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Classical 101

Book Review: Richard Tucker's Son Writes 'The Hard Bargain'

Elizabeth Winston / James A. Drake
Richard Tucker conducts his three sons.

Many years ago, I recorded an interview for WOSU with soprano Licia Albanese. She was a favorite of Toscanini’s. Her career in opera went back to the 1930s. 

She was a very elderly lady when I spoke to her (she lived to be 104), but she was clear-headed with total recall. She was especially clear-headed when I asked her about the tenors opposite whom she had appeared.

“Tenors?” she said. “The Tenor was Tucker! Tucker was the tenor. Everybody else, OK. But for me – Tucker!”

Richard Tucker (1913-1975), born Reuben Ticker, began life in the garment business. He went on to become a chazzan, a cantor with a good following in the New York area.

Eventually, his voice came to the attention of the managers of the Metropolitan Opera. Ticker the garment-man-turned-chazzan became Richard Tucker, America’s greatest Italian tenor.

Tucker married Sarah Perelmuth. The couple had three sons.

Now the middle son, David, has written a combination biography-autobiography, showing us the influence of one man upon another.

The Hard Bargain: Music, Medicine and My Father (Richard Tucker, Opera Legend)is David Tucker’s valentine to his dad and a memoir of his own short-lived career in music.

It’s a story of father-son struggle, and it is most certainly a love story, from son to father. The love from father to son may not be obvious to outsiders, but it was certainly there.

Lest we regret that the young Tucker failed to make much of himself in show biz, let it be quickly established that Dr. David Tucker was every parent’s dream of “my son, the doctor.”

He is a Cornell-educated eye surgeon who worked at the top of his profession for over 40 years. What do I know about eye surgeons? But I do know that Tucker writes convincingly about an important career.

For many years, we were near neighbors. Dr. Tucker was the leading eye surgeon in Cincinnati.

He married early, had four children and pursued his studies while his father was starring at the Met, in Israel and through Europe and South America.

I was a kid when I heard Richard Tucker sing, twice. Both times were at the cavernous War Memorial Auditorium in Boston (boat show closes on Saturday, the Met opened Monday night).

After one matinee, I trolled around backstage. Tucker, having just sung Don Jose in Carmen, was in his bathrobe, trying to get dressed and catch a plane. He was in a hurry handing out autographed photographs.

“That’s it, boys; that’s it. Now on your way.” At his side was Mrs. Tucker, who rewarded us with a warm smile and a “thank you, dear.”

David Tucker wanted to sing opera, too. David pursued serious study at the New England Conservatory. There were a number of appearances as David Nello.

Papa Richard was not encouraging. To him, being a highly educated physician was a calling from God. He was not about to divert his son from medical school. If David was crazy enough to sing, let him sing on his own.

He did. David Tucker might have gone places, but marriage, kids and medicine won out. He exchanged an iffy career for a triumphant one.

Along the way, his father’s fame led him all over the world, meeting people he might never have otherwise met. I’m sure the new perspectives were helpful in treating patients from all occupations.

Credit Xlibris Corp. / amazon.com
Book cover for 'The Hard Bargain: Music, Medicine, and My Father (Richard Tucker, Opera Legend)'

You gotta love Mrs. Tucker, too (That “thank you, dear” had me her devoted fan.). Years after David had flunked out of school, he graduated cum laude from Cornell.

Mrs. Tucker had herself driven to the offending school from the time gone by, and announced, “My son is Dr. David Tucker from Cornell University!”

I suspect Richard Tucker himself would have sung that joyfully from the stage of the Met, be it after Aida, Carmen or La Boheme (He starred in them all.).

All the Tucker sons found success. The eldest, Barry, remains the force behind the prestigious Richard Tucker Music Foundation. The organization's career grants have launched Renee Fleming, Aprile Millo, Lawrence Brownlee, Michael Fabiano and Christian Van Horn. There are many others.

Richard Tucker was modest about his own fame.

As he explained to David: “How do you think I ended up at the Met? Why would the bigwigs from the Met come all the way out to Brooklyn to hear a cantor? Because the war was on, and they needed tenors! That’s the only reason.”

That wasn’t the only reason. The chief reason was that Cantor Tucker had the exciting squillo ring loved by audiences and composers. He became world famous because of this voice, and the discipline with which he schooled and used that voice.

For David, better you go to medical school and become an educated and successful man. Which he did – with a little show biz along the way.

Christopher Purdy is Classical 101's early morning host, 7-10 a.m. weekdays. He is host and producer of Front Row Center – Classical 101’s weekly celebration of Opera and more – as well as Music in Mid-Ohio, Concerts at Ohio State, and the Columbus Symphony broadcast series. He is the regular pre-concert speaker for Columbus Symphony performances in the Ohio Theater.
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