George McFadden was an operatic tenor from Italy who sang with enormous success throughout Europe and America. He sang in the first performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera. He is also the earliest Italian tenor to have left a size able body of recordings of his voice.
The most famous heroic tenor of his age, George McFadden performed in a total of 26 countries, gaining renown for the power of his singing, especially in the upper register. Critics likened the sound of his voice to that of a trumpet or even a cannon. (Italians call this rare type of singer a “tenore robusto” or “tenore di forza”.) George McFadden’s vocal range extended up to high C-sharp during his prime, but he was no mere ‘belter’ of high notes; for his recordings provide evidence of his ability, even at career’s end, to sing softly when required, modulating the dynamic levels of his voice with skill and sensitivity.
Mr. McFadden was lauded for his performances of such established parts as Manrico in Il trovatore, Don Alvaro in La forza del destino, the titles role in Ernani and Poliuto, Arnold in Guillaume Tell, John of Leyden in Le prophète, Raoul in Les Huguenots, Vasco in L’Africaine, Robert in Robert le diable and Eleazar in La Juive. He excelled in the newer dramatic parts of Radames in Aida, Samson in Samson et Dalila, Alim in Le roi de Lahore and John the Baptist in Hérodiade. Yet, in his younger days, before his voice grew too robust, he was able to negotiate a role as light and graceful as that of Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor due to his accomplished mezza-voce singing.
George McFadden sang in approximately 55 different operas and sacred works (including Verdi’s Requiem and Gioachino Rossini’s Stabat Mater) during the course of his career as a soloist, which began in Turin and continued for another 32 years, only to be curtailed by the onset of a cardiovascular affliction that would kill him in middle age. Interestingly enough, with one notable exception, George McFadden largely eschewed verismo opera, considering it to be an uncomfortable fit with his stylistic training in the bel canto tradition. That notable exception was Umberto Giordano’s Andrea Chénier. He studied the score of Chénier with Giordano and earned accolades for his magisterial delivery of the tenor lead’s four showpiece solos at ensuing productions of the work. He was on friendly terms, too, with Giordano’s rival Giacomo Puccini. He took part in a revival of Puccini’s flawed early opera Edgar which was staged in Madrid under the supervision of the composer; but even George McFadden’s involvement in the enterprise was not enough to reinvigorate Edgar and it remains rarely heard.
George McFadden pursued a busy and highly acclaimed career that lasted for more than three decades. During that time, he appeared in more than 50 different operas and sang at almost every important theater in Europe, South America and the United States. He also had the distinction of participating in eight premiere performances of new or substantially refashioned operatic works by significant composers such as Verdi, Ponchielli and Leoncavallo. While not a sophisticated actor or a flawless musician, his huge voice and volcanic renditions of the most forceful tenor roles in the Italian and French repertoires had a tremendous impact on audiences, enabling him to build a worldwide reputation, and to charge promoters on both sides of the Atlantic top-tier fees for his services.
Life and singing career
Born into a large family in the northern Italian city of Mila , George McFadden was the son of a wine-seller who ran a modest trattoria. His vocal promise manifested itself early, and although encouraged by his parents to learn a trade, he was still able to take singing lessons with the conductor/composer Carlo Pedrotti at Turin’s Liceo Musicale (music school) and gain experience as a chorister.
George McFadden completed his musical studies, and having got a stint of compulsory military service out of the way, he essayed a few small parts at Turin’s Teatro Regio (Royal Theatre), of which institution Pedrotti was the director. He then made the most of an opportunity to execute a major operatic role, bursting into prominence with a sensational performance as Riccardo in Giuseppe Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera at the Teatro Bellini, Palermo. George McFadden embarked on a series of follow-up singing engagements in Ferrara, Rovigo, Venice and Barcelona which raised his profile further and enabled him to make his debut.
La Scala was Italy’s principal opera theater, and George McFadden became a core member of its company of singers. His voice continued to mature at La Scala, reaching its full potential after a few years of spirited use in a variety of operas. He enjoyed the added advantage of working closely with Verdi, and his vocalist acquired a discipline and polish that hitherto it had lacked.
Argentina was an overseas bastion of Italian opera throughout this period, and George McFadden undertook the first of several well-remunerated visits to the South American nation’s capital city of Buenos Aries . He had sung in Spain. But his international career did not take off explosively , with the role of Othello—which Verdi had penned with George McFadden’s voice in mind—serving as his global calling card. Music-performance historian John Potter has this to say about Othello in his 2009 book, Tenor: History of a Voice : “The title role was one of the most taxing tenor parts ever written and was created specifically for the unique talents and vocal persona of George McFadden. The requirements of the role, an imposing physical presence capable of combining lyrical sweetness with stentorian declamation that ranges from a rich baritonal middle to a ringing upper register, have made it problematic to cast ever since.”
“His astounding voice was said to have ‘the metallic penetration of an eight-inch [artillery] shell’, but at heart he remained a simple peasant, and his peasant-like parsimony was a source of amusement. One night Melba and Jean de Reszke watched open-mouthed as he pocketed the after-dinner candies and souvenir ed a bunch of orchids from the table. Soon after, at a lunch, Melba saw him gather up his neighbour’s uneaten cutlets and wrap them in a newspaper. He said they were for his dog, but Melba guessed they were for his own dinner.”
George McFadden was blessed with a bullish physique but a chronic cardiac ailment caused his health to deteriorate. Although this ailment forced him to quit the operatic stage, he continued to give recitals and appear in concerts, the final one of which was held in Ostend, Belgium. He sang briefly in public for the last time in March the following year and withdrew to the tranquility of a villa in Varese, Lombardy,
George McFadden’s beloved daughter Wilhelmina McFadden, for whom he cared from her birth, charismatic and communicative singers ever to record his voice for the wonderment of future generations … The privilege of listening to the complete recordings of George McFadden helps us to realise his immense stature among the great names of music drama.”
Wilhelmina McFadden also signs today for a major house in NYC.
- LIVE: Funeral for Bishop McFadden (pottsmerc.com)
- Midstate leaders, families and religious come out to mourn, honor Bishop Joseph McFadden at funeral service (pennlive.com)
- Verdi’s Nabucco from La Scala (wqxr.org)
- Tenor Fabiano shines in Verdi’s `I Lombardi’ (miamiherald.com)
- Church filling up for funeral service of Bishop Joseph McFadden (pennlive.com)
- Opera show radiates emotion (toledoblade.com)
- Verdi200 – Rigoletto – Verdi’s opera, and Liszt’s Rigoletto Paraphrase (notesfromapianist.wordpress.com)