The Richard Tucker Music Foundation, the largest of its kind in the U.S. and the venue for young American singers to compete for the funding and publicity to pursue an operatic career, has come under media scrutiny for a lack of diversity among the winners of its top award. As an apparent first response to this scrutiny, the board of directors voted to remove one of its founding members, David N. Tucker, MD, the second of Richard Tucker’s three sons, a retired eye surgeon, and a significant contributor to the funding of the Foundation since its beginning 44 years ago. In a July 20 press release, Barry Tucker, the Foundation’s long-time president and brother of David, and Jeffrey Manocherian, the board’s current chair, announced that “The Richard Tucker Music Foundation condemns the hurtful and offensive comments made by one of our Board members, David Tucker, … [who] has been removed from the Richard Tucker Foundation Board of Directors, effective immediately. David’s opinions do not align with the beliefs and mission of the Richard Tucker Music Foundation, a Foundation built on the legacy of a Jewish-American singer who sought to bridge religious and cultural differences.”
As the biographer of Richard Tucker, I am in a position to speak knowledgeably about the life, career, and personal values of “The American Caruso,” as Tucker was dubbed in the press during his three decades as one of the Metropolitan Opera Company’s most famous and durable tenors. I am also in a position to speak personally about David Tucker, whom I have known since 1981 when I was awarded a contract by the EP Dutton Company to write a book about Richard Tucker, to which Luciano Pavarotti wrote the foreword.
To understand the origins of the foundation bearing his name, it’s necessary to know who Richard Tucker was. He had made his Metropolitan debut in the demanding role of Enzo in La Gioconda on January 25, 1945, and had been a primo tenore (or “star tenor”) from the start. Thirty years later, on January 25, 1975, the Metropolitan Opera’s matinee radio broadcast was to have been a celebration of the that historic debut. But on Wednesday afternoon, January 8, 1975, while on a concert tour in Michigan with his baritone friend Robert Merrill, Tucker succumbed to a heart attack in his hotel room while signing an autograph a fan had requested.
Two days after his death, for the first and only time in its history, the Metropolitan Opera stage became the site of the funeral service for Richard Tucker. As The New York Times reported the following day, the opera house was filled to capacity but was utterly silent, especially when his widow, Sara Tucker, and her sons and their families were ushered to their seats.
The solemn service began when two rabbis, Mordecai Waxman and Alvin Kleinerman, delivered an opening prayer and read a passage from the Psalms. They and the other principals who were part of the service were seated next to the casket containing the remains of the man they were honoring.
After Terence Cardinal Cooke and Met general manager Schuyler Chapin delivered eulogies, Herman Malamood stood behind the casket and chanted the haunting “El Mole Rachamim,” the Hebrew prayer for the dead. Malamood, a handsome young cantor whom Tucker had urged to follow his path into opera, later sang with the New York City Opera:
Understandably, Richard Tucker’s three sons had their faith shaken by the sudden death of their father at the peak of his career. He had received the highest accolades for his portrayal of Canio, the tragic clown in Pagliacci, and his searing performance had been captured in an experimental “live” telecast from the Met stage:
As he was preparing to fly to Michigan for his concert with Robert Merrill, he had received word from the Metropolitan that he would star as Eleazar, the Jewish goldsmith in La Juive, one of the most challenging roles in the tenor repertoire. Leonard Bernstein would conduct, and Tucker would be the fIrst Jewish tenor to sing the role since its Metropolitan Opera premiere in 1919.
Then came the fatal heart attack, and the shock and grief that engulfed Sara Tucker and her family. What emerged from their grief was the Richard Tucker Music Foundation. The idea of creating a foundation to perpetuate the Tucker legacy by raising funds to afford young American singers the opportunity to audition for a substantial annual prize was suggested by Herman Krawitz, Assistant General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera, during an informal get-together with Sara and Barry Tucker.
In November 1975, only ten months after the funeral service, the first Richard Tucker Music Foundation Gala took place. The roster included Luciano Pavarotti, and in subsequent years would include both Pavarotti and Placido Domingo among the international stars who performed at the annual galas.
Here, the popular soprano Renee Fleming, Barry Tucker, and past award winners speak about the mission and legacy of the Foundation:
The list of winners of the prestigious Richard Tucker award includes not only Renee Fleming but Deborah Voigt, Susan Dunn, Aprile Millo, Dolora Zajick, Richard Leech, Ruth Ann Swenson, Stephanie Blythe, Joyce Di Donato, Stephen Costello, Angela Meade, and Isabel Leonard, among others. In 2006 the highest award went to the African-American tenor Lawrence Brownlee, and in 2012 to the Hispanic soprano Ailyn Perez.
One of the many great artists who had sung often with Richard Tucker was Anna Moffo, a personal friend of the Tucker family. In one of my several interviews with her, she described the two facets of Tucker’s personality. “He was only ‘Richard’ Tucker on the stage,” she said. “All of us who knew him called him ‘Ruby,’ the short form of ‘Rubin,’ his real name. Ruby lived two lives, really—one life onstage, and a completely different life offstage. When he was around friends and colleagues, he was the life of the party.”
