Eugene Conley - A voice lined with silver
by Charles A. Hooey
Consider this ... an American tenor who joined the Metropolitan
Opera for the 1949-1950 season was denied an opportunity to
sing an Opening Night performance throughout his tenure of seven
years, while far away in Milan, the Opera Company at Teatro
alla Scala were not so chary; they invited him to participate
in the opening of their season on 7th December 1951
as Arrigo in Verdi’s I Vespri Siciliani with none
other than Maria Callas as Elena. Thus he became the first American
tenor to open at La Scala.
As a collector of opera recordings, I happened to contact Eugene
Conley in 1972 to see if perchance he had a tape of that famous
occasion and/or any of his I Puritanis in hopes of obtaining
copies. I half expected he would not reply, but he did. Alas,
he knew of no recordings but we stayed in contact. Later it
turned out he had arranged for acetate and tape recordings to
be made of his performances but not of any I was keen to acquire.
One day in the mid-seventies I noticed in a Winnipeg newspaper
that the acclaimed artist, Eugene Conley, was to give a concert
at the University. “Aha!” I thought, “It will
be great to meet finally!” With a friend I attended, but
I was startled to see a person quite unlike photos I had seen
of the tenor. Then he began to sing in a pleasant-enough voice,
but as a baritone! “Well,” I thought, “many
years have elapsed and changes do occur.” Afterwards we
hustled back-stage where I thrust out my hand, saying. “Hi,
Gene, we meet at last!” Without a word he abruptly turned
away and began talking to other people. Puzzled, I came home,
sat down and wrote to Eugene Conley in Denton, Texas. He responded
by saying my man was likely someone active in academic circles
with whom he had had instances of confusion during their careers.
Tenor-to-be Eugene Thomas Conley was born on 12 March 1908 in
Lynn, Massachusetts, about 20 kilometres northeast of Boston,
to Reuben A. and Josephine Conley née Farnsworth, who
were both transplanted Canadians, from Annapolis, Nova Scotia.
(Could this explain his desire to correspond with me, as I,
too, am a Canadian?) Gene, the eldest, along with two siblings,
grew up to the old-fashioned fiddling of their father, so naturally
he gravitated towards music. Initially he gave solos with the
High School Glee Club and as first tenor with a Male Quartet.
To finance his studies with George Dane, he took a job at General
Electric. After only six months of study, he was able to make
his first professional appearance at a concert sponsored by
the local Women’s Club.
There followed progress up the career ladder by means of radio,
specifically a series of commercial programs in Boston, climaxing
with an appearance on the Jenney Concert Hour. Unusual in the
case of so young a singer, he made his first recordings of classic
oratorio favourites courtesy of the Federal Music Project. This
led to an engagement in Detroit where he sang on the air for
a year until, discovered by an NBC scout, he was invited to
New York and provided with a forty-five piece orchestra and
a radio series of his own, called “NBC Presents Eugene
Opera must have lurked in his psyche though for he ventured
an appearance at the Metropolitan Auditions of the Air in 1936
when that program gave its first season. However it was not
until he met famed teacher Ettore Verna at a party in the home
of a member of the Opera Guild that he began to think seriously
of a career in opera. By May 1940, Verna had him in a serious
training routine where he quickly acquired tradition, mise
en scène, a couple of rôles and a decided ‘Italian
flavour’ all at the same time.
WITH SALMAGGI/GALLO ET AL
Once Verna had decided his protégé was ready to
take the plunge, he arranged for him to link up with Alfredo
Salmaggi, the head of a popular-priced touring company, based
in the Hippodrome, a giant theatre on the east side of Manhattan.
In 1933 ticket prices ranged from 25 to 50 cents as Salmaggi
competed with his friend Gatti-Casazza at the Metropolitan.
In 1940, while performing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music,
Conley made his début as the Duke in Rigoletto.
Without benefit of a rehearsal, it was almost a two-man show
with Verna prompting from the wings, coaching in the dressing
room, and somehow pulling the young singer through the evening.
Press and public blissfully unaware of the difficulties they
had witnessed gave the youngster a rousing reception.
After this baptism of fire, Salmaggi provided a host of opportunities
to learn as the tenor toiled with Faust, Butterfly, Bohème,
Traviata and Cavalleria, growing familiar with stage
routine, spurred on by the confidence and guidance of his teacher.
As the story goes, near the end of ‘La donna è
mobile,’ he would toss a pack of cards into the air to
signal to the conductor he was about to release his high note.
