well, and we did it anyway.  It's a good recording; it's a happening; some parts of it I like very much, but my voice was husky and I was working hard at the time.  I would've liked to have recorded it again, but...

BD:    What about some of the others?

JMcC:    Fidelio was fine, Carmen was fine.  The Prophète I would like to do over again, too.  Some things about the Prophète I didn't like.  The Pagliacci was okay.  I don't listen to my records; I haven't heard Pagliacci or Prophète for probably five years.  I just don't get them out and listen.  I'd rather just move forward and onward, and not look back too much.

mccrackenBD:    Do you sing a little differently in front of a microphone than you do on the stage?

JMcC:    I don't, but most people do.

BD:    So you're out there just giving another performance?

JMcC:    Exactly!  Exactly.  I've not made enough records, really, to acquire a microphone technique.  Some people, boy, do they know how, and I'm envious of that.  They can stand there and make these marvelous sounds at about one third the volume that they would in an opera house, and it turns out beautiful on the recording.

BD:    When they cut them up and paste them together, does that become a fraud?

JMcC:    That's I was talking about in Le Prophète.  I did my arias in one or two takes, but all straight through; no pasting, no patching.  The girls just come in and would do their high notes first and the endings next, and they didn't mind it being patched together.  I'm not a moralist, but if that's the way to do it then that's the way you should do it, and give yourself the benefit of the chance.  So when I said I'd like to do Prophète again, I would do it that way!  I would make more than one take, and I would make them paste the two takes together.  But at the time I said, "Oh, that'll be all right," and I just let it go through!  In that respect I wish I could do that again.

BD:    Is opera art, or is opera entertainment?

JMcC:    I guess some of both.  I don't think that's a hedge, I think that's true.

BD:    Then where's the balance?

JMcC:    I've had people come back afterwards with tears in their eyes and you wonder, were they really entertained or was some impression made upon them that they will never forget.  That is very, very heartwarming for a performer.  If opera were done on a nightly basis, like a Broadway show, I suppose then it's entertainment.  But a performer can maybe in his whole lifetime only do as many performances as you might do in a Broadway show in six months.  I've probably done 150 performances of the role I'm working on right now, Manrico in Trovatore.  How many days is that on a in a Broadway situation?

BD:    About a half a year!

JMcC:    So you see, it takes a whole lifetime to do as many performances as some people do in a half a year.  I guess it's a little different; it's something more than entertainment.  In the classic plays of Shakespeare, is it entertainment or is it art?  It's got to be some of both, I think.  Entertainment could be a sitcom; how much art is involved?  But the fact is that there are some people who do it so well, that they'll take it onto the stage.  They'll do a one-man show and say afterwards, "Now that was some real art involved there."  So you can't really say that either.  I think in all that kind of entertainment or art, there would be some of each.

BD:    What advice do you have for young singers coming along?

JMcC:    Do as much work here as you can.  Get your voice in the best condition that you can get it in, learn how to sing, learn some operas.  Then I still think going to Europe is the answer.  I know we have a lot of opera houses in this country, but they don't do many performances!  Let's just say a woman learns Traviata and sings it reasonably well.  Okay, she may get a couple of performances this year and a couple of performances next year, but it'd be five years down the road before she would get as many performances as she'd get in one quick engagement in Europe!  I don't say that everybody can, but if you can, come up with a contract where you could do these roles in a middle European theater in the correct language; and a lot of them do.  If you get a job today in Berlin, everything is done in the original language, and they do hire a lot of Americans in some of these theaters.  You don't have to go to Europe to learn.  You've got the best coaches and the best teachers right here in America!  But what you have to do, once you get it together, is to go over there to get the experience.  There are a few exceptions; there are some opera companies in this country that will take a chance on a young singer, but mostly their first question is, "When did you do the role, and how many times have you done it?"  The company will do five different operas in a year, and they do three or four performances of that opera.  That's twenty or twenty-five performances.  So if they hire somebody and they don't do well, twenty percent of their year is gonna be panned.  So they're very reticent to take a chance, and I'm not sure I should blame them.  There are a lot of wonderful Americans around who could do the job.  Yet, if I was running the opera house and Johnny Smith comes in, he's got a swell voice and he's got good high notes, but he's never done this part before!