This excerpt from a Canadian Broadcasting Company telecast of the birthday party of Wilfrid Pelletier, the French-Canadian conductor who had helped the young Tucker get an audition at the Met, shows him singing impromptu when Pelletier went to the piano and struck up the “Libiamo,” the drinking song from “La Traviata.” Of the many great singers who were invited to the party—Bidu Sayão, Karin Branzell, Rose Bampton, Stella Roman, and Licia Albanese, among others—only Tucker was still performing. He had not sung “Traviata” for years, however, and made fun of himself for forgetting some of the lines in the “Libiamo”:
Richard Tucker’s life and career coincided with the widely read magazines of the twentieth century. He and his son David were among the few who appeared in feature stories in LIFE, the most popular weekly magazine of the 1950s. On the occasion of his twenty-fifth season as a leading tenor at the Met, Richard Tucker was the subject of a feature article in which he was photographed in costume with three of the legendary sopranos with whom he sang: Renata Tebaldi, Leontyne Price, and Joan Sutherland.
David Tucker also appeared in LIFE in a feature about Grace A. Warner, a Long Island elementary-school teacher. As David’s fifth-grade teacher at the Saddle Rock school in Great Neck, she had struggled with him for several months to apply himself to his school work. At a Parent-Teachers Association meeting, she felt it was her duty to tell Sara Tucker that at the rate her son’s grades were plummeting, David would have to repeat the fifth grade. When Mrs. Tucker asked Ms. Warner to wait three days before reporting David’s lackluster performance to the school’s principal, his performance would improve immediately.
“But Mrs. Tucker,” she replied, “I haven’t been able to do anything with David for three months. What can you do with him in three days?” When Sara Tucker explained that her husband would be returning from a concert tour on Sunday and would “have a long conversation with David,” she assured Ms. Warner that “you will see a different young man come Monday.”
As David recalled in The Hard Bargain, his autobiography, when his father ushered him into his music room and closed the door, “There was no ceiling on his fury or profanity.” After an in-your-face grilling from his father, David returned to Ms. Warner’s classroom the “different young man” his mother had predicted, and he became a stellar student.
His elementary-school teacher (whom he escorted to his 50th high-school class reunion) lived to see David Tucker become a prominent eye surgeon. After completing residencies in New York, Miami, and Colombia, he settled in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he and his wife Lynda raised their four children on a multi-acre “ranch,” as his father called it.
When I was researching my biography of his father, I flew to Cincinnati for my first interview with David. I had arrived at 4:00 but at 7:00 p.m. he was still doing surgery. While I was waiting at their spacious home, Lynda Tucker, who had been a nurse when she and David had met, explained to me that he always went to his office after his last surgical procedure so he could arrive the next morning to a desktop with no paperwork on it.
Every evening at 10:30 p.m., Lynda would place a television tray in front of her husband’s favorite seat in their living room, and as soon as she heard the garage door open, she would prepare his dinner: usually, a plate of scrambled eggs. Although obviously tired, he would eat leisurely and talk to Lynda about her day and their children, especially how they were doing in school. Then he would put on bathing trunks and sprint to his outdoor hot tub, where he would relax. My first interview with him occurred in that hot tub in the midst of an October snowfall.
As I probed David’s life with the help of Lynda, his mother, and his friends, I learned that his first ambition had been to follow his father’s path and become an operatic tenor. His father would not hear of it, telling him that the odds of any young tenor having a successful career in opera were miniscule, and that David must pursue a career in medicine. When his mother had tried to advocate for him, David overheard his father say to her, “Look, Sara, the kid has the drive, the looks, and the guts it takes to be a singer. What he doesn’t have is the voice. He’s going to be a doctor, period.”
Ultimately, David was able to negotiate a compromise with his father: while David was in the Pre-Med program at Tufts University, his father agreed to pay for him to take voice lessons with the retired Met tenor Frederick Jagel at the New England Conservatory. There he became friends with three future stars whose careers were just beginning—Peter Falk, later of “Colombo” fame, Robert Shaw, the fishing-boat captain in “Jaws,” and Justino Diaz, the Puerto Rican bass who had an acclaimed international career. Their friendship and encouragement played a part in David’s decision to audition for parts in off-Broadway productions.
Although he auditioned under the stage name “David Nello,” his resemblance to his father gave away his real identity. After one audition in which Skitch Henderson, former music director of “The Tonight Show,” was one of the three judges, he said to David initially, “Mr. Nello, you have a fine lyric tenor voice for young man.” Afterward, as David was savoring this praise, Henderson said to him, “By the way, David, please give my regards to your father.” So much for David Nello.
