The James A. Drake Interviews • Milton Cross (Part 2)

MILTON CROSS INTERVIEW
Part 2 of 3
James A. Drake

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Let me ask you about many of the great singers whose names you mentioned earlier.  As I mention them, please tell me what comes to mind when you hear their names.  Let me begin with Geraldine Farrar.

Of all of the great singers I have been privileged to come to know, Geraldine Farrar was the most special to me.  The first performance in which I heard her was a Tosca with Antonio Scotti as Scarpia, and Alessandro Bonci as Cavaradossi, in 1909.  I still have the program from that performance, and her autograph is written across it.  I treasure that program more than any other—and believe me, I have many!

Almost twenty-five years later, in the 1930s, I had the privilege of working closely with her when she did intermission features during the Met broadcasts.  She based each of her features on the opera that we were broadcasting that afternoon—and to demonstrate various musical points that she was making, she would sing two or three bars from the score, accompanying herself on a little upright piano that was put in the box for her.

What was Farrar like as a person?

This sounds trite to say, but she was a star—a real star—but she was very approachable, very considerate, and very supportive of everyone she worked with.  When I first saw her in 1909, I thought she was even more beautiful in-person than in the photograph I had of her.  In those days, I had her photo in a frame next to my bed.  I was thoroughly smitten!  I see the same phenomenon happening today [1974] with Kiri Te Kanawa, just as I saw it happening with Anna Moffo a few years ago.

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Geraldine Farrar (G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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In the opera house, did Farrar sound like she does on her Victor Red Seal recordings?

Yes and no.  The mechanical-recording process was none too kind to women singers, except perhaps for coloratura sopranos.  In the [opera] house, Farrar’s voice was much larger than what you hear on her old recordings, and her middle range was much larger than her recordings would lead you to believe.  That’s why I’m so glad that several of her intermission features were saved as radio transcriptions.  Those transcriptions capture the gorgeous sound of her middle range.  None of her old recordings were able to do that.

You spoke about Evan Williams, and the warmth of his personality when you met him after a concert.  Did John McCormack, whom you not only heard but worked with on radio, have that same type of personality offstage?

No!  John McCormack was always cordial but very formal, rather aloof, and “all business,” as they say—not the genial Irishman that the public imaged him to be.  Although he was the most famous tenor of his time except Caruso, McCormack was always suspicious of any upcoming singers who were singing what he regarded as his songs.  I can remember a number of times at rehearsals, when he would take me aside and quiz me about other singers who were on the radio.  “Now tell me, Mr. Cross,” he once said to me, “who is this Bing Crosby, and what do you know of him?”  I answered that I knew Bing personally, and that he was a fine fellow.

“And what is his voice?” McCormack wanted to know.  “Well, he’s a light baritone,” I said, “and he’s a crooner like your friend Mr. [Rudy] Valée.”  I knew that McCormack liked Rudy Vallee because Rudy had him on his radio show and treated him like a king—and Rudy, of course, never sang any songs that were associated with John McCormack.

“This boy Crosby is doing my songs on his program,” McCormack said to me very sternly.  “Last week he sang my ‘Adeste Fidelis,’ and I don’t think I like that very much!”  I tried to remind him that this was the holiday season, but that didn’t seem to make any difference to McCormack.  After that conversation, I got in touch with Bing and told him about it—and then Bing invited McCormack to be on his radio program, and made a big fuss over him.  From then on, Bing and McCormack became good friends.

Around that same time, McCormack took me aside again and said, almost in the same words, “Now tell me, Mr. Cross, who is this James Melton, and what do you know of him?”  I said that I didn’t know Melton very well, not like I knew Bing, but that [Melton] was a light tenor who had been with The Revelers, and was now a soloist on the radio.  “Are you aware,” McCormack said brusquely, “that this boy Melton had the nerve to sing my ‘Macushla’ on the radio this week?  Does that boy think he can just steal my music and take money from my own pockets?  I’ll not allow it!”