BD:    Would you give him a chance?

JMcC:    You have to ask yourself more than once if you would take that route.  The only answer is an opera house where everybody knew right from the start that these were all young singers, and if they cracked on their high notes that was permissible.  We need someplace where they could go and make their mistakes, and ticket prices would have to reflect that.  But where do you find an audience for that?  Where do you find an audience in this country that knows ahead of time it's all young people, some of which will become singers and some of which will fall by the wayside?  It's something that's never been tried very, very strongly.

BD:    Is there any chance that the audience today is becoming a little too sophisticated?

JMcC:    Well, they think they are because of what they hear on the television.  They think, "I've heard that opera two or three times on television, so I really know it."  As a matter of fact, until they actually go to a live performance and have heard it once in the audience without television, they haven't heard it at all.  Most people are not aware of that.

*     *     *     *     *

mccrackenBD:    Has it always been special for you to sing performances with your wife?

JMcC:    Yes.  Absolutely, and you can understand that.  We've done a lot of Samson and Delilahs; we did them a lot in this country when we first came back, and we did it probably thirty times in Zurich in less than two years.  We did Trovatore a lot together, and also Aïda, so when we came back and began singing in this country again, we were offered those operas in a lot of the places.  And of course we did the Samson and Delilah in the Metropolitan Opera together, which was a life dream come true.  We also developed a concert program which we've taken to a lot of places, and are still doing and still having a good time with, and still getting standing ovations!  Now that may sound strange, but it really is very heartwarming when we do this.  We still take it to universities and elsewhere.  We were with Columbia Artists Management and now we're with ICM.  People want to hear concerts with McCracken and Warfield, and so we are very gratified.

BD:    Have you also sung song-recitals?

JMcC:    That's what these concerts are, in a way.  I don't sing a song recital by myself, but Sandra sang at Tully Hall seven or eight years back, and it was very successful.  She had the reviews out the other day, and she said, "You should read these."  They were magnificent!  For the recital that we do together, the first half is songs and the second half is opera.  We don't do anything that esoteric, but Sandra does some nice things.  I do my Scotch and Irish things, and then we do our opera.  We do some Dvořák duets in the first half, and they're fun.  I sing Plaisir d'amour and Come to the Fair, and audiences like it very much because they recognize most of the music in the beginning.  I do the chestnut-type Irish songs that they understand and know, so they get acquainted with us during the first half, and
they have a little bit of a rapport with us before we go in to the second half, which is all opera.  We do it completely backwards from the way the critic would have you do itwe do all the encores at the very beginning!  Some critics understand what we're doing, and other critics just say the program is all backwards.  Sandra and I have always been that way; we've done what we thought was right for the reasons that we thought were right, and let the chips fall where they may.  It's paid off very nicely for us.

BD:    Is singing fun?

JMcC:    Singing is lots of fun.  There's one thing about it, though, you have to be healthy.  It's not fun when you have to worry whether or not your health is great.  I tell this in the master classes that Sandra and I do.  After you learn how to sing reasonably well and you have your confidence in your singing and all, the next step is to stay well!  Stay well and watch your nerves.  Your nerves and your health are foremost.  I know a number of singers, and I bet you do, too, that if it weren't for their nerves or their lack of health, would still be having careers.  I think that they go hand-in-hand, a certain amount of fear and extra nerves.  It all weighs on the health problems.

BD:    Are you pleased with the raw talent that you hear coming along today?

