About this Recording
8.111345 - WARREN, Leonard: Sea Shanties / Kipling Songs / Songs for Everyone (1947-1951)

Leonard Warren (1911–1960)
Sea Shanties • Kipling Songs • Songs for Everyone


Leonard Warren was born in 1911 in New York City into a family of Russian immigrants. His father ran a fur business, and initially it seemed as though Leonard was destined to join him in this, working in the New York fur district around West 29th Street. However in 1935 he joined the chorus of the Radio City Music Hall, located in New York’s Rockefeller Center. This spectacular building, opened in 1932, presented both films and lavish stage shows. Leonard also studied singing with Sidney Dietch, and in 1938 he entered the Metropolitan Opera’s ‘Auditions of the Air’. At this point, Warren’s repertoire consisted of five operatic arias, and he had seen just one opera, La traviata. His only stage appearance had been in school, when he had played an Indian in a drama about Daniel Boone. Nonetheless his voice must have already been well formed: as he was singing his first aria at the auditions, one of the Met’s staff conductors, Wilfrid Pelletier, hearing him from outside the auditorium, ran in thinking that someone had substituted a recording by the eminent Italian baritones Titta Ruffo or Giuseppe de Luca. Warren was given a contract by the Met immediately, and was then dispatched to Italy for further vocal study. Working with Riccardo Picozzi in Milan he learnt five rôles in seven months: Germont père in La traviata, Count di Luna in Il trovatore, Ford in Falstaff, Tonio in I Pagliacci, and Paolo in Simon Boccanegra. It was already clear what repertoire the management of the Met, led by the former tenor Edward Johnson, had in mind for Warren, and it was as Paolo that he made his début on 13 January 1939 at the Metropolitan Opera House. This was to be his musical home for the rest of his life. Johnson and Pelletier groomed their new discovery carefully: following his début Warren took part in several Sunday evening concerts, which consisted of scenes played in costume from popular operas, such as Rigoletto and I Pagliacci. While he was learning the ropes, the Met’s leading baritone of the 1930s, Lawrence Tibbett, was beginning to enter a period of slow decline. In 1940 he suffered a vocal crisis, and it was Warren who was to step into his shoes.

Warren was a dedicated worker, with extremely high standards, which he also expected of those with whom he worked. He also had a powerful personality: so forceful was he in the expression of his views that Rudolf Bing, the manager of the Met during Warren’s heyday, later wrote in his memoirs that he did not produce Falstaff until after Warren’s death, as he knew that he would insist on singing the title rôle. Throughout the 1940s Warren devoted himself to the slow and methodical development of his voice and his career as an opera singer. In his first season at the Met he sang Ford, the same rôle which had been the occasion of Lawrence Tibbett’s first major success. Gradually he took over the Tibbett repertoire: the title rôle in Rigoletto (which he sang 88 times), Barnaba in La Gioconda, Iago in Otello, Don Carlo in La forza del destino, Amonasro in Aida, Valentin in Faust and Escamillo in Carmen. He participated in the famous 1944 Red Cross benefit concert at Madison Square Garden conducted by Toscanini, the centre-piece of which was a complete performance of the final act of Rigoletto. This performance later had wide circulation during the early days of the LP in the 1950s, and was universally praised. He sang Iago in the first live broadcast for television from the Met of the opening night of the 1948–49 season on 29 November 1948, singing opposite Ramon Vinay as Otello and Licia Albanese as Desdemona. By the early 1950s Warren was fully established as the Met’s leading baritone. In 1950 he sang Rigoletto in the first long-playing record account of this opera to be made by RCA, then America’s leading record company by far, with Erna Berger and Jan Peerce once again, and with Renato Cellini conducting (Naxos 8.110148–49).

Throughout the 1950s Warren held sway on the Met’s stage. His forays outside New York were very few: after some early trips to Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Chicago and San Francisco, he made his Italian début at La Scala, Milan, in 1953, and undertook a highly succesful tour of Soviet Russia during 1958. New rôles that Warren added to his repertoire at the Met during the 1950s included Baron Scarpia in Tosca, Gérard in Andrea Chenier, and Barnaba in La Gioconda. But it was in the great Verdi baritone rôles such as Don Carlo in Ernani and the title rôle in Simon Boccanegra, that Warren really shone. The tone of his voice was rich, round and large. In addition to his beautiful baritone sound, he possessed a remarkable vocal extension, which enabled him to sing the high notes of the tenor voice without effort, much to the astonishment of his contemporaries. To add to these remarkable attributes, he also possessed great stamina: by the end of the performance, when most singers would have wilted, he was still as fresh as at the beginning. The American critic Peter G. Davis wrote of Warren’s voice that ‘it was a deluxe, quintessentially ‘‘Metropolitan Opera sound’’, one that seemed to take on a special glow and lustrousness as it opened up and spread itself generously around the big auditorium [of the old MET].’ The full effect of his Verdi singing may be heard in several of his studio recordings, such as Il trovatore with Jussi Björling (Naxos 8.110240–41) and Aida with Zinka Milanov (Naxos 8.111042–44).

Warren died tragically, on-stage at the Met, during a performance of La forza del destino, on 4 March 1960. Rudolf Bing recalled that he had just completed Don Carlo’s Act III aria, ‘Morir, tremenda cosa’ (‘To die, a momentous thing’), when he suddenly fell forward to the floor. Shortly afterwards he was pronounced dead and the remainder of the performance was canceled. The cause of his death was thought to be a massive cerebral haemorrhage. He was only 48 at the time, and the Met’s future schedule was thrown into considerable disarray: he had for instance been cast in the title rôle of Verdi’s Nabucco, to have been given at the Met for the first time during the 1960–61 season.

Popular music on record, right from the inception of sound recording, has included ballads for the baritone voice. Peter Dawson and Lawrence Tibbett were notable exponents of this repertoire before Leonard Warren. Right from the time of Warren’s discovery he was invited to record, principally for RCA. By 1947 he had already committed to disc a substantial catalogue of operatic arias, as well as a selection of traditional and salon songs. To this latter repertoire he added the generous selection of Sea Shanties, recorded in 1947, a set of salon songs recorded during September 1950, and song settings of the verse of Rudyard Kipling, recorded in 1951, all which may be heard on this CD. Throughout Warren’s remarkable qualities as a singer are fully evident: immaculate preparation, rich tone allied to clear enunciation and, above all, a sure sense of musicality. Little wonder that he was regarded throughout his career as without parallel as a singer.

David Patmore

Close the window