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John McCormack (G.G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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That’s how McCormack was—very suspicious and very possessive, as in referring to “my ‘Macushla.’”  Now, as a singer, he was in a league of his own.  No one but John McCormack sounded like John McCormack.  And I have to say that even in popular songs like “Macushla,” which he did essentially “own,” his flawless vocal technique is always evident.  I would go so far as to say that there are at least two of his Victor recordings which I don’t believe any other tenor will ever surpass:  “Swans,” which has the most beautiful diminuendii you’ll ever hear, and “Il mio tesoro,” which is one of the greatest recordings of this century.

If my research is correct, you were in the audience for the Met debut of Leo Slezak, in an historic performance of Otello with Frances Alda and Antonio Scotti.

And with Toscanini conducting.  What a night that was!  That was only a few weeks before I heard Farrar in Tosca.  When Leo Slezak made his entrance, everyone in the audience literally gasped:  he looked like a real-life Paul Bunyan!  When he sang “Esultate!” the applause went on so long that Toscanini had difficulty restarting the orchestra.  I have heard a number of tenors in Otello since then, but I have never heard one who could equal Leo Slezak in that role.

Not even, say, Giovanni Martinelli, or more recently Mario Del Monaco?

Not at all.  Mario Del Monaco either could not or would not sing at any dynamic level other than forte.  Leo Slezak could do a diminuendo, which very few other tenors could do.  The only ones who come to mind in that regard are Giacomo Lauri-Volpi in his prime, and Franco Corelli today.  Corelli has done diminuendi on the air, notably in “Ah, levez-toi soleil” in Romeo et Juliette.

Do you recall Lauritz Melchior singing Otello to Elisabeth Rethberg’s Desdemona at the gala performance for Gatti-Casazza in 1935?

Yes, I was fortunate to be there, and of course I heard Melchior many times after that in the great Wagnerian roles.

Having heard Leo Slezak and Lauritz Melchior, how would you compare the two?  Would you consider them equals?

Not in Otello, no—if that’s what you mean.  In the Wagnerian roles, I would say that they were equals, at least in terms of the clarion quality of their voices.  But Melchior was incapable of subtlety, whereas Slezak was capable of infinite subtlety.  His lieder recordings, which he made relatively late in his career, are remarkable!  Melchior could never have done that.

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Elisabeth Rethberg and Ezio Pinza at the Met (from The NBC Transmitter, December 1940)

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The versatile Elisabeth Rethberg sang in the German wing of the Metropolitan wing, along with the Italian wing.  You also heard, as you mentioned, Maria Jeritza, who was also associated with some German roles in addition to her French and Italian ones.  And you also knew and heard Lotte Lehmann several times.  Can you compare them?

Oh, Lehmann was a thorough artist!  Jeritza was a fine interpreter and actor, as was Lehmann, but Jeritza was a better actor than a singer.  Lehmann could do it all—and she was witty, too.  I remember and intermission feature in which Jeritza and Lehmann were interviewed together, and Jeritza opened the interview by saying to Lehmann, “I have such good things to say about you, but I don’t think you’ll believe them.”  “No, I won’t,” said Lehmann with a laugh.

I also remember another intermission feature, a singer’s roundtable in which Lily Pons and Lotte Lehmann were interviewed.  Pons was always discreet about her age, and though she was rumored to be at least five years older than the claimed, her skin tone and her tiny physique made her look quite a bit younger.  In the interview, Lily laid out this beauty plan that was based on squeezing fresh lemons all over her face.  That’s how she kept her face so youthful-looking she said.  At that moment, Lehmann, whose face was quite wrinkled, got a great laugh by saying to Pons, “Tell me more about zeez lemons!”

Looking back on the great sopranos you worked with, including Lotte Lehmann, which ones were the most fun to be around and to work with?

