TIBBETT, Lawrence: The White Dove

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Ballads and Songs from Films and Operettas, Vo l.1

Original Recordings 1926–1931

\Finally, Tibbett came through the curtain to a delirious reception and he, who only minutes before had been a virtual unknown was instantly proclaimed America’s Number One Baritone…"

– Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, Voci Parallele

Tibbett’s star finally shone when, one January night in 1925, as Ford in Falstaff, he stole the limelight from the ageing Antonio Scotti. But there was a good deal more to this singer who, virtually overnight, was hailed the ‘Voice of America’. Quite apart from a powerful lyric-dramatic baritone voice, he was a singer of such marked individuality, charisma and outgoing nature that his operatic "discovery" was really only a matter of time. His ingratiating stage-presence and personality might also have made him a major movie star, had opera not been his first calling.

Tibbett was born Lawrence Mervil Tibbet (sic), into a strict Methodist family, in Bakersfield, California, on 16th November, 1896, and grew up in the close-knit, pre-oil boom farming community where his father, William, a descendant of 1849 prospectors for gold, was a local sheriff. His mother, Frances, an amateur church soloist gave the musical Larry his first piano lessons and encouraged his latent vocal talents. Following his father’s death in a shoot-out with cattle rustlers, the Tibbets moved first to Long Beach then to Los Angeles, where they ran a boarding house. There, he attended high school and by the time of his graduation in 1915 was an accomplished actor with an ambition to become an opera singer. That same year he entered the Eisteddfod at the San Francisco World Fair, had his first singing lessons, sang with the Los Angeles Orpheus Glee Club and toured with a Shakespearean stock-company directed by Tyrone Power Snr. and, in 1916, he sang in operettas by G & S, Rudolf Friml and Victor Herbert and began serious vocal training with the emeritus Metropolitan Opera bass Basil Ruysdael.

In 1917, Larry sang in concerts before enlisting in the US Navy for service during WW1. Stationed in Baltimore at the end of the war in 1918, he planned to return to San Francisco but was unexpectedly transferred for service to Siberia. Following his discharge in 1919, he married Grace Mackay Smith, who bore him twin sons in 1920 and for the next two years struggled to make ends meet as a singer. He gave concerts and "masonics" and sang numbers between "silents" at the Sid Grauman movie theatre for $50 per week, while also working as a rep actor with the Los Angeles Civic Company in both Classical and modern dramas. In 1921, through the auspices of the Orpheus Club, Tibbett secured a $2500 loan for advanced vocal study and coaching in New York with the distinguished Illinois-born pianist-songwriter Frank La Forge (1879-1953). Through La Forge’s influence he appeared in concert in New York, where he met the impresario Charles L. Wagner, the manager and promoter of, among others, John McCormack. Wagner took the youthful Tibbett under his wing and, in 1923, he stood in for Giuseppe De Luca in the Alda-Metropolitan Quartet, a celebrity concert ensemble comprising the tenor Giovanni Martinelli, the mezzo Carolina Lazzari and soprano Frances Alda, wife of Metropolitan Opera’s General Manager, Giulio Gatti-Casazza.

At the time of his first audition for the Metropolitan (in April 1923), Tibbett was already appearing on Broadway as Edgar in King Lear. Well received by the critics, he could easily have forsaken opera for straight acting. He failed his Metropolitan Opera audition, but through Alda’s intercession was re-heard in May and was given a $60-per-week contract. His Met début, in the comprimario role of Lovitsky in Boris Godunov (Chaliapin sang the title role), took place on 24th November, and the later appearances of his first season (in secondary roles in Faust, Rigoletto, Chénier, Carmen, Traviata, Lohengrin and Pagliacci) proved similarly inauspicious.