JMcC:    [Somewhat equivically]  Yes, but some of my colleagues are not.  They constantly are saying that they're not going to make it because of this and because of that.  There are a lot of good voices out there and a lot of raw talent.  I have to say it's there, and if it doesn't come along it's not necessarily their fault because there are just not that many places where they can sing.  You can only get so good in a studio.  After that, you've got to be on the stage and find out what that's like.  In the studio and in small halls, there are some powerful, beautiful voices around, but whether they make it or not depends on a lot of other things besides that sound that they make.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Coming back to another of your roles, tell me about Don José.  What's he like?

mccrackenJMcC:    Don José was fun for me.  I sang an awful lot of performances at the Met in a very short time, and I've done several different versions of it.  The one at the Met was dialogue, and then I would go, maybe, to Berlin, and instead of dialogue you had the regular recitatives.  I always kept a reel of tape labeled "Carmen Recits" so I could go over them a little bit.  My first performances of Carmen with Sandra had the recitatives, and then after that I went to the Met and did so many with the dialogue that kinda forgot my recits.  But Don José was a good part.  I had no real bad experiences with him.  He's a dramatic tenor that has to sing a few phrases nice and soft, but there's a lot of dramatic things in that part.

BD:    Which version is better, or which one do you like better?

JMcC:    I like the recits.

BD:    Is there any character that you've done that's maybe a little too close to the real James McCracken?

JMcC:    I don't think so because I don't do comedy.  I often wondered why; I would love to be involved in something funny on the stage, but they just don't write them for my kinda voice.

BD:    [Stroking his beard while contemplating the situation]  Hmmmmm...  Gotta get you to do one!

JMcC:    Yeah!  Get somebody to write me a comedy.  My kind of voice always fits right in very well with the tragedies, so that's where I am.

BD:    If someone wanted to write an opera for you, what advice would you give them?

JMcC:    I might say, "Go ahead, I'd be glad to do it!" 

BD:    You could learn a new opera like that?

JMcC:    [With certitude]  I could, yes; something that was special.  I did La Fiamma of Respighi just two months ago, which is hardly ever done.  I think some of the performances I'm going to be doing at the Met in the future are a direct result of that.  They came over and listened to it.  They heard me sing and they said, "Let's give him some performances!"  So once in a while you have to do that.  Almost exactly a year ago I did Joshua of Handel.  I had to work very hard on it, and that also led to some good performances elsewhere.  At a certain point in your career, if you're not singing in New York once a year, you have to find a way to do that!  About two and a half years ago I did a Fidelio here With the Beethoven Society.  It was one of the years I wasn't singing here, and it was wonderful for me.  It was the kind of thing one has to do!

BD:    Nudging management?

JMcC:    A little bit!  "Nudging" them is exactly right.

BD:    Thank you for being a singer!

JMcC:    [Bashfully]  Ohhhhh, what a nice thing to say.  Well, God bless you, and I'm very happy to have been here.

BD:    Thank you for giving me the time this afternoon; I appreciate it very much.  You've got rehearsals for Trovatore this afternoon?

JMcC:    Trovatore this afternoon, and before I do that, as a rule I go to my coach and vocalize a little bit.  You get there and you say you're not going to sing...  You promise yourself faithfully you're not going to sing and it turns out that you do, so I try always to go twenty or twenty-five minutes.  It's not too far from the opera house where the coach lives, and she gives me a little vocalizing.  Then I go to the opera house, and if I decide I want to sing I'm not just starting out cold.  As a young boy I didn't vocalize very much, and at that point in time it didn't hurt me.  But right now, vocalizing is very important and I do it quite religiously.

BD:    Make sure the voice is warm...

JMcC:    ...warm and in good shape, and that my body is ready and that everything is set.  We call it functions and balance.  Then if you start to sing, you're okay!  [Noticing the time]  Sandra should be here in just a moment.

BD:    [Taking in the surroundings]  This is a very nice room; very quiet...

JMcC:    It's a very nice club.  My daughter had her wedding here in January, just a couple months ago.

BD:    Did you sing at her wedding?

JMcC:    No!!  I didn't think I had it in me.  She asked us
would her mom or her daddy like to sing?  [Chuckles]  It was such an emotional day; there's no way we could.  Towards the end of the day, after all the emotions were winding down, I thought, "Why didn't I sing?"  Well, sure!  After the fact, it's easy...  [Both laugh]

BD:    It's good for you to be a spectator once in a while, rather than perform.

JMcC:    That's what we were.  They did everything.  They planned it all; all I did was pay for it.  They just had such a beautiful wedding here; they wrote their own service.  My daughter's Christian Scientist; they don't have any marriage ceremony in their liturgy.  They don't have any funerals either.  It's a very unusual religion.  By the way, I'm very much involved in it too.  I like it very much; I think it's very useful, and something that you can cling to.