In the 1920s and 1930s, the life of the party was always Rosa Ponselle.  Today, they would say that she “is where the action is.”  No soprano of her era had the kind of massive and reverential following that Ponselle did.  And, my God, she was funny!  She had pet names for all of us, and she treated everyone as a friend.  Then there was that voice—and there has never been another dramatic soprano that was equal to it.  Ponselle and Caruso were the two artists that everyone wanted to hear.  As Farrar said on the air, “When you hear Rosa Ponselle, you hear a fountain of melody blessed by the Lord.”  In the 1940s and 1950s, I had similar fun with Helen Traubel on tour. 

She too is reputed to have had a wicked sense of humor.  The same with Eleanor Steber.

They were great people, that’s why.  She made a few onstage mistakes, as they all do, but she laughed them off afterward.

And Eileen Farrell?

I certainly admire her singing—and, you know, she can sing popular music, especially blues numbers, as well as she can sing, say, Aida.  But she’s a very crude woman, very boorish, and she seems to be rather proud of it.

We spoke of James Melton, but in connection with John McCormack.  Melton’s career paralleled that of Richard Crooks.  What are your assessments of them as singers, interpreters, and actors?

In my opinion, one was an artist—Richard Crooks—and the other, Melton, was just a very fine singer.  Melton was at his best in songs like “Oh, Dry Those Tears” and “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen,” where the throb in his voice could accentuate the maudlin lyrics of those songs.  Crooks, on the other hand, was like a perfectly crafted cameo, especially in the French repertoire.  But he could sing almost anything and do it wonderfully.  When he was making recordings with the Victor Light Opera Company, his “Overheard the moon is beaming” from The Student Prince, or “If One Flower Grows in Your Garden” from The Desert Song, were musically excellent and dramatically intense.  And his Red Seal recording of the lullaby from Jocelyn will bring tears to your eyes, especially in the last few measures.

Staying with the topic of American tenors, you must have heard almost all of them.  Let me mention their names, and ask you to give me the impressions that come to your mind as you hear their names.  Let me begin with Charles Hackett.  Did you hear him in-person?

Oh, yes—several times.  I remember his Alfredo in Traviata, with Frieda Hempel as Violetta, and I also remember him in a Verdi Requiem with Rosa Ponselle, Margarete Matzenauer, and José Mardones.   Hackett’s was not a particularly beautiful voice—it was fairly large, though, a spinto tenor—but he was a superb musician and an excellent actor.  Hackett was a very nice-looking man, too.

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Charles Hackett (G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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Another American tenor of that era was Riccardo Martin.  Did you hear him at the Met?

Yes, only once, as Pinkerton in Butterfly, with Farrar in the title role and Scotti as Sharpless.  I think Rita Fornia sang Suzuki.  Riccardo Martin was rather tall and trim, and was an excellent actor.  It was said that Caruso was very fond of him, and gave him a lot of encouragement.  Although Martin’s prime years were a little before Hackett’s, I would put them in the same league—not the most beautiful voices, in other words, but excellent interpreters and actors.

Among the other American tenors who had successful careers at the Met after World War One were Orville Harrold, Mario Chamlee, and Morgan Kingston.  What do you recall hearing them in?

I heard Orville Harrold in Cavalleria rusticana, in a double-bill with Le Coq d’Or rather than the more usual Pagliacci.  Orville Harrold was another Paul Bunyan-type—a big, tall, broad-shouldered fellow.  His voice had a lyrical tone quality, but it was surprisingly large in the opera house. Kingston I saw in La Navarraise, which Farrar and Léon Rothier.  He sang well, and it was a sizeable voice, but he sang everything at forte or fortissimo, so his part in the performance was not on a par with Farrar’s and Rothier’s.

I heard Chamlee in his debut, which was in Tosca with Farrar and Scotti in February 1920.  I had heard his recording of “E lucevan le stelle,” which sounded rather like Caruso’s Red Seal record.  Later, I found out from my friend Gus Haenschen, who was at Brunswick in the old days, that Walter B. Rogers, who directed Brunswick’s equivalent of the Victor Red Seal, had coached Chamlee to imitate Caruso’s recording phrase by phrase.  But in the [opera] house, Chamlee didn’t sound anything like that.  It was a good voice, but not a great voice—and he certainly didn’t sound anything like Caruso.

Two other American tenors who come to mind were Paul Althouse and Frederick Jagel.  Did you hear both tenors?

Yes, I did.  Paul Althouse had almost two separate careers—first in the Italian and French tenor roles, and later in some of the Wagnerian heldentenor roles.  He was better, in my opinion, in the Wagnerian repertoire.  Frederick Jagel was a very capable tenor in the lyric Italian roles.  I remember his Turiddu being especially good, both vocally and histrionically.  Like Althouse, Jagel was a good, solid, reliable performer.  But neither of them had what I would regard as great voices.

You heard Caruso in his prime.  Please tell me everything you can remember about the experience of hearing and seeing him at the Met.

I first heard Caruso on March 15, 1910, with Johanna Gadski as Aida, Louise Homer as Amneris, Pasquale Amato as Amonasro, and Toscanini conducting.   At home, we owned Caruso’s Victor Red Seal of “Celeste Aida” (Victor 88025), which he had recorded in 1906, and the Johanna Gadski-Louise Homer duets from the second act [“Fu la sorte” and “Alla pompa, che s’appressa”].  We also had the two Red Seals of the Tomb Scene with Caruso and Gadski.  I played those Tomb Scene discs so many times that I could hear them in my sleep—but it wasn’t until I heard Caruso and Gadski sing it on the stage that I realized that several cuts had been made in those recordings.

In the opera house, did Caruso sound like he did on his many Red Seal recordings?

I didn’t think so.  His voice sounded smaller than it did on recordings.  I was expecting to hear a huge voice, and instead it seemed a good deal smaller but also much more nuanced.  In “Celeste Aida,” for example, his tempo was considerably slower than it was on the recording, and he did a lot of shading that you don’t hear on his recordings.  Of course, from the little seat I had way up in the balcony, I was hearing him from far away.  In the recordings, his voice was coming directly into my ears from the Victrola.

That’s a very good point, and one that’s overlooked in acoustical recording technology.  The singer was about five or six inches from the recording horn, which was fed directly into the max master, and the resulting recording was played through an acoustical speaker that was only a few feet from the listener—an entirely different experience, in other words, from hearing a great singer in a cavernous opera house, even one with excellent acoustics.

That’s one of the main reasons why, when I heard the first few measures of Caruso singing “Celeste Aida,” I thought to myself, “He doesn’t sound like his Red Seals.  He doesn’t sound like Caruso.”  Now, in retrospect I shouldn’t have listened to those Red Seals at our home over and over before going to the Met so I could compare them to the singer’s “live” voices.  But at the time, I didn’t realize that all of these singers used a different technique—well, not a different technique in the vocal-production sense, but rather a different approach—when they made studio recordings.

Was Caruso’s a beautiful voice in your judgment? 

Well, yes, in its own way.  His voice had the baritonal quality that you hear on his recordings—and there was no effort at all in his singing.  I remember that his movements onstage were more natural, I thought, than Gadski’s.  She looked rather stiff by comparison.  The makeup they used for her was awfully dark, almost the color of mud, which didn’t exactly help her.  Pasquale Amato, on the other hand, seemed very natural, and his Amonasro was very well acted.

Was there any part of that Aida performance in which you “heard” the Caruso voice that we’re familiar with on recordings?

Well, looking back, it was probably a mistake to listen to those recordings over and over again before going to the opera house.  What I was expecting to hear were those ringing high notes that I had heard in those Aida recordings.  In my head, I was listening to the recordings, especially of “Celeste Aida,” and as soon as I heard him singing the aria at a slower tempo, and with so much nuance, I was disappointed because I wasn’t hearing those trumpet-like high notes.