So when he closed his aria with a high B, it was like a shower
of stars and the house went wild. Under easygoing Salmaggi,
an encore was not only permissible but also usually inevitable.
Nodding to the conductor, Conley reached into his pocket and
out came a second deck of cards.
Soon, other companies were clamouring to feature him, and as
a result engagements materialized on several fronts. Thus, he
was part of the New Opera Company during its launch at the Forty-fourth
Street Theatre in New York City. On 15 October 1941, he sang
Ferrando when a series of Cosi Fan Tutte performances
began with Ina Souez (Fiordiligi), Pauline Pierce (Dorabella),
Andzia Kuzak (Despina) and other aspirants. More followed. Then
in 1942, Fortune Gallo’s San Carlo Opera became interested.
Like Salmaggi, Gallo’s operation acted as a marvellous
proving ground for young singers such as Dorothy Kirsten and
Carlos Ramirez. They and Conley learned much from experienced
artists active with the company. Gene started to make cross-country
tours of single night stands as a member of the San Carlo troupe.
after Pearl Harbour he decided to put his budding career on
hold and join the services, a pursuit that would occupy him
for two and one-half years. However, one evening, as he left
a New York theatre after a show, a friend who owned a downtown
restaurant collared him and said, “Hurry, Your C.O. is
almost half way through his supper. Come to The Music Box and
you’ll be able to sing for him. The plot worked, for in
civilian life the Colonel was an organist in San Antonio, and
a half hour later, he was sitting at the piano accompanying
the young airman. Official red tape was quickly snipped giving
Conley freedom to sing in special opera performances with companies
that fattened the coffers of the Army Aid Society. He was also
chosen to sing in the Army Air Force Show “Winged Victory”
and was scheduled to appear in the film version although this
apparently did not come to pass.
Thus, he was able to join San Carlo in New Orleans on 15 October
1942 for a matinée La Traviata with Lucille Meusel
and Ivan Petroff as Germont. Going on to Los Angeles on the
27th, he repeated this opera with Meusel and Carlo
Morelli and “next demonstrated his superior accomplishments
in the leading rôle in The Tales of Hoffmann where
his work was as notable for clarity of English diction as for
When the company reached Center Theatre in New York on 7 May,
they found they were following an ice spectacle, but the show
had to go on. On the second evening Gene appeared in Rigoletto,
his Duke being “vocally smooth and acceptable (while)
Grace Panvini used her light voice prettily as Gilda”...
Ivan Petroff provided vital, dramatic singing in the title rôle
with Charlotte Bruno a capable Maddalena. Next, as Lionel in
Martha, he sang with Meusel as Lady Harriet, Bruno as
Nancy and Stefan Kozakevich as Plunkett. He also sang in La
Traviata with Meusel and Petroff. On 15 May, during a matinée
Tales of Hoffmann, he sang Hoffmann while that evening
he was the lead in Faust with Leola Turner as Marguérite
and Harold Kravitt as Méphistophélès.
In April 1943 at Center Theatre, he sang Rodolfo in La Bohème
with Dorothy Kirsten as Mimi, Shiela Vogelle, making her début
as Musetta, Mario Valle as Marcello, Kravitt as Colline and
Kozakevich as Schaunard. In the evening of 30 May, he returned
as the Duke in Rigoletto with Morelli as the Jester,
Amelita Galli-Campi as Gilda, Kravitt as Sparafucile and Margery
Mayer as Maddalena. On 4 June, he sang Faust with Kirsten,
Valle, Kravitt and Mayer as Siébel. Then on the 6th,
to conclude, he sang Almaviva in the Barber of Seville
with Meusel as Rosina, Morelli as Figaro, Kravitt as a gaunt
and slinky Basilio and Pompilio Malatesta as a pompous Dr. Bartolo.
As a corporal and on leave, he chose to look in during the inaugural
season of the Los Angeles Opera Company. Who knows? Perhaps
he was drawn to the event by the presence of his future inamorata,
Winifred Heidt. She was singing Carmen. What, or if,
he sang is not known but apparently he “was a real hit”.
Possibly, this happened during a San Carlo visit to California,
when Gene garnered acclaim for his part inRigoletto, Traviata
and Bohème. “The rôle of Rodolfo in
the latter opera was acted to perfection. The tenor is still
in uniform and subject to recall to active military service.”