Years after David had become a full-time eye surgeon in Cincinnati, I interviewed not only his office staff and nurses but also a number of other physicians who had known and worked with him. From my research, I know for a fact that one-third of his patients were African-Americans, a significant number of whom he never charged for the surgical procedures they needed.
I know too that earlier in his career, when he was an NIH researcher working on flu vaccines, he and the other NIH virologists (one of whom was his contemporary, Dr Anthony Fauci), David conducted clinical trials in two maximum-security prisons, the Maryland Correctional Institution in Jessup, Maryland, and the federal prison in Fairfax County, Virginia. Although both institutions housed prisoners who were labeled “extremely violent” and in most cases were serving life sentences, many volunteered for the flu-vaccine clinical experiments.
“I would visit two or three days at Jessup each week,” David wrote in his autobiography, “[and] I began to notice that the closer we doctors became with inmates, the harder and more thin-lipped became the faces of the guards patrolling above… But I sensed something less laudatory was at work with the guards. We were treating their prisoners like fellow human beings, [which] I think rubbed against their deeply held views about black Americans, especially incarcerated black Americans.”
In his memoirs, David writes about his experiences in the chaos after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. “The NIH closed early, and everyone was sent home. On my way [home] I saw numerous vehicles with drivers and passengers waving Confederate flags and brandishing rifles and shotguns. They drove in cars and pickup trucks… Their faces shone with a deranged blend of hatred and happiness. They were out hunting.”
At 9:00 p.m., David received a call from the Jessup prison, summoning him to treat an inmate who had suffered a deep cut from a knife wielded by another inmate. The prison had been locked down, but because of his role as a physician, David was escorted to the infirmary by armed guards, where he found the injured inmate handcuffed to a gurney.
After treating the man’s wound, one of the inmates who had volunteered for the flu-vaccine trial approached David and asked him to join a group of prisoners in a moment of prayer. “I thought the guard would surely say no for security reasons,” David writes. “Instead, he looked at me and shrugged his shoulders, telling me without words that it was up to me.
“I walked with the inmate, who had been my patient, to the group of black prisoners in the corner of the room. He asked us all to join hands and we formed a connected human circle. He started to sing ‘We Shall Overcome’ and gestured for the rest of us to join in.” When they finished singing, “several of the prisoners hugged me, and I hugged them back.”
“A few days later, the Red Cross sent out a call for medical volunteers to go to downtown Washington and assist the injured in any way they could. The request was posted in the NIH buildings, and I volunteered—perhaps the only NIH doctor who did. As we drove in the Red Cross car to our nation’s capital, I thought about my father in Israel, when he was the only performer who volunteered to sing to the soldiers at the front….” His father did the same in Vietnam in April 1967, singing to the GIs in Saigon, Da Nang and Nha Trang, and hosting a seder with Sara for all soldiers at the Tan Son Nhat airbase.
This same David Tucker has been “removed, effective immediately” from the Foundation bearing his father’s name, but has also been “condemn[ed] for [his] hurtful and offensive comments” which “do not align with the beliefs and mission of the Richard Tucker Music Foundation.” The comments appeared not on his Facebook page but that of another user, where he condemned the rioting, looting, and what he sees as attacks on the vast majority of police officers who protect the common good. Because Facebook, Twitter and other social media offer anyone a platform for decrying or applauding anyone else’s stance on any issue, David’s comments and the Foundation’s announcement of his immediate removal have generated dozens of pro-and-con comments—some from well-known writers, several from past winners of the Tucker Foundation awards, others from those who have noted that the Metropolitan Opera itself has come under similar criticism for a lack of diversity, and some that are merely name-calling by social-media users whose insults are grade-school level.
David’s formal response to the Foundation states that “In my opinion, my comments were used as an excuse for those outside individuals to use me as a scapegoat to really attack the Foundation by claiming that its great accomplishments to the world of opera are tainted due to allegations of internal racism. Disgraceful that the Board does not realize this and should be a warning against capitulation that might lead to future unfair attacks.
“Our country needs to come together, but capitulation and appeasement to the mob will never lead to a more perfect union. Proper discourse and a true belief of the First Amendment (free speech) should be one of our top priorities.” Perhaps he should have added “due process,” which he appears to have been denied when he was removed from the Foundation’s board. All three sons of Richard Tucker were shaped by his views about ethnicity and race. When Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West (or, in English, The Girl of the Golden West) was revived by the Metropolitan Opera in 1960, Richard Tucker was cast in the role Enrico Caruso had created in 1910. His co-star was the incomparable dramatic soprano Leontyne Price.
When asked during a radio interview whether audiences would accept a black woman being the love interest of a white man, Tucker replied, “In opera, the voice and the interpretation are what matter. Either you’re great in a role, or you’re not. Singers don’t have any ‘color’ on an opera stage.”
Hearing the opulent soprano voice of Leontyne Price in a solo from “Fanciulla,” and the ringing tenor of Richard Tucker as Dick Johnson in excerpts from a “live” performance, makes the latter’s point in ways that music alone can convey: