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Tibbett’s father, a deputy sheriff, was killed in a shoot-out with the outlaw Jim McKinney in 1903 and two years later his family moved first to Long Beach and then to Los Angeles. After graduating from Manual Arts High School in 1915 he served in the merchant marine during part of World War I; on returning to civilian life he studied singing in Los Angeles with Joseph Dupuy and Basil Ruysdael, who taught him a technique of delivering text and music naturally that was to prove very valuable.

Initially Tibbett balanced drama and music: he appeared in musical comedy and straight theatre (including a time with a Shakespearean company managed by Tyrone Power senior) and sang at funerals, in church choirs and before the screenings of silent films at Grauman’s Million Dollar Theatre in the centre of Los Angeles.

After moving to New York he studied with Frank La Forge and Ignaz Zitomirsky. Tibbett now met Frances Alda, wife of Giulio Gatti-Casazza, the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, who arranged for him to audition for the Met: his debut with the company, as Lavitsky / Boris Godunov, followed in 1923. Shortly afterwards he appeared in a principal role as Valentin / Faust, while continuing to sing small roles in a wide repertoire. His breakthrough took place in 1925 when, substituting as Ford / Falstaff opposite Antonio Scotti in the title role, he received a sixteen-minute ovation which made the front page of the New York Times the following day.

Thereafter Tibbett gradually became one of the Met’s biggest stars, excelling in the classic Italian and French baritone repertoire, aided by a superb voice and matinée-idol good looks. At his peak and after the inevitable preparation in comprimario parts, specific roles included Germont père / La traviata, Iago / Otello, Don Carlo / La forza del destino, Amonasro / Aida, Scarpia / Tosca, Marcello / La Bohème, Michele / Il tabarro, the title roles in Rigoletto, Simon Boccanegra, Falstaff and Gianni Schicchi, Escamillo / Carmen, the four villains / Les Contes d’Hoffmann, Mercutio / Roméo et Juliette, Golaud / Pélleas et Mélisande and Wolfram / Tannhäuser. His final performance with the company after many years of service was as Ivan / Khovanshchina in 1950. As a native English speaker he also participated in many of the new works presented by the Met, including Eadgar / The King’s Henchman and Colonel Ibbetson / Peter Ibbetson (both Deems Taylor, 1927 and 1931), the title role in The Emperor Jones (Louis Gruenberg, 1933), Wrestling Bradford / Merry Mount (Howard Hanson, 1934) and, in their first Met performances, Guido / Caponsacchi (Richard Hageman, 1937) and Balstrode / Peter Grimes (Benjamin Britten, 1948). Outside New York he also sang with the San Francisco Opera (1927–1949) and the Chicago Opera (1943–1946).

A frequent broadcaster, Tibbett became a major figure in early American radio, able to sing a very wide repertoire of both popular and classical material. He made his first records for the Victor label in 1926 and soon became a top-selling recording artist. With his striking appearance and exceptional voice he soon attracted the attention of Hollywood, appearing in a string of films: The Rogue Song (1930), New Moon (1930), The Prodigal (1931), The Cuban Love Song (1931), Metropolitan (1935) and Under Your Spell (1936).

At the Royal Opera House, London Tibbett appeared in 1937 as Scarpia, Iago and Amonasro. In addition he created the role of Don Juan in the first performance of Goossens’s Don Juan de Mañara and in the same year sang Rigoletto and Iago at the Paris Opera. He also appeared in Vienna and Prague, toured Australia and New Zealand and sang again in London in 1947.

Tibbett had experienced a vocal crisis in 1940, possibly brought on by increasing alcoholism, but recovered sufficiently to continue to sing at the highest level for another ten years. After retiring from the Met he appeared on Broadway, most notably in the musical Fanny in 1956, in which he made his last stage appearance.

His exceptionally rich and dark-hued voice was used with impressive musical and technical skills, allied with a highly persuasive delivery of text. His films indicate a commanding stage presence. He was one of the first singers to arrange for his broadcasts from the Met to be recorded privately, thus initiating a legacy of incalculable richness. He published his autobiography, The Glory Road, in 1933 and, together with Jascha Heifetz, in 1936 founded the American Guild of Musical Artists, serving as its president for seventeen years.

© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers, Naxos 8.558097-100).

Role: Classical Artist 
Album Title
Catalogue No  Work Category 
A TO Z OF SINGERS Naxos Educational
Christmas from a Golden Age (1925-1950) Naxos Historical
GERSHWIN: Porgy and Bess (Original Cast Recordings) (1935-1942) Naxos Historical
GREATS of the GRAMOPHONE, Vol. 1 Naxos Nostalgia
Opera Arias / Songs (Baritone): Tibbett, Lawrence - BIZET, G. / LEONCAVALLO, R. / ROSSINI, G. / SPEAKS, O. / WOLFE, J. (1928-1940) Delos
Opera, Vocal, Opera, Vocal, Film and TV Music, Vocal, Opera, Vocal, Opera, Vocal, Choral - Sacred, Vocal, Opera, Vocal, Opera
STARS of the GOLDEN ERA Naxos Nostalgia
TIBBETT, Lawrence: De Glory Road (1931-1936) Naxos Nostalgia
TIBBETT, Lawrence: The White Dove (1926-1931) Naxos Nostalgia
VERDI: Otello (Martinelli, Rethberg, Panizza)(1938) Naxos Historical

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