With Gallo in New York he appeared in La Traviata on
28 April 1944 with Stella Andreva and Morelli. In 1945, as “S/Sgt
Eugene Conley,” he had a final fling with San Carlo in
New York on 17 May as the Duke in Rigoletto with Grace
Panvini as Gilda and Stefan Ballerini as the hunch-backed jester.
His luck held as the bombing of Hiroshima ended the war before
he could become involved in the Far East conflict.
THE CINCINNATI ATTRACTION
Classical music, it seems, has long had a firm hold on a segment
of the Cincinnati citizenry. One of their institutions, the
May Festival, was one hundred years old in 1973, making it the
oldest, continuous festival of its quality in the Western Hemisphere.
The May Festival specialized in symphonic music and oratorio,
leaving opera to the so-called “Opera at the Zoo”
after it was formed in 1920. Conley became a regular.
In the summer of 1942, he discovered the abiding pleasure of
spending six weeks in the grottos and glades of Cincy’s
Zoological Gardens echoed to the strains of grand opera. For
his initial exposure, he sang the title rôle in Faust
on the 2 July 1942 with Jarmila Novotna as Marguérite,
Nicola Moscona as Méphistophélès and Igor
Gorin as Valentin. This opera was so popular he would sing it
during virtually every visit. The following year he found plenty
of action at the Zoo, first on 29 June 1943 in Faust
with Marjorie Hess, Nicola Moscona and Alexander Sved. At a
second performance Richard Bonelli sang Valentin instead of
Sved. On 2 July, Conley sang the first of four Rigolettos
with Lawrence Tibbett, Josephine Antoine and Virgilio Lazzari.
Gene also sang on 10 July as Lionel in Martha with Josephine
Antoine (Lady Harriet), Winifred Heidt (Nancy), Stefan Kozakevich
(Lord Tristan) and Lorenzo Alvary (Plunkett).
Absent for four years, Gene returned on 12 July 1947 to sing
Faust with Mary Henderson, Nicola Moscona and Frank Valentino,
while at a repeat on 23 July, John Brownlee sang Valentin. On
the 29th he portrayed Rodolfo in La Bohème
with Josephine Greco (Mimi), Cora Portaro (Musetta), George
Czaplicki (Marcello) and Virgilio Lazzari (Colline) as Paul
Breisach conducted. In 1948, naturally the season-opener on
30 June was Faust with Norina Greco, Ezio Pinza and Walter
Cassel, Cleva conducting. Then on 15 July he undertook to present
Lionel in Flotow’s Martha with Josephine Antoine
(Harriet), Thelma Altman (Nancy) and Hugh Thompson (Plunkett)
under Breisach’s baton, with a second performance on 28
July. On the 25th he had sung the Duke in Rigoletto
with Weede, Hilde Gueden (Gilda), Thelma Altman (Maddalena)
and Virgilio Lazzari (Sparafucile). In 1949 he had a hefty season
that got underway on 6 July with Faust, his partners
being Tajo, Norina Greco and Frank Valentino. On 10 July as
Ottavio he sang in Don Giovanni with Tajo (see picture),
Lazzari (Leporello), Sara Menkes (Donna Anna) and Irene Jessner
(Donna Elvira). Next, as Rodolfo he sang in La Bohème
with Norina Greco (Mimi), Laura Castellano (Musetta), Angelo
Pilotto (Marcello) and Lazzari (Colline). On 5 August his rôle
was Alfredo in La Traviata with Lucia Evangelista and
Enzo Mascherini. To serenade Zoo denizens in 1950, Gene sang
Pinkerton on 4/7 July with Tomiko Kanazawa as Madama Butterfly
and Czaplicki as Sharpless.
Though absent in 1951, he was due in 1952 to sing in Tosca
and Faust but instead he went to Buenos Aires. He thus
missed a chance to see the Basque Spanish mezzo sensation, the
petite but huge-voiced Lydia Ibarrondo, as Carmen. He
did visit in 1953, allowing fans that had missed his earlier
scheming Duke of Mantua, a fresh opportunity to see him on 30
June with Barbara Gibson, Robert Weede and William Wilderman.
A pair of Madama Butterflys followed with Tomiko Kanazawa
and Richard Torigi. Arriving in the summer in 1954, he sang
inTosca with Kirsten and Czaplicki and a Faust
with Moscona and Warenskjold. Eugene Conley was advertised to
appear at the May Festival in the American Première of
Britten’s Gloriana on 8 May 1955, but as it turned
out, he was busy with the Met tour in Dallas on 7 May and in
Houston on 9 May, so it would have been virtually impossible
for him to attend, and in fact, John Alexander sang instead.
