Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Remembering Jerry Hadley

It’s been two years, now, since the music world was dealing with the news of the deaths of three great singers: Beverly Sills died on July 2nd, Regine Crespin on July 7th, and then on July 10th we were waiting for news about tenor Jerry Hadley who had been placed on life-support following an attempted suicide, then waiting for the inevitable news of his death which finally came 8 days later..

Jerry Hadley had been one of the leading American tenors in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Then his career (and life) fell on hard times, as often happens to singers who, usually, reach a point where they are considered “past their prime.”

I had blogged about it when I worked at the radio station, but those posts are no longer available. There were numerous e-mails from people who knew him and people who just loved his singing. An e-mail today from a friend and colleague of his, Robert Chapman, who had contacted me then, prompted me to remember the events of those days.

After hearing the news about Jerry’s being on life-support, Mr. Chapman wrote to tell me about his experience working with Jerry when his career was getting underway. He allowed me to quote him then and I re-post that quote now:

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This afternoon, I was listening to Jerry's recording of 'A Tazza 'e Cafè! (from his RCA recording A Song of Naples). This happy song, lovingly sung by a grandson of Italian immigrants, is how I choose to remember our mutual friend.

When I first met Jerry, he wanted to pick my brain about what it was like to sing in European opera houses (I'd spent several years at the Frankfurt Opera). I asked him which tenors he most admired and might want to pattern his career after. Without any hesitation, he replied "Fritz Wunderlich." "An excellent choice," I said, of the great German tenor whose life was tragically cut short at 36. Over the years it became more and more apparent that the singer whose career most closely paralleled Jerry's was not Wunderlich's but Nicolai Gedda's. For the most part, each chose their roles wisely, although both Jerry and Nicky eventually succumbed to the temptation to take on roles that Mother Nature never intended them to sing. Both were very smart but, after all, they were TENORS!

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(Typical baritone humor, there...)

Bob, who’s since been working for a non-affiliated classical music station in North Carolina, wrote to tell me, “I've stayed in touch with [Jerry’s] former wife, Cheryll, and she's given her imprimatur to the two shows I'll be running, this week and next, on the WCPE Opera House in tribute to Jerry.” He included this information which you can listen to on-line.

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On this week's WCPE Opera House, tenor Jerry Hadley stars in two of the four operettas by Franz Lehár that he translated and recorded with maestro Richard Bonynge: The Czarevitch and Giuditta. The plot of The Czarevitch is loosely based on a true story: the self-imposed exile of the son of Peter the Great, Alexei, who shirked his father's command by running away to Naples with his Finnish mistress disguised as a page. In the operetta, the mistress is replaced by a ballerina, Sonia, who is initially disguised as a boy! Giuditta was Lehár's last and most ambitious work. Of all his works it is the one that most approaches true opera, the resemblances between the story and that of Bizet's Carmen and its unhappy ending heightening the resonances. Perhaps the best known song in the work is the soprano aria "Meine Lippen, sie küssen so heiß" ("Kiss my lips and your heart is aflame"), sung by Giuditta in the fourth scene.

In The Czarevitch, Mr. Hadley sings the title role and Nancy Gustafson is Sonia. Deborah Riedel sings the title role in Giuditta, with Hadley as Octavio. Richard Bonynge conducts the English Chamber Orchestra and the London Voices in both recordings.

Next week we'll conclude this Lehár festival and tribute to the late Jerry Hadley with performances of Paganini and The Land of Smiles. Not surprisingly, the former has some extraordinary fiddling, and the latter contains perhaps the most famous operetta aria every written, "Dein ist mein ganzes Herz" ("Yours is my heart alone").

The WCPE Opera House is heard every Thursday evening at 7 o'clock in the Eastern time zone on 89.7 FM in central North Carolina, and we're streamed online at .
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Jerry was very happy singing operettas as well as the more serious operas. He was also a champion of 20th Century works, singing in the world premiere of John Harbison’s “The Great Gatsby” at the Met. He was more recently taking on a new role in one of my favorite operas, the last one Benjamin Britten composed, as Aschenbach in “Death in Venice.”

Here is a brief excerpt from the video of a concert performance of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide. Bernstein had hand-picked Jerry for the title role and the recording they made is one of my favorites. Here is Jerry Hadley singing “It Must Be So” with the composer on the podium in 1989.

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There are so many stages to deal with here: the terrible question of suicide, for one; the power depression has that it could actually destroy someone so positive and seemingly successful like Jerry Hadley; the long wait that week two years ago, hoping against hope. Then the grief that, however obvious it may have been before, sinks in more intensely afterwards with that sense of loss, that there was never a chance to say good-bye, no final performance to offer a farewell bravo, so many songs left unsung. Only the healing of time will help with the perspective. 