But I did hear them later in the opera.  It was at the end of the Nile Scene, when he sang “[Sacerdote!] Io resto a te!”  Maybe [Francesco] Tamagno sang high notes with such tremendous power—I don’t know—but when Caruso sang “Io rest’ a te,” I said to myself, “Yes!  That’s it!  That is Caruso!”  He had never recorded that music, so I was hearing him sing it—I should say, I was hearing him, meaning his real voice—for the first time.   There’s a lesson in that for people today.  Enjoy your records when you play them, but don’t expect the record to sound like the singer, or vice-versa.

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Pasquale Amato (right), with Antonio Scotti and Lucrezia Bori
(G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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About Pasquale Amato:   in the opera house, sound at all like his Victor recordings?

On the stage, Amato’s voice was like a French horn.  It was quite large, though not as large as Ruffo’s was.  Like Caruso, Amato used a lot of shading in his singing, which doesn’t come across in his recordings.  There was such precision in that performance of Aida.  Toscanini saw to that!  But no, to answer your question, his recordings don’t do him justice.

After Caruso’s passing, many of the dramatic roles for which he was famous were assigned to Giovanni Martinelli, and the more lyrical roles to Beniamino Gigli.  You heard them many times in the ensuing years.  Are there particular performances of theirs which you recall vividly?

Yes, especially in Martinelli’s case.  You must remember that Gigli left the Metropolitan in 1932, but that Martinelli sang there until 1946.  Martinelli’s first in-house role was Rodolfo in Bohème, with Lucrezia Bori in 1913, and his last in-house performance was as Rodolfo, with Licia Albanese as Mimi.  Interestingly, Bori and Albanese were exactly the same height, and had almost the identical measurements.  Even their shoe sizes were the same.  Licia [Albanese] told me that when she tried on a pair of shoes that Bori had worn—they were Size 2—they fit Licia perfectly.

Were you in the audience when Gigli made his debut as Faust in Mefistofele?

Yes, and I think I heard almost every in-house performance that Gigli gave during his first season.  His debut was one of the most talked-about and the most anticipated in the circles that I was in.  Gigli had the most beautiful tenor voice I have ever heard.

Were there any similarities in Gigli’s voice, compared to Caruso’s? 

Not to my ears, no.  Gigli’s was the perfect lyric tenor voice.  It was a sizable voice, too.  The beauty of [his] timbre was indescribable.  If I were asked to write a dictionary, after the word “tenor” I would put a photograph of Beniamino Gigli.

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Beniamino Gigli. Silly poses like this were Victor’s attempt to impart a more “down-to-earth image” to their Red Seal artists.
(G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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Among other tenors who come to mind in the lyric roles were Tito Schipa, and later Ferruccio Tagliavini.  How would you compare them to Gigli?

In one role that I can think of, the title role in Mascagni’s L’Amico Fritz, Schipa and Tagliavini were superb.  But I heard Miguel Fleta as Fritz, with Bori as Suzel, in 1923, and he was extraordinary!  In those days, L’Amico Fritz was occasionally paired with Cavalleria rusticana, since both were written by Mascagni.

On recordings, in my personal opinion, the two best versions of the second-act “Cherry Duet” are Schipa’s with Mafalda Favero, and Tagliavini’s with Pia Tassinari, his wife, as Suzel.  If you know L’Amico Fritz, you’ll know that the singing in the third act, such as the “Ah! Ditela per me,” requires some vocal heft.  That’s why Fleta and Gigli were excellent in L’Amico Fritz.  They could sing at any dynamic level, from pianissimo to fortissimo, and their techniques were excellent.

If I were asked to choose between Schipa or Tagliavini with Gigli in L’Amico Fritz, especially in the third act, Gigli would be my choice.  It’s remarkable, though, how much Tagliavini sounded like Gigli in the softer passages—but only in the softer passages.  Although he had a very fine career, I think that Tagliavini’s Gigli-like timbre worked against him.  He was always compared to Gigli, but his [Tagliavini’s] voice had none of the heft that Gigli had.

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