Later, he appeared at the Zoo on 25 June in Tosca with
Kirsten and Bardelli, followed by a Faust on 20 July
with Eva Likova and Moscona. He and Eva would repeat this latter
opera in July 1956 with Tajo and Cesare Bardelli.
For fans who had come to hear him, he did not fail as Faust
on 12 July 1957 with Nadine Conner, William Wilderman and Napoleon
Bisson. A second chance to hear him came two nights later. In
1958 he returned for two operas: La Traviata on 12 July
with Eleanor Steber and Frank Valentino and Madama Butterfly
on 18 July with Kirsten and Torigi. A second Pinkerton on 20
July proved to be his final appearance in Cincinnati.
MEXICO CITY, A POPULAR PORT OF CALL
Mexico City also attracted; so in March 1943, Conley visited
to sing in La Bohème at the Palacio de Bellas
Artes. On the first night, Armand Tokatyan was Rodolfo, Gene’s
turn coming two nights later with local prima donna Irma González
as Mimi, Eugenia Rocabruna as Musetta and Roberto Silva as Colline
with Carl Alwin conducting.
Presumably as a civilian, he returned in 1945 to sing Rodolfo
in La Bohème on 21 July with González and
Francesco Valentino. Then in August he joined Madame Gonzalez
in Madama Butterfly with Concha de los Santos as Suzuki.
La Traviata was next with Dorothy Kirsten, followed by
another La Bohème on 4 September with Kirsten,
Morelli and Ruby Mercer. When he arrived in the summer of 1946,
he was faced with a heavy assignment that began on 11 June with
Faust with Christina Carroll, Ezio Pinza and Morelli,
Jean Morel conducting. Then, on 13 June, he repeated Madama
Butterfly, this time with Dorothy Kirsten, Conchita de los
Santos and Ivan Petroff. La Bohème followed on
18 June with Stella Roman, Christina Carroll, Morelli and Pinza.
Next, on 22 June, he sang Ottavio with Pinza, Stella Roman (Donna
Anna), Norina Greco (Donna Elvira), Christina Carroll (Zerlina)
and Lazzari (Leporello) with Richard Lert conducting. La
Traviata on 9 July with Kirsten and Mascherini concluded
his visits to this city.
For a change of pace, he sampled the outdoor concerts at Grant
Park in Chicago and with soprano Dorothy Sarnoff, he appeared
on 10 and 11 August 1946 in “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life”
and “I’m Falling in Love with Someone” from
Herbert’s Naughty Marietta. His voice was described
as “robust and of fairly attractive quality,” and
his “performance was unpretentious but made a good impression.”
Winifred Heidt appeared the following year.
On 25 November that year in Fort Worth, Texas, he was featured
in an English language La Traviata with Eloise MacDonald
and Melvin Dacus. Then in December he sang a Madama Butterfly
with Stella Roman in Newark. At this time, with other musicians,
recruited from City Opera, Conley helped form The American Lyric
Theatre to give operas in English at the Westchester Church
in White Plains, New York.
Gene had little time though for this undertaking as he yearned
to venture farther afield. And so, after a concert in Amsterdam,
he went to Paris to sing in La Bohème at the Opéra
Comique on 12 March 1947 and a La Traviata two nights
later, garnering a resounding ovation in each. Back in the USA
at Lewisohn Stadium on 22 June, he joined Dorothy Kirsten to
sing in memory of Grace Moore, who had died in an airplane crash
on 26 January in Denmark. An audience of 13,000 shared the tribute.
LUV DAT CAJUN COOKIN’!
Next, let us ponder Conley’s apparent love for the delights
of New Orleans. As we’ve seen, Fortune Gallo’s San
Carlo organization brought him to this fabled Louisiana city
in 1942 to appear in La Traviata. Though unable to come
in 1943, he did return late in 1944 to sing with the newly created
New Orleans Opera Association, his La Bohème performances
coming on 25 and 26 November with Nancy Garrotto (Mimi), Eloise
MacDonald (Musetta), Rocco Pandiscio (Marcello) and Charles
Goodwin (Colline). Again with dual performances of each rôle,
he returned in January 1945 as Alfredo in La Traviata
with Vivian della Chiesa and Jess Walters, and as Lionel in
Martha with Margaret Luft Piazza (Harriet), Betty Baker
(Nancy and Robert Brink (Plunkett). In November he sang in La
Traviata. Jack Belsom, the New Orleans Opera archivist,
who provided these details, attended a performance and wrote:
“He was a fine and dependable artist. He was the Alfredo
in my first opera - taken by my parents when I was a kid in
elementary school. My only recollection of Conley was the Act
2 aria when he had a riding crop in his hand, and of Albanese’s
beautiful costume at Flora’s party, and of her collapse
in the third act - funny what kids’ remember!” For
his next contribution, Gene sang Alamaviva in Il Barbiere
di Siviglia with Graciela Rivera (Rosina), John Schafer
(Figaro) and Emile Renan (Bartolo). He concluded this visit
in December as the Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto with Hilde
Reggiani and Ivan Petroff.
he returned in March 1946, it was to sing his warhorse Faust
with Dorothy Sarnoff and Hines. In November he returned as Rodolfo
in La Bohème with Dorothy Sarnoff (Mimi), Rita
Caprino (Musetta), Jess Walters (Marcello) and Valfrido Patachi
(Colline). In November 1947, he undertook Cavaradossi in Tosca
with Sara Menkes and Alexander Sved as well as the Duke in Rigoletto
with Graciela Rivera and Weede.
In 1948, he came just once on 7 October to sing Edgardo in Lucia
di Lammermoor with Graciela Rivera (Lucia) and Ivan Petroff
(Enrico). After skipping a season, he arrived on 16 March 1950
for a rarity, at least for him, Des Grieux in Massenet’s
Manon with Bidú Sayão (Manon), Daniel Duno
(Lescaut) and Norman Treigle (Comte des Grieux). In 1952, he
tacked the Duke in Rigoletto with Hilde Gueden (Gilda),
Warren (Rigoletto) and Wilderman (Sparafucile). The second performance
on 5 April, a powerful one, is preserved on CD, courtesy of
VAI. Until this point Walter Herbert had conducted all operas,
but for his last pair, Renato Cellini took charge. In La
Bohème on 7 and 9 October 1954, Conley joined Lucine
Amara (Mimi), Violetta Russell (Musetta), Cesare Bardelli (Marcello)
and Norman Scott (Colline). Then in Tosca on 14 November
1957 with Dorothy Kirsten and Walter Cassel, his Cavaradossi
rolled out as “manly and firm voiced” as ever, producing
a fine, final exposure on this stage.
NEW YORK CITY OPERA SHOWS INTEREST
After beginning operations with a Tosca in 1944, the
New York City Opera was ready to welcome Gene for its Spring
Season the following year. Thus he made his début on
14 April 1945 as Rodolfo in the first of two La Bohèmes
with Irma González, Andzia Kozak and John De Surra. The
following autumn, eager for more work, he returned to begin
with Tosca on 27 September with Dorothy Sarnoff and George
Doubrovsky, then Alfredo in La Traviata on the 30th
with Rosemarie Brancato, followed by Faust on 5 and 13
October. Finally he spent three evenings wooing Lucille Manners
For their Spring Season in 1946, Gene stayed most of May and
on the 9th had the distinction of singing the Duke
in the company’s first performance of Rigoletto
with Rosemarie Brancato and Ivan Petroff. After another “first”
on 15 May with Camilla Williams in Madama Butterfly,
he sang three performances of La Traviata, twice with
Brancato and once with Dorothy Kirsten, with Enzo Mascherini
as Germont throughout. And again he romanced Lucille Manners
in La Bohème.
That autumn, he was back, busier than ever with six favourite
rôles, usually in multiple performances. Inevitable was
the Faust on 26 September with La Bohème,
two nights later, Dorothy Sarnoff appearing in both operas.
Hilde Reggiani was his amour inLa Traviata
on the 28th and in Rigoletto on 13 October.
After singing Cavaradossi in Tosca with Ella Flesch,
he took on his sixth rôle, Pinkerton with Lucia Evangelista.
Interspersed were two performances with the Philadelphia La
For the Spring season in 1947, he had only one rôle, Alfredo
in La Traviata with Margit Bokor on 17 and 27 April.
For the fall season, he likely began with La Bohème
on 26 September with Ann Ayars, followed by an outstanding and
imaginative setting of Werther on 2 October with dramatic
impersonations for himself and Winifred Heidt as Charlotte.
