In October of 2009 NPR solicited comments from the listening audience about the greatest voices. It was a wonderful opportunity to put something together. Here is the memo that I wrote to them, along with links that were active at the time.
As a child I grew up loving music and the only recordings I could afford were the 78s that I could buy for a nickel at the local junk stores in my CT hometown. Those 78s served me well and provided a breadth of vocal understanding that I would otherwise not have. Patient parents helped a great deal when I would play the same new to me record over and over again. Schipa's "Ecco Ridente" was a repeated favorite. As a result of this education, when people tell me that Pavarotti or Bocelli are the greatest tenors who ever lived, I go back and recall Gigli, Caruso, Schipa, Piccaver, Tauber, Melchior and most especially McCormack and give myself pause…………….
1) John McCormack Il Mio Tesoro http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wSHnxlf2DPs
As a vocalist myself, this remains, to me, the single greatest male vocal performance on record. McCormack displays incredible vocal control in one of the most difficult examples of the male coloratura in the tenor repertoire. Most amazingly, recorded in 1910, this is sung into a large horn with an orchestra playing behind him. No microphone, no editing, no technical magic just the most beautiful record of singing.
2) Mary Garden Depuis le jour http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z_o4DKajxuQ
Mary recorded this in 1912 at the peak of her career. She would ultimately become “la directa” of the Chicago Opera. A friend of Charpentier, he coached her in the role. Her ethereal approach to singing led her to become the source for late 19th and early 20th century French opera.
3) Ernestine Schumann-Heink Stille Nacht http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HdSF404AHCA
It wasn’t Christmas in the Teens and Twenties in most American households without hearing Mme. Schumann-Heink’s performance of Silent Night. A woman whose life was filled with abundance: joy and despair. When told she would never become a singer, she lay down on the railroad tracks to end her life, she had second thoughts and the world fell in love with this astonishing contralto.She had sons fighting on both sides of World War I and yet became a legend for her ability to bring in the money during war bond drives throughout the US. When advised by a conductor that she would be less likely to knock into the orchetsra music stands if she went in sideways she replied, "But Otto, I have no sideways!"
4) Enrico Caruso and Titta Ruffo Si Pel Ciel http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hMySAq_tiVs
If you know only one great voice from prior to 1920 it is probably Enrico Caruso. His Vesti la Giubba [No More Rice Kripsies]from Pagliacci was the first million selling classical record. His brilliant career cut short by lung cancer in 1921. The OTHER incredible voice on this duet being the absolutely greatest living baritone to perform in America, Titta Ruffo. [ His actual name being Ruffo Titta] Ruffo’s voice was so big that he sang at the opening of Radio City Music Hall without the benefit of a microphone. He lived a long retirement in Italy writing his remarkable autobiography, “Mi Parabola”. This is the only recording the two did together and they never once sang together in the United States. This is also recorded without a microphone or editing.
5) Geraldine Farrar Un Bel Di Vedremo http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n5Y6_93jeVo
America’s first Cio Cio San in Mme. Butterfly and one of Puccini’s muses. A firey soprano with remarkable vocal ability and one of the better dramatists of her day. Her fans were called Gerryflappers and it is believed the iconic term for the 20's "flapper" derived from this. Her autobiography is enormously entertaining. Someohow she leaves out her affair with Kaiser Wilhelm…………..
6) Claudia Muzio Voi Lo Sapete O Mama http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TBx6xS_Lj14
There will be numerous battles over the greatest soprano singer prior to 1940 and I will not jump into that snake pit. Few, however, will dispute who the finest mezzo was of the day. Here, in a 1934 performance Muzio demonstrates why she was was referred to as the Eleanora Duse of Opera. This is verismo singing at its finest.
7) Kirsten Flagstad and Lauritz Melchior Tristan & Isolde Love Duet http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ch3o0qV6TiA
I can’t imagine referring to these two separately; they are like Beer & Pizza, RC & Moon Pies. The whole is even greater than what would be the greatest individual part. They defined Wagnerian opera for generations and as a pair have never ever been matched. I can hyperventilate listening to the two of them together.
8) Nora Bayes Over There http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Aed8-0C6XcY
Wow! What a great voice sending the boys over to France to fight for right! Born Leonora Goldberg, Ms. Bayes was the Army’s secret weapon in WW1. Recorded in 1917 this classic is identified as few other songs with a specific event in history. A composer herself she holds credit to “Shine on Harvest Moon” with her then husband Jack Norworth.
9) Paul Roebson Old Man River http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iEQEeNhtosg&feature=related
Robeson was one of the greatest basses to ever tread upon any stage in the United States. A man of extraordinary personal courage and immense artistic ability.
10) Marian Anderson National Anthem http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wQnzb0Jj074
It would be easy to forget that aside from being the trailblazer that she was, Anderson was one of the greatest contraltos America ever produced. We are right to be focused on her performance at the Lincoln Memorial as one of the landmark events in the Civil Rights Movement. A noble artist whose Schubert and Brahms still beguile the listener http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lAvX_UwmQzQ&feature=related
11) Ethel Merman I Got Rhythm No You Tube version [Amazing!!]
Toscanini famously observed that it was “not the voice of a human being” and that she was the greatest heldentenor he had ever heard. For shear lung power it would be difficult to beat Ethel Zimmerman. If we stick with her performances prior to 1940 we get Gershwin and Cole Porter masterpieces as no-one else could sing them. Wise, witty and sly as a fox Merman could put off the would terrific terrifically and it’s why Cole Porter wrote it into so many of her songs.
12) Ira Louvin In the Pines http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qWrSg5znyMU
Simply the most incredible tenor voice ever granted a human being. Even though it is outside my self-imposed parameter, it would be a crime to leave this vocalist out of any list. How does he do it, where do those upper notes come from? Like so many other phenomena Ira was a comet and he tragically burned out well before he should have, tormented by demons.
Finally, like many others, the greatest voices on earth I ever heard and from whom I continue to seek wisdom, comfort, and guidance are my mother and and late father. As a little boy they were there for me and I can still hear them back then. Happily I can still hear my mother’s voice on the phone and do so almost every day.