That he should have – or even could have – resorted to suicide as a solution shocked me, even though I didn’t know him all that well and had not been in touch with him for a long time now, thinking all the things I should have – could have – done to keep in touch. 

Jerry went off to become famous: I was happy to have known him then and each performance I saw, each recording I heard, each review I read made me happy for him, that things had gone so well for a kid who went off to grad school, never having seen an opera, and landed a lead role at his first audition. 

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During my last year of teaching at the University of Connecticut, I was one of four on a faculty search committee to hire a part-time voice instructor. There were three or four candidates: one of them was okay but unmemorable, another had respectable credentials as both a performer and teacher in the Hartford area and would have served our purposes well enough, but the last one was this young man coming in from Illinois. I don’t recall what he sang but I remember, by the third or fourth measure, looking over at the soprano who chaired the voice department and realizing she and I were in agreement on one thing already: this was a talented young man. Unfortunately he had no teaching experience, just out of graduate school. It was fairly obvious why he was here: it was fairly obvious why most auditionees came to UConn – it was half-way between Boston and New York which is a world away from Illinois, for instance, and a great place to jump-start a career in opera. 

The soprano and I agreed, silently, that this was a career that needed to start. Of course the other two felt the Hartford tenor should be hired because he had the experience but the soprano and I lobbied for the future: hire the Hartford tenor the next time around, but aside from the fact where does a talent like this learn to teach students, let’s get this guy closer to New York so he’ll be singing for Beverly Sills at the New York City Opera and the music world will thank UConn for making it possible. Or something to that effect, but eventually we won over the others on the committee and so we were able to offer the job to Jerry Hadley. 

He told us the story that he was a simple small-town guy who liked musicals and sang a lot in church. When he went to the University of Illinois to work on a masters in music education, someone heard him singing show tunes in a practice room and interrupted him, inviting him to come on down to the opera auditions. 

“I’ve never even seen an opera,” Jerry told him, blushing at the idea of actually singing in one, apologizing for not having anything remotely operatic in his repertoire. “But the guy said ‘Just sing what you’re singing now and let them figure it out.’ So I went.” 

The next day, the cast list for the opera department’s production of Mozart’s “Magic Flute” went up and Jerry looked at the list. He saw he was down for Tamino. He asked one of the other singers there, “Is that a good role?” Yeah, well, it’s the lead role… one of the great tenor roles in the repertoire!

Meanwhile, having left UConn for an attempt at life in New York City myself, I ended up living in an apartment at 101st & Broadway. It was a mile-and-a-half to Lincoln Center, around 66th & B’way, a distance I walked almost daily (it was often faster to walk than take the bus or even the subway), going to concerts at the New York Philharmonic or performances at the Met, at City Opera, at Alice Tully Hall. 

It was an exciting time if a bit tenuous financially but an adventure and for the most part I loved it. I met a concert pianist who specialized in new music in my building and wrote a piece for her to perform at Carnegie Recital Hall. And across the street in a parallel apartment building (although on a grander, older, better maintained scale) I could hear a very fine tenor warming up several days a week. 

Then the news arrived that Jerry Hadley had indeed come to New York and sung for Beverly Sills. He was signed by the City Opera company immediately and was to make his debut in the rather brief role of Arturo, the husband murdered by Lucia prior to the Mad Scene in Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor.” It was a start. 

I was there for his opening night and I guess he sang well, though I was just too excited for him to notice if he had or hadn’t sung his best. He certainly didn’t sound like a kid who’d never seen an opera about 5 or 6 years earlier. He didn’t, however, come out for the final bow, for some reason: perhaps since he was killed off fairly early in the opera, he didn’t bother to hang around, which was kind of odd. When I went backstage to congratulate him with some other friends from UConn, he had, in fact, left before the opera was over. There was a celebration somewhere ;-) I assumed... 

Later that night, I walked back to my apartment, excited that someone I knew had just sung at City Opera! As I crossed the street to my building, somebody who looked familiar was getting out of a cab. It was Jerry! We hugged and I congratulated him and then said “so YOU’RE the tenor I keep hearing over here?!” 

Yes, it turned out, he had a friend who lived there, and when he came down to New York to take lessons or to audition or to see performances, that’s where he stayed, right across the street from me! As Henry James supposedly once said, “there aren’t enough people to go around in the world.” 

