Richard Tucker (1913-75) was the greatest operatic tenor America has so far produced. He had three sons. David (b 1941) was the second child and the only one who aspired to take up his father’s profession. He ended up in medicine as an ophthalmologist. The Hard Bargain is his account of how he went from tenor wannabe to surgeon. The bargain of the title was the agreement he made with his famous father. Richard would pay for David’s voice lessons at the New England Conservatory of Music as long as the younger Tucker pursued pre med studies at Tufts. Even after he obtained early admission to Cornell University Medical School and matriculated there, the bargain held until David finally gave up voice study and concentrated on medicine.
Trying to make one’s way in the shadow of a superstar parent (usually, but not always, the father) is almost always too big a lift. In the music business pianist Peter Serkin, the son of Rudolf Serkin, made a first rate career as a concert pianist despite the giant presence of his father. The renowned conductor Adolf Busch was his (Peter’s) maternal grandfather.
In opera, baritone Louis Quilico’s (1925-2000) son Gino (b 1955) had a distinguished singing career, also as a baritone. The elder Quilico sang 279 times with the Met, while his son gave 103 performances at the same house. Their careers overlapped at the Met for almost a decade.
In science things are a little easier for the ambitious offspring of great doctors and scientists. The renowned cardio-renal physiologist Arthur Guyton (1919-2003) had 10 children, all of whom went into medicine. The Bohr family is remarkable for its intergenerational scientific productivity at the highest level. Christian Bohr (1855-1911) was a physician whose discoveries include the eponymous Bohr Effect that describes the relationship of the oxyhemoglobin dissociation curve to pH. Had he not died prematurely he likely would have won a Nobel in Medicine. His son Niels (1885-1962) was one of the founders of 20th century physics winning the 1922 Nobel Prize. Neils’ brother Harald (1887-1951) was an eminent mathematician. He also won a silver medal in football at the 1908 Olympics. Niels’ son Aage (1922-2009) won the 1975 Nobel Prize in Physics. He and his father were one of the six pairs of fathers and sons who have won the Nobel Prize and one of the four pairs who have won the Nobel Prize in Physics. And let’s not forget Irène Joliot-Curie (1897-1956) who with her husband was awarded the 1935 Physics Prize. Both her parents won Nobel Prizes, her mother winning two!
So young Tucker’s dream of singing at the Met, while most likely a pipedream, was not an impossible dream. The problem was that he wasn’t even a halfway decent singer. I’m surmising this from his comments about his vestigial singing career. It took him a long time to realize that when it came to singing he was a gnat while Dad was an eagle.
Richard had good reasons for not wanting his son to pursue an operatic career. Ruby, as his intimates called him, felt that most of his success was due to luck and accident. His debut at the Met in January 1945 was largely the result of World War II which denied the house the services of so many fine singers that its management sought out Tucker who had earlier competed unsuccessfully in the Met’s Auditions of the Air. David’s story of Tucker’s successful audition for the company differs from that of James Drake in his biography of the tenor.
Tucker also thought that a good singing teacher was harder to find than a good wife (he said this in front of his wife) and felt that his success was largely the result of the instruction he received from Paul Althouse. Althouse, also a tenor, sang 261 times at the Met and was a distinguished voice teacher. Besides Tucker he also taught Eleanor Steber, Astrid Varnay, and Léopold Simoneau.
Ruby told David that successful career in opera required so much good luck and avoidance of its opposite that even if David had a first rate voice he still might not make it. The father’s 9th grade education and Jewish heritage gave him a reverence for learning such that he thought a career in medicine outranked even a successful one in opera.
David is not shy about his pain-in-the-tuches disposition which required a paternal smack in the head on numerous occasions. I too grew up in Brooklyn, as did he, and also was often on the receiving end of well earned parental blows to the noggin and surrounding anatomy. Even my first and second grade teachers beat me up. The routine corporal punishment of mid 20th century Brooklyn would today produce a posse of bureaucrats from the child protective agency.
I was in New York studying medicine at about the same time as was David – actually a few years earlier. David was a serious student, devoting almost all his time to the minutia of medicine. He was far more diligent than was I. While he was studying, I was standing at the Met listening to his father. I heard Tucker far more often in performance than any other tenor. After I left New York, I heard him in Dallas, San Antonio, and Chicago. I also attended some of his Met performances on visits back to my hometown. So who made better use of his time?
Tucker fils received superb training in ophthalmology and could have been successful in academic medicine, but he chose to enter private practice in Cincinnati. He had a fine career and is now retired.
The most interesting part of David’s book is his depiction of the character of his father. The standard picture of Tucker the tenor was that he was a Runyonesque performer with an ego that matched his voice. His son saw him as stern but generous parent who never forgot his humble origin or his old friends. He paints a portrait of a man who reveled in his success, but who never let it go to his head. Who knows? I really liked the way he sang and am willing to concede whatever character traits his son attributes to his father. David also depicts his father’s devotion to Judaism and to the state of Israel which he viewed from the ashes of the Holocaust.
David’s uncle was another famous tenor, Jan Peerce – his mother’s brother. Ruby and Jan had a longstanding feud that divided the family for years. Peerce achieved success at the Met before Ruby did. By the mid fifties Tucker had morphed into a large voiced spinto and had eclipsed his brother-in-law. David attributes the feud to Peerce’s jealousy, but the animosity dated back to before Tucker married David’s mother and before Ruby had any hint of a successful operatic career. An aside, in his youth Ruby sold silk linings to fur coat manufacturers, one of these was my father. Leonard Warren also sold linings before he went into opera.
Another of the reasons Ruby gave for not wanting his hard working and intelligent son to enter the world of opera was the vicious politics that pervades the profession. He was obviously unaware that medical politics is just as rabid. David spends the last part of his book giving his version of the two very contentious disputes he had with the two older eye docs who recruited him to Cincinnati. As they are long dead, all we can get is one side of the argument.
The book offers a good perspective on what life was like in Brooklyn in the middle of the last century, what it’s like to grow up in a Jewish household in that borough, and what it’s like to be the son of a very famous entertainer who interrupted a dress rehearsal at the Met to announce that his son had just been accepted into medical school. Of course, the family moved from Booklyn to Long Island once Tucker’s income grew in proportion to his fame.
In the spirit of this site here is Ruby singing the great Act 2 aria from La Forza Del Destino. It’s from a 1956 Met performance. Tucker Forza