|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.
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.