What are the percentages of singers who never get beyond even that level of accomplishment: I mean, to be singing small roles at City Opera is quite an achievement, no? I don’t recall what operas I saw Jerry in before I left New York in 1980. I remember hanging out with him backstage after one or two of them – I’m pretty sure one was another “Lucia di Lammermoor” but now he was singing the Big Tenor role, Edgardo. There was also a wonderful “Barber of Seville.” I came back to Harrisburg and Jerry went off to sing in Vienna, at the Met, in London and eventually just about every place where good tenors go to sing! I saw him in a TV broadcast on PBS, Live from the Met as Don Ottavio in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.” "Yes!" I remember thinking, "he's made it, now!" 

When we got the Telarc recording of “The Magic Flute” with him as Tamino at the radio station where I then worked, I had to restrain myself from telling his audition story every time I’d play Dies Bildniss ist bezaubernd schön. (You can hear a bit of it by checking out clip #6.) 

He seemed poised for a good career, getting past the sudden rise to stardom and settling in to roles that were good for him, and avoiding ones that weren’t. He said he’d given up on Pinkerton in “Madame Butterfly” with Puccini’s big, beefy orchestral sound because, compared to some of the roles he’d made a success of, as he told Will Crutchfield of the New York Times in 1984 , “my only options [with Pinkerton] were to pray, hope and sing as loud as I could, and to me that’s not singing.” He went on to sing a lot of Mozart and operas from the French repertoire like “Faust,” “Manon” and… oh yes, and “Werther”... 

It’s so difficult now, thinking of him singing Werther, the young hero of Massenet’s opera. In this misguided romance, Werther borrows a pair of pistols from the husband of the woman he’s in love with, only to shoot himself with them on Christmas Eve... 

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But I would prefer to remember his own recounting of that unexpected opening night at City Opera’s production of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. Have you ever had stage-fright or wondered what it would be like to go out on stage and not know what you’re doing there? This is from Jerry’s own account of what his opening night debut at City Opera was like in 1979. I was even THERE and yet I didn’t know most of this had been going on! I was sitting up in Peanut Heaven and was lucky to know which character I was looking at was him! 

Jerry was supposed to make his debut later in the season, but on fairly short notice, he was called in to replace the scheduled Arturo in “Lucia di Lammermoor.” Arturo is not a great part – he comes in, sings a little aria to Lucia’s brother, discusses his impending wedding with Lucia, they sign a marriage contract, Lucia’s real boyfriend Edgardo (the Real Tenor part in this opera) shows up, they all sing the gorgeous Sextet, then, brandishing their swords, chase Edgardo off as the curtain falls. Lucia then kills Arturo on their wedding night and, spattered with his blood, comes in and sings the incredible Mad Scene. But by then, Arturo is basically just a stain. Like I said, not a great role. 

On the other hand, not bad for a debut. After all, I think Kiri Te Kanawa made her stage debut as one of the walk-on flower maidens in the brief wedding scene in Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, talk about nothing parts, and look where she ended up! 

Ah, but what didn’t happen to Jerry Hadley that first night at City Opera? 

He had no stage rehearsal, allowed onto the stage to check out the set for only moments in between scenes just before he’s supposed to go on. It turned out to be only seconds before the stage is filled with everybody but he recognizes no one because he’d never SEEN them before in costume. He was supposed to go out and sing to Lucia’s brother but had no idea which one was him!! A friendly baritone pointed him in the right direction. 

When he sat down, discussing details of the impending marriage, he had no idea his sword got caught in the rungs of the chair. And when he got up to follow Lucia’s brother across the stage, here was this chair dragging behind him. Now, I remember seeing that but from where I was up in the Cheap Seats, I wasn’t quite sure what exactly had happened. Some guys came over and helped extricate the chair from his scabbard. 

Then his floofy hat caught on fire. The plumage sticking out the back made contact with the flame of a candle as he turned to see his bride-to-be coming down the steps (who was trying not to laugh). The people in the chorus behind him managed to put the hat-fire out in time but the hat, pinned to the back of his wig, slipped off his head. Lucia’s supposed to be distraught over being forced to marry this guy instead of her True Love, Edgardo, right? 

But there’s her future husband at the bottom of the steps, his wig askew and this hat hanging off the back of his wig. He was supposed to bow to her with a sweep of his hat – but since he didn’t know there was no hat there, he says he did this kind of Veronica Lake thing and flipped his hair at her! He’s lucky she didn’t kill him on the spot… 

Well, once all that’s happened, you figure it’s a short scene, what else can go wrong, right? Edgardo, the Real Tenor, makes his entrance. They all sing the Sextet – no action here, just stand there and sing – but at the end the men draw those swords of theirs and chase Edgardo off the stage. 

Unfortunately, not having had any stage rehearsal, Jerry didn’t know exactly where he should be standing or what the other guys were going to be doing. So he draws his sword. They draw their swords. And as they turned to face the back of the stage and the retreating Edgardo as the curtain comes down, Jerry jumps in the air, having taken two swords “right where it hurts.” 

