Coda: The Tales of Rounseville

by NEIL GENZLINGER

Coda Rounseville hdl 215
As Hoffmann in Michael Powell’s 1951 film
© Lopert Pictures Corporation/Photofest 2015

Should you find yourself making your way through Henry King’s 1956 film version of Carousel, an adaptation of the Rodgers and Hammerstein stage musical that has calcified as it has aged, you may perk up about forty minutes in, when a secondary character named Mr. Enoch Snow comes along. 

“Finally,” you may say, weary from overexposure to Billy Bigelow, the story’s unlikable center — “a male character I don’t have to hate. And who’s that actor? The gentleman has some spunk, and a fine voice too.”

The gentleman is Robert Rounseville, whose enjoyable work in Carousel is all the more impressive because he was a bit far afield: his day job, as it were, was as one of that era’s most reliable opera tenors. Rounseville died in 1974 at the age of sixty; his too-short career deserves a lifetime-achievement award for sheer versatility. (How many opera singers can say that they originated a Stravinsky title role, played opposite Groucho Marx and helped inspire the films of both Martin Scorsese and George A. Romero?)

Rounseville was multifaceted from the start, and his willingness to try anything served him well throughout his career, which spanned a time of great change in the entertainment business. Born in Massachusetts in 1914, he was a premed student at Tufts before coming to New York in the 1930s to study voice. Once in the city, he worked in nightclubs and vaudeville, as well as in radio. His obituary in The New York Times credited him with introducing the patriotic song “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition,” written in the aftermath of the bombing of Pearl Harbor by a tunesmith who would eventually conquer Broadway, Frank Loesser.

Amid this hodgepodge of employment came Rounseville’s Broadway debut, in 1937, in a small role in Babes in Arms. But he had his eye on serious opera, and eleven years later he made his New York City Opera debut in Pelléas et Mélisande, playing Pelléas. “Vocally and histrionically, he added persuasiveness to the production,” the Times reported.

It was the first of many opera successes. In 1951, in Venice, he originated the role of Tom Rakewell in the Stravinsky opera The Rake’s Progress. That was a heck of a year for Rounseville: he also made his movie debut, in the title role of The Tales of Hoffmann. The film, directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, was an innovative merging of image and sound, one whose reach has proved to be long. Scorsese and Romero have both said it significantly influenced their careers. Romero — the director, of course, of the original Night of the Living Dead — has called it “the movie that made me really want to make movies.” And then, just a few years after Hoffmann, came Carousel, in which Rounseville played the fiancé of Carrie Pipperidge. Rounseville and Barbara Ruick, as Carrie, did lovely work in the duet “When the Children Are Asleep.” In it, you can hear the vocal qualities that made Rounseville so versatile — a rich, full sound, but casual as well, largely free of the overpowering histrionics that make some opera singers unsuited to the popular stage.

Rounseville may not have been the biggest name in any of the fields in which he worked, but he sure did manage to cross paths with a lot of titans. Take, for instance, his other big project from 1956 — the title role (again!) in a Broadway version of Candide that had a book by Lillian Hellman and music by Leonard Bernstein and was directed by Tyrone Guthrie. (Brooks Atkinson, reviewing the show in the Times, wrote, “If he gives us a more disarming Candide than Voltaire intended, no objections are raised in this corner, for the Rounseville Candide is excellent.”)

As for Groucho, Rounseville seemed fearless about branching out, and that included trying the new medium that was taking hold as his career was hitting its peak — television. In 1960, he turned up as the minstrel Nanki-Poo in a Bell Telephone Hour version of The Mikado, with Groucho Marx as Ko-Ko, the lord high executioner. 

One of Rounseville’s final roles was the Padre in Man of La Mancha on Broadway, first in 1965 and then in a 1972 revival. With his best opera-singing years probably behind him, he seemed on his way to finding a late-career comfort zone playing secondary roles in stage musicals with occasional recitals, classes and film and television appearances thrown in. But he died of a heart attack in his Carnegie Hall studio in August 1974. Ever the explorer, he had been planning to appear that fall in a one-man show called Guided Tour of Intellectual Rubbish, based on the life and works of Bertrand Russell.

Rounseville was far from the only opera singer to work in other genres. In his own time, for instance, Ezio Pinza won a Tony Award for South Pacific. But few were as good at navigating the difference between singing opera and singing musical theater — or between singing on a stage and singing for a screen. And few moved among so many forms with such ease. Were he in his prime today, he’d probably be right at home in hybrids such as Sweeney Todd, and he wouldn’t be shy about doing cameos in that barbershop quartet that’s always turning up on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. And he’d very likely have his own YouTube channel, where his many followers could find his latest experiments. spacer

NEIL GENZLINGER is a television, theater and film critic at The New York Times.

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Current Issue: February 2015 — VOL. 79, NO. 8