Then on the 5th, he and Camilla Williams united in
Madama Butterfly. On 18 October, he became the amorous
Duke in Rigoletto with Virginia MacWatters. When City
Opera presented its first Don Giovanni on 23 October,
Gene sang Ottavio with James Pease, Brenda Lewis as Donna Elvira
and Ellen Faull as Donna Anna. The season ended on 16 November
as he dallied with Dalisay Aldaba in Madama Butterfly.
He was front and centre on 15 October 1948, as Rodolfo in La
Bohème with Ann Ayars, Dorothy MacNeil and Ralph
Herbert. Back on 31 October as Cavaradossi, he presented a Tosca
with Wilma Spence and Walter Cassel to conclude that season.
In 1949, it was back-to-back action on 7 October as Alfredo
in La Traviata with Eva Likova débuting as Violetta,
followed the next evening by Cavaradossi in Tosca with
Suzy Morris. On 16 October as Pinkerton, he helped manoeuvre
Joan Hammond through her début as Cio-Cio-San. During
a matinée La Traviata on the 23rd,
his Violetta was Frances Yeend. On 28 October, he and Joan Hammond
sang a second Tosca. After a matinée La Bohème
on the 30th, with Yeend, he caroused in Madama
Butterfly on 6 November with Camilla Williams. On 18 November
as Don Ottavio, he sang with Eva Likova (Donna Elvira), James
Pease (Don Giovanni) and Rosa Canario (Donna Anna). Winifred
Heidt was active as Carmen and Amneris, but they did not sing
He showed up on 1 April 1950 for a Tosca with Wilma Spence
and Walter Cassel, followed by La Bohème on the
14th with Ann Ayars and John Tyers. Next, during
a matinée Madama Butterfly on 16 April, he teamed
once more with Camilla Williams. Don Giovanni on 27 April
proved to be his final performance with City Opera.
THE PHILADELPHIA STORY
Owing to Philadelphia’s proximity to New York, Conley
often shuttled back and forth between City Opera and the Philadelphia
La Scala Opera Company, and so, on 21 May, 1946 with Scala,
he sang in Rigoletto with the legendary Giuseppe De Luca.
During a visit to Detroit on 3 October, he sang Faust
with Sarnoff and Ugo Novelli and then, back in Philadelphia
on 31 October, he appeared in Rigoletto with Mascherini
and Elena Danese. Detroit witnessed this cast in the Faust
on 28 November to end Gene’s season.
In 1947, he performed with La Scala on 23 January in La Traviata
with Claudia Pinza, followed in February by Don José
in Carmen with Winifred Heidt as the wayward gypsy and
a chorus member who was making her operatic début: Beverly
Sills. Madama Butterfly was prominent on 6 October in
Toronto’s Massey Hall with Violeta de Freitas and Richard
Bonelli and a week later in the Masonic Auditorium in Detroit.
The interest in Butterfly continued in 1948 when he sang
in Philadelphia on 13 October with Eva de Luca and John Brownlee.
Absent for a spell, the tenor returned to Philadelphia on 7
March 1950 as a member of the Metropolitan Opera, his mission
being to don his familiar guise as Faust and be tempted
by Italo Tajo as Méphistophélès with Dorothy
Kirsten as Marguérite.
In 1951 during a stint with the Philadelphia Civic Opera Company,
Conley appeared on 18 October in Rigoletto with Bardelli
and Graciela Rivera. In 1952 he made two visits, initially on
7 February to sing La Bohème with Ann Ayars, Bardelli,
Vanna d’Oglio and John Lawler, and then on 4 December,
for Cavalleria Rusticana as Turiddu with Maria Gasi and
Charles Lancaster. In 1953, ten days after the Met première
of Stravinsky’s Rake’s Progress, the company
brought this opera to Philadelphia together with its stars,
including Conley as Tom Rakewell. During a second visit on 15
December, the Met presented Conley in Faust with de los
Angeles, Pierre Monteux conducting. With no action in 1954,
Civic Opera mustered a Lucia di Lammermoor on 17 March
1955 with Dolores Wilson as Lucia, Conley as Edgardo and Bardelli
as Lord Enrico Ashton.
After La Scala and Civic amalgamated that summer to form the
Philadelphia Grand Opera Company, Conley decided he would make
a single visit per year. On 13 October 1955, as the Duke in
Rigoletto, he sang with Frank Guarrera, Lisa di Julio,
John Lawler and Sandra Warfield. The next year, in Tosca
on 30 November he sang with Eleanor Steber and Cesare Bardelli.