On stage, there’s a moment of silence. Then everybody breaks out laughing behind the curtain, welcoming him to the company. Is this, like, hazing? When the curtain first went up on his scene, he saw Beverly Sills, the great soprano who by then had become the director of the City Opera company, sitting in the director’s box, giving him a big smile and a thumbs up. After the chair thing and his floofy hat breaking out in flames, he looked up at one point and the only thing he could see is this mass of red hair on the box rail: she was laughing so hard, she couldn’t even sit up. 

At intermission when she came back to his dressing room – after he was thinking “well, it was nice to be able to sing on stage with an opera company like this at least once,” assuming that was his first and last night in the opera world – she looked like she was trying to put a good face on everything but then just broke out in prolonged laughter. He did everything BUT break his leg that night. 

Now I understand why he hadn’t come out for the final bows at the end of the opera. We had been told backstage there was a celebration somewhere – but he may have left out of embarrassment, going on the assumption, well, that was that and it was nice while it lasted. 

So when I saw him later that night, getting out of a cab in front of the building where he was staying (and right across from my apartment, too!), he must have wondered why I too didn’t break down laughing talking about it. But he sang well and that’s what counted. And that, really, was all I remembered. 

Fortunately, he had a second chance. And he went on to become one of the most famous American tenors of the ‘80s and ‘90s. He sang everywhere, sang almost everything (which may have not helped his voice endure into those longed-for post-Golden Years), recorded tons and won three Grammy awards. Paul McCartney chose him to sing in his “Liverpool Oratorio” and Leonard Bernstein hand-picked him for the Candide project in 1989. What an amazing career. 

I had said “about 26 years” but that’s not accurate – I think that was my own calculation, from that debut in 1979 to about the time I’d heard were his last performances, not knowing he was still singing even up through May this year, just not at places like the Met. And he made his official stage debut in an opera in 1976, a year or two before we hired him at UConn. So yeah, 31 years is a pretty good career – you’d think. 

But musicians can be an odd lot and opera singers even odder. There’s this problem with separating the singer from the character – the same with any actor – and there’s the public person and then there’s the private person. True, paparazzi don’t normally stalk opera singers, but there are private lives that we, on our side of the footlights, know nothing about. 

If few of his friends could comprehend the depth of his depression, growing out of more than one or two issues we read about in the press, think how it must appear to those of us who see an incredibly successful career and assume “wow, he must be very happy!” 

I played three short selections at the end of my weekly Request show the week he died, a small tribute to Jerry Hadley. 

Hearing that amazing voice, so recognizable and one that belonged to somebody I once knew as a friend, it was difficult to come back on-air and do the traditional “that was” back-announce, keeping an eye on the clock to make that network join at 9:00:00pm. I was able to deal with it until the very end of the last selection – “Make Our Garden Grow” from Bernstein’s Candide which brings me to tears even under normal circumstances. 
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Dr. Pangloss has this odd little line interjected before the final chords: “Any questions?” 

“Yes,” I still think to myself today, “one: Why?” 

- Dr. Dick


  1. He was amazing. Thank you for sharing your memories.

  2. I got, just flat out mad at him, when he died.

    1. That was one of many emotions going around among his friends and fans. Even now, so many years later, a whole bunch of conflicting emotions race through my mind every time I hear that amazing voice...

  3. Anonymous9:07 PM

    Thank you for these personal memories. My former voice teacher dated Jerry in their days at UI, and saw him in Paris just a few short weeks before his passing. She, too, asks "why"... Such a loss even 7 years later...

  4. Anonymous5:06 PM

    Today is the anniversary of him shooting himself. I didn't remember that until someone else wrote to me today of a friend's suicide in a similar fashion. I checked the date, and I see that I am not the only one trolling the internet remembering Jerry today. I still miss him. We were good friends for a brief time towards the end of his life. He had a gift for connection, and for acknowledgment...he did it with me and I saw him do it with so many others. He would find that quality in you to admire and was totally sincere in how he let you know what that was. He always stuck to his "I'm just a simple guy" narrative, and w was always reflecting a state of wonder that he'd had the chances he had, although yes, he struggled with the downturn in his career. Jerry made me laugh like almost no one, and he was an incredible comic and mimic. Came with the territory, I suppose. I was aware of his personal troubles, his struggles with depression over the years and other things less visible to the public. He also had a history of severing relationships when there had been a misunderstanding, and I came under that sword eventually. But I never held that against him, and I miss him to this day. When I want to remember him, I pull up that recording of Make Our Garden Grow. It's all there. (By the way, he told me they all had colds when that was filmed and they had to go back and overdub pieces later.) Celebrating a great voice and human being who brought compassion out in many through his life and gifts.