BD:    Is religion supposed to be useful?

JMcC:    Yes, absolutely.  Isn't that a beautiful question!  Religion is supposed to be terribly useful.  I called my practitioner this morning at 9:30 and said, "I've got a rehearsal this afternoon and my chest is a little clogged up."  That's exactly what religion is about, making life happy now!  There is no vindictive God; he's not going to punish you if you do this or that.  It's a completely different concept.  I grew up Catholic and I understand it so well!  If you are Catholic and want to become a member of the Christian Science Church, you have to wait eight years.

BD:    It takes that long to get rid of all the old teachings?

JMcC:    It takes even longer than that, but they say that eight years is enough because it's such a different idea.  How do you visualize God?

BD:    Great, magnificent, kind, gentle, giving, nurturing...

JMcC:    That's very good.  But if you close your eyes and try to picture him, he's either on the cross or lying in the Madonna...

BD:    I see Him more as beautiful, billowy clouds in the sky.

JMcC:   Are you a Catholic?

BD:    No.  I grew up in the Protestant church, but I've really not practiced it of late.

JMcC:    Do you understand what I'm saying?

BD:    Sure!

JMcC:    You don't go to a Protestant church and see all these images!

BD:    No.

JMcC:    As a little child, you sit there and you pray to those images and they become part of you!  I was an altar boy; I went to daily mass, and it is hard to get rid of that!  But I've had some very, very big healings with Christian Science, and I like it very much.  I think it's a beautiful religion, and what you said there, about what you thought God was, comes very close.

BD:    [Smiles]

JMcC:    I shouldn't have even have asked you; probably right away I would've known you weren't a Catholic just from that answer!  [McCracken's wife, Sandra Warfield, enters.]  Hi, Sandra!  This is Bruce Duffie, and I want to tell you something...

BD:    [To Warfield]  Nice to meet you.

Sandra Warfield:    [To Duffie]  Nice to meet you.

JMcC:    He knows a lot about lot of things.  He asked me some very unusual questions; the most unusual questions I have ever been asked!  I don't know that I answered them all that well, but they were good questions!

SW:    [Chuckles]

BD:    You gave me very good answers!

SW:    He usually has a good answer.

BD:    [To McCracken]  Thank you so very much.

JMcC:    I liked it a lot.  I enjoyed it.  What we did was very good; it made a lot of sense.




James McCracken, Lauded Tenor And Pillar of the Met, Dies at 61
By WILL CRUTCHFIELD
Published: May 01, 1988, The New York Times

James McCracken, the most successful dramatic tenor yet produced by the United States and a pillar of the Metropolitan Opera in the 1960's and 70's, died yesterday at Roosevelt Hospital in Manhattan.

The singer, who suffered a stroke April 12, was 61 years old and lived in Manhattan and Switzerland. He had suffered a second stroke on Friday night.

Mr. McCracken was pursuing his third Met career at the time of his death. He made his debut at the house in 1953 as the toy vendor in ''La Boheme,'' but left in 1957 because the management would not give him a chance at leading roles. He returned in triumph as Otello in 1963, but left again in 1978 because the management would not give him a chance at television.

Fences were mended, and he participated in the 1983 centennial gala, returning later for ''Aida'' and ''Pagliacci.'' He was to have sung in ''Il Trovatore'' in the final weeks of the season just concluded, but was ill and canceled his performances.

A Role in Colorado

The singer was born in Gary, Ind., on Dec. 16, 1926. He studied at Columbia University and supported himself by chorus singing in New York while working toward an operatic career. His first leading role was with the Central City Opera in Colorado in 1952 (Rodolfo in ''La Boheme''). At the Met soon afterward, he took on numerous secondary parts (recording some of them in the short-lived Metropolitan Opera Record Club series) while essaying leads in smaller cities.

