Lawrence Tibbett


Born: November 16, 1896 Died: July 15, 1960
Baritone Lawrence Tibbett was one of the glamor figures of opera in the 1930s and 1940s -- a strikingly handsome man with a virile voice and plenty of dramatic talent. He began his career balancing between drama and music, at one point acting in a Shakespeare company directed by Tyrone Power, Sr., appearing in musicals, and singing in various churches. Tenor Joseph Dupuy heard him and took him on as a pupil, and later Basil Ruysdael gave him several lessons, including the natural technique of delivering text and music that greatly contributed to his success. Through various connections, he met Frances Alda, a soprano and wife of Gatti-Casazza, the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera. She arranged for him to audition, and he made his Met debut in 1923 in the small part of Lewicki in Boris Godunov; his debut in a lead role (Valentin in Gounod's Faust) came quickly. His first great career success was in 1925, in an all-star tribute to Antonio Scotti, in which he substituted as Ford in Verdi's Othello for Vincente Ballester. After Ford's monologue, the house went wild, applauding and shouting for 16 minutes, and Tibbett's future as the Met's leading baritone lay clearly ahead. (This future seemed in doubt after Tibbett became too violent in an onstage confrontation in La cena delle beffe and threw his leading lady to the ground; after the performance, Beniamino Gigli whistled Chopin's famous Funeral March outside Tibbett's dressing room door, but no long-term harm was done.)

Tibbett became a passionate champion of American opera, and in the late 1920s and 1930s he sang in the world premieres of many notable American works, the best known of which are The King's Henchman and Peter Ibbetson (Deems Taylor), The Emperor Jones (Louis Gruenberg), Merry Mount (Howard Hanson), In the Pasha's Garden (John Seymour), and Caponsacchi (Richard Hageman). Additionally, he was a major figure on radio, was the first president of the American Guild of Musical Artists, and was one of the first "serious" opera singers to appear in full-length films, starting with Lionel Barrymore's 1929 The Rogue Song. He followed this with New Moon (1930), The Prodigal (1931), Cuban Love Song (1931), Metropolitan (1935), and Under Your Spell (1936).

He did not, however, sing outside the United States until 1937, when he debuted as Scarpia in Puccini's Tosca at Covent Garden; this led to his creation of the role of Don Juan in Eugene Goossens' Don Juan de MaƱara. In 1940, he was ill for several months with a throat problem, and this and his growing alcoholism led to serious vocal difficulties; many of his subsequent performances were deeply criticized. He began to move back to drama and musicals towards the end of his career, appearing in the Broadway opera The Barrier, by Jan Meyerowitz and Langston Hughes, and making his stage farewell in Fanny in 1956. He died in an automobile accident.