On 19 December 1957, he served up another Rigoletto with
Eva Likova and Cornel MacNeill. The last hurrah came on 28 November
1958 in La Traviata with Leyla Gencer and MacNeil, Conley’s
Alfredo being praised: “(he) sang in a truly splendid
tenor, the bright well-focussed cantabile, the ringing top notes”
and “held the audience almost spellbound...his singing
THE GREAT D’ANDRIA CAPER
with fellow American, Christina Carroll and Chilean tenor Ramón
Vinay (see picture - Conley at right), he joined Giorgio d’Andria’s
“National Grand Opera Company” for an operatic tour
of Italy in August and September, 1947. After Otello, Bohème
and Traviata at the Pergolesi Theatre in Florence, they
went to Genoa where Conley sang at the Augustus Theatre in Rigoletto
on 7 September with Silvia Paliaga and Tito Gobbi. Six nights
later he trod the stage in La Traviata with Onelia Fineschi
and Pietro Guelfi. The tour continued with seven performances
at Teatro Lyric in Turin and four at the Duse in Bologna.
To celebrate d’Andria’s birthday, the company gathered
at the Campidoglio restaurant in Florence where Conley sang
“Happy Birthday.” Then, when a strolling band stopped
to entertain the party, the young lyric tenor broke into ‘Come
back to Sorrento.’ Scarcely had the high notes soared
into the twilight air when from the adjoining apartment came
the famous Italian baritone Titta Ruffo. He excitedly asked
to meet “the great voice which has just floated into my
windows as I am listening, reminiscing to records by the master,
Caruso. So lost am I in the glorious old days at the Metropolitan
that at first I think all the singing comes from my phonograph
- then I suddenly realized that it is a marvellous trained voice
from the outside which sings too - and here I am to pay my respects
and congratulate the young American with the superb voice.”
He remained for the evening and occupied a box at all of their
remaining Florence engagements.
It was time to celebrate on 9 March 1948, for on that day Eugene
Conley and mezzo-soprano Winifred Heidt were married in the
home of Mr. and Mrs Ezra Sensibar, with the nuptials overseen
by Rev. Dr. Leslie T. Pennington of the 1st Lutheran
Church of Chicago. Born Winifred Huntoon in Grand Rapids, Michigan,
the bride had been married previously and had opted to use her
first husband’s surname of “Heidt” during
her professional career. The following year the Conley’s
gave a concert in London. They would sing together in Carmen,
Martha, Faust, Rigoletto and in one or two other operas
but not many of them offered rôles suitable for both their
How’s this for a honeymoon? Proceeding to Stockholm, Gene
sang with the Royal Swedish Opera in La Bohème
on 24 April 1948 and inRigoletto on 26 April, each time
with Hjördis Schymberg as the heroine. Two nights later,
for his third appearance, he sang Mario Cavaradossi with Brita
Hertzberg as Tosca and Sigurd Björling as Scarpia.
Brita, a local favourite, was the mother of the later star soprano,
Convinced by his European experiences that it would be advantageous
to acquire a lieder repertoire, Gene turned to Harriet Barrows
in Boston for help. Under her guidance, he felt more confident
that he was ready to meet any singing challenges that fate might
LA SCALA AND COVENT GARDEN ANTICS
And that next special event came at the famed Teatro alla Scala
in Milan, where plans were afoot to present Vincenzo Bellini’s
tenor-killing opera I Puritani with Conley as the man
of the hour. He sang Arturo in the first of six performances
on 12 April 1949 with Margherita Carosio, Cesare Siepi and Carlo
Tagliabue, led by Franco Capuana.
Journeying to London, he débuted at Covent Garden on
4 May as the Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto to begin a series
of eight performances. Erna Berger, the original Gilda, became
indisposed so Elisabeth Schwarzkopf had to learn the part in
English on just over a day’s notice. “Mr. Eugene
Conley, a visitor to the company, made a convincingly caddish
figure of the Duke and, though his voice has not the ardour
that may be expected of this licentious nobleman, his singing,
especially in ‘Ella mi fu rapita’ was pleasant and
musical.” During this visit Conley also shared the rôle
of Rodolfo with two other tenors in sixteen La Bohèmes
with Schwarzkopf as Mimi.