During the 1924-1925 season, however, in Les contes d’Hoffmann with Fleta, De Luca and Lucrezia Bori (1887-1960 – he blends perfectly with his exquisite Spanish colleague in the Barcarolle and in Alma Goetze’s ballad 'Calm As The Night') he scored his biggest critical coup prior to the fortuitous Ford which made him. In a 27-year Metropolitan Opera residency, Tibbett sang over 600 performances of 48 roles. He premièred many new operas by American composers, championed opera in English and soon gained a reputation as one of the world’s greatest baritones, with outstanding successes in Traviata, Rigoletto, Tosca, Aïda, Pagliacci and, his crowning achievement, Simon Boccanegra.

At the end of the 1928-1929 Met season, Tibbett made a Hollywood screen test. Mack Sennett offered him $3500 to play an opera star in a sentimental one-reeler, but he turned this down and signed instead with MGM for The Rogue Song. With music by Lehár (notably 'The White Dove') and other numbers including 'When I’m Looking At You' and the swashbuckling 'Rogue Song' scored by the conductor Herbert Stothart, this Lionel Barrymore-directed romance – in which a colourful Russian bandit falls for one of his pretty captives (Catherine Dale Owen) – suited the debonair Tibbett to perfection. The critics enthused, all three of the above-mentioned songs became hits in the US Top 20, Larry won an Academy Award nomination for his performance as Yegor and Louis B. Meyer instantly offered him a full-time contract. But the instinct for opera prevailed and he returned to the Met for the 1929-1930 season instead.

By the end of 1930, however, he had made two more musicals for MGM: The New Moon (loosely based on the 1928 Romberg-Hammerstein II Broadway success, this costarred opera soprano Grace Moore and Adolphe Menjou and included such hits as 'Wanting You' and 'Lover, Come Back To Me') and The Southerner (aka The Prodigal, based on a story by Bess Meredyth and Wells Root and with music and lyrics by Stothart, Jacques Wolfe, Arthur Freed and Oscar Straus (notably the wistfully sung 'Life Is A Dream'), this featured Esther Ralston, Cliff ‘Ukelele Ike’ Edwards and Hedda Hopper, and interpolated the Vincent Youmans number 'Without A Song', first heard in the 1929 musical Great Day).

Although first and last an operatic performer, Tibbett also had a magical way with a wide range of intimate ballad miniatures and art-songs. Indeed, he was for many years a noted broadcaster of such material on The Voice Of Firestone and other American radio programmes. His recorded performance of songs is consistently marked by a sensitive but unfussy feeling for words, particularly when they have American connotations. While his voice rings forthrightly in 'Thy Beaming Eyes' (No.4 of ‘Six Love Songs’ (1890) by Edward MacDowell, 1861-1908), of 'Oh, That We Two Were Maying' (No. 8 of Sketch Book, Opus 2, by Ethelbert Woodbridge Nevin (1862-1901), an 1888 setting of a poem by Charles Kingsley), he remarked "I knew it was a good song because it always made me weep - which is all I need to know about a song". By the same token, he is as comfortable with the varied sentiments implied by Thomas Moore’s 'Believe Me, If All Those Endearing Young Charms' (1808) or Stephen Collins Foster’s 'Uncle Ned '(1848) and 'Old Black Joe' (1860) as he clearly is with the more overtly "operatic" challenges of Langston Hughes’s 'Roustabout'. Lawrence Tibbett died in New York on 15 July 1960.
Disc: 1
Without A Song
1 Thy Beaming Eyes
2 Oh, That We Two Were Maying
3 Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes (arr. R. Bourdon)
4 Old Black Joe (arr. R. Bourdon)
5 Uncle Ned (arr. R. Bourdon)
6 Calm As The Night
7 Fairest Night Of Starry Ray (Barcarolle)
8 Believe Me, If All Those Endearing Young Charms
9 Crucifix (Come Unto Him)
10 Never No Rest (Roustabout Song)
11 The Narrative
12 The Rogue Song
13 When I'm Looking At You
14 The White Dove
15 Lover, Come Back To Me
16 Wanting You
17 Life Is A Dream
18 Without A Song
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