Although many New Yorkers may not know it, today is Richard Tucker Day. Last year was the first time Mayor Bloomberg set aside Aug. 28 to celebrate the late tenor who blossomed from young synagogue singer to silver-voiced star of the Metropolitan Opera.
But today's celebrations are extra special as they mark the centennial of the beloved tenor's birth. Among the events there's an "Aria-thon" at 2 p.m. at Richard Tucker Square (Broadway and 65th Street), an evening concert in Central Park hosted by Renée Fleming and an all-day special at Junior's restaurant, in the tenor's native Brooklyn, where you can order a "Richard Tucker Reuben" (especially apt as Tucker's birth name was Rubin Ticker). Also, our colleagues at WQXR's Operavore are streaming Tucker's glorious recordings.
Although he died suddenly at age 61, Tucker's career was long and steady. At the time of his death, his voice, which had darkened and expanded naturally over the years, was almost completely undiminished from the days of his Met debut in 1945. Spanning three decades, Tucker would sing more than 30 leading roles for the company in more than 700 performances.
From a shtetl in the Carpathian Mountains, Tucker's parents settled in Williamsburg, Brooklyn — where Rubin was born — eventually moving to lower Manhattan, where the father found work in the fur industry. Tucker's voice was impressive already at age 6, when he was sent to a nearby synagogue to study. That's where the healthy sapling of a voice took root, and alongside his international opera career, Tucker would continue to sing in New York synagogues for the rest of his life.
The secret to his longevity and success relied on four factors, he said. "It's a happy home, conditioning, guidance by your teachers to study the right roles and of course a little mazel — luck, as we call it," he told radio host George Jellinek in 1974. Tucker also knew how to say no. He guarded his vocal resources carefully, never accepting roles too heavy for his shining, lyrical instrument until the time was just right.
A case in point concerns the first video on this page. In 1949 Arturo Toscanini engaged Tucker to sing the lead role of Radames in a recording of Verdi's Aida, which was also telecast. As you can hear, Tucker had all the notes, a fine legato and a bristling energy in his voice for the part. But the young tenor realized the huge difference between singing a weighty, dramatic role for a recording and actually adding it to his stage repertoire. He waited almost 20 years before he first attempted Radames in the opera house.
Beyond what author Peter G. Davis describes as the "unblemished, evenly produced, and effortless tone," there's something always exciting about Tucker's voice. For me, maybe it's the tight, pulsing vibrato, the alert rhythm and brushed silver in the clarion top notes.
Opera critic John Steane said Tucker "has a way of making you listen to him." So today, whether you're a fan of Tucker's or a first-timer, is the perfect day to take a moment to listen to the voice of a terrific tenor, not soon to be forgotten in his native city.