Viewpoint: The Voice of America

by F. Paul Driscoll.

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Tibbett in costume for his 1935 film Metropolitan

THE BARITONE IS A VOICE TYPE that has been associated frequently with American artists, especially in the 1940s and ’50s, when baritones were favored as interpreters of “pop” music on the radio as well as opera arias. The archetype of the hearty all-American baritone was Lawrence Tibbett (1896–1960), a California native who was one of his era’s great stars. Born in Bakersfield and raised in Los Angeles, Tibbett was a compelling actor with an extraordinary voice—sizable yet pliant, with a smooth, dark velvet timbre—that seemed capable of handling any musical challenge. Tibbett made his Met debut in November 1923, shortly after his twenty-seventh birthday, as the Jesuit Lavitsky in a matinee of Boris Godunov. Less than two years later, Tibbett became an overnight star when his sensational Ford stole the show in a new production of Verdi’s Falstaff. The ovation after the young baritone’s “E sogno” was so enthusiastic and so prolonged that the performance could not continue until Tibbett took a solo bow. Tibbett’s celebrity began that night, and his value to his home company increased rapidly, with plum assignments in Italian, French and German repertory, including Rigoletto (his most frequent Met role), Germont, Amonasro, Scarpia and Wolfram. Tibbett was a founder and longtime president of AGMA, recorded prolifically—everything from Wotan to Gershwin’s Porgy—and even won an Oscar nomination for The Rogue Song (1930) during his brief time as a Hollywood film star.

In his best years, Tibbett was a glorious performer—ebullient, confident and attractive. But Tibbett’s prime was brief; by the early 1940s, he underwent a vocal crisis and developed a severe drinking problem, causing a noticeable loss of power and focus in his work. Tibbett’s Met career ended in 1950, as Ivan Khovansky in Khovanshchina. He tried and failed to establish a career as stage actor before he died in 1960. spacer 

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