In Norfolk, Va., in 1954, he sang in a concert performance of ''Samson et Dalilah'' with the mezzo-soprano Sandra Warfield, and the two were married not long after. Soon Miss Warfield had a Met contract also - slightly better than the tenor's, but still modest. On Dec. 3, 1955, they had four roles between them: they sang Nathanael and the Voice of Antonia's Mother in the matinee of ''Les Contes D'Hoffmann,'' then the Judge and Ulrica in the evening's ''Ballo in Maschera.'' (Much later, the couple fulfilled an ambition to sing the opera of their first meeting together on the Met stage.) Mr. McCracken was present for some historic moments in this first Met career. He sang in the debut performances of Marian Anderson (the first black singer to take a lead role at the house), Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi. But he found it understandably frustrating. On the night of Miss Tebaldi's debut in ''Otello,'' for instance, he did not even get the grateful secondary tenor part of Cassio; he sang the tiny role of Roderigo.

Big Roles in Europe

It is not quite the case that Mr. McCracken went unnoticed at the Met in those years; on one occasion in 1954, a Times critic devoted an entire paragraph to praising him in the brief part of the Messenger in ''Aida,'' certainly a rare accolade. But the management did not notice, and so Mr. McCracken took himself to Europe. He built up valuable experience singing big roles repeatedly in Bonn, then in Zurich, gradually coming to the attention of the larger European houses.

Once he had become a leading Otello abroad, the Met could hardly afford to hold his hasty departure against him; he returned as a star, with a new production and a whole list of other choice roles. He specialized in the biggest Italian parts - Calaf in ''Turandot,'' the tragic clown in ''Pagliacci,'' and the Verdian heroes of ''Aida,'' ''Il Trovatore'' and ''La Forza del Destino.''

The high point of Mr. McCracken's Met activity came in the early 1970's, when he starred in new productions in five consecutive seasons at the house: ''Otello,'' ''Carmen,'' ''Aida,'' ''Le Prophete'' and ''Tannhauser'' - his first Wagnerian part, which he accepted after declining many earlier offers to sing Wagner.

Walked Out Over Telecasts

But when ''Otello'' was televised twice without him, and a telecast of ''Tannhauser'' that the tenor felt he had been promised was dropped in 1978, the tenor abruptly severed his relations with the house. ''There comes a time when a man has had enough,'' he said in an interview shortly afterward. ''To this day,'' he recalled at the time of his second return to the Met, ''I have not had a convincing explanation'' of how the ''Tannhauser'' telecast ''went from '99 percent certain' to 'I'm sorry, there's just no way.' ''

The house had to do without him in some of the hardest-to-cast roles in the repertory for six seasons while the tenor sang elsewhere, but the promise of a ''Live From the Met'' slot at last moved him to let bygones be bygones. The telecast took place on the occasion of Leontyne Price's farewell to opera in ''Aida,'' with Mr. McCracken singing Radames.

Mr. McCracken's intense singing, with its high-pressure tone and prominent vibrato, was not to all tastes. He provoked controversy in several operas by singing soft high notes in a detached falsetto tone, in quality very unlike the full-voiced singing he employed most of the time.

An Authentic, Easy Ring

But his voice had an authentic, easy ring that carried over big orchestras and filled enormous auditoriums, and his technique proved equal to the test of sustaining a 30-year-plus career, most of it at the top of his profession. And he always gave performances of high energy and commitment. He was serious about his acting, even though his large girth put him at a disadvantage in an era that saw opera singers increasingly measured against television actors for physical suitability to their roles.

The tenor committed several of his popular roles to disk, though his recording career was complicated by a contractual dispute and a lawsuit in which Mr. McCracken won $120,000 from his erstwhile record company, London Records. His complete opera sets included ''Fidelio,'' with Birgit Nilsson; ''Pagliacci;'' ''Otello,'' under Sir John Barbirolli, and ''Le Prophete,'' with Marilyn Horne. He also made an album of Scottish and Irish songs for Angel Records.

In addition to Miss Warfield, Mr. McCracken is survived by a daughter, Ahna of Manhattan, and a son, John, of Freeport, L.I. Memorial services have not yet been scheduled.




© 1988 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded at McCracken's club in New York City on March 23, 1988.  Portions (along with recordings) were used on WNIB in 1988, twice in 1991, and again in 1996.  This transcription was made and posted on this website in 2012.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.