The I Puritani performances the previous year having
been a success, La Scala invited him to repeat the opera with
Lina Pagliughi, Paolo Silveri and Cesare Siepi on 11 January
1950 and in four other performances. Then it was back to the
US to face a new challenge.
JOINS METROPOLITAN OPERA
Upon his return, he pulled his wife aside and announced, “Guess
what, honey, they’ve asked me to sing in the Big House
in New York. Yes, even though I am 42 years old, the Metropolitan
Opera wants me to sing Faust. And why not? I’ve
sung it everywhere!
And so for Faust on 25 January, 1950 an almost completely
American cast assembled, Denis Harbour as Wagner and conductor
Wilfred Pelletier being the lone interlopers from
Canada. On stage besides Conley were Eleanor Steber as Marguerite,
Jerome Hines as Méphistophélès, Frank Guarrera
as Valentin, Inge Manski as Siébel and Claramae Turner
as Marthe. Jerome D. Bohm reacted: “Eugene Conley is an
excellently schooled tenor and his lyric voice not only carried
well in the huge auditorium, but its texture actually sounded
more persuasive than it had in other years in the City Center
and in smaller theatres. He delivered his music in aurally satisfying
fashion as well as with a degree of stylistic finish not often
encountered here nowadays in French opera.” Irving Kolodin’s
reaction differed: “Good looks and manly style were appropriate
to Pinkerton and Edgardo, but he was inclined to drive his voice
hard with little variation in colour or dynamics.” That
spring he sang Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor with Patrice
Munsel, Frank Valentino and Nicola Moscona and a Faust
in Philadelphia as well as making appearances in New Orleans
and a farewell to City Opera.
At the Metropolitan, he would give 73 performances in New York
and a further 46 on tour. His repertory was somewhat limited,
just 13 rôles, the most frequent being Faust with
17, consisting of 7 in New York and 10 on tour, followed by
Rodolfo in La Bohème with 16 appearances. Alamaviva
in Il Barbiere di Siviglia and Don Ottavio in Don
Giovanni each were given 13 times and Alfredo in La Traviata
12 times. Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly, the Duke of
Mantua in Rigoletto and Alfred in Die Fledermaus
he sang 10 times. Tom in The Rake’s Progress received
8 renditions. Cavaradossi in Tosca was heard 4 times,
the first on tour in Cleveland, twice in other cities, with
just a single performance in New York. Turiddu in Cavalleria
Rusticana was given twice in New York and once on tour.
Edgardo in Lucia was heard twice in New York while Des
Grieux in Manon enjoyed a solitary outing in New York.
In that summer of 1950, Gene shared a concert at Lewisohn Stadium,
New York in June with Jan Peerce and Eleanor Steber and the
Philharmonic Orchestra. Then, thanks to his Italian reputation,
he sang outdoor performances (29 July and 6 August) of La
Bohème at the Arena di Verona with Rina Gigli as
Mimi, Maria Huder as Musetta, Scipio Colombo as Marcello and
Silvio Maionica as Colline, Angelo Questa conducting.
FINDS CHALLENGES IN SAN FRANCISCO
But in the US he was considering options. As the Met occupied
autumn and early winter, Gene chose to sign with San Francisco
Opera for work when not at the Met. He débuted on 2 October
1950 as Edgardo, betrothed of Lily Pons in Lucia di Lammermoor
with Frank Valentino as her interfering brother. With Lily,
he offered Almaviva in a pair of Il Barbiere di Siviglias
followed by two Madama Butterflys with Dorothy Kirsten
to round out the season. That fall, he sang once as the tenor
in Der Rosenkavalier on 21 September 1951, perhaps as
a fill-in for an ailing colleague, with Stella Roman as the
Marschallin. Then, as Alfredo in La Traviata with Lily
Pons, he concluded this visit.
For his next Met stint, he faced a parade of “firsts”
that he began as Alfredo in La Traviata with Dorothy
Kirsten on 15 November 1950 and with Licia Albanese in a subsequent
performance. On 17 November he sang Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni
with Paul Schoeffler, but in five later performances, Silveri
was Giovanni. Next, when Johann Strauss Jr.’s Die Fledermaus
was unveiled Conley was Alfred, initially on 4 January 1951.
On the 18th he sang Almaviva with Erna Berger in
Il Barbiere di Siviglia, then Faust and Madama
Butterfly with de los Angeles as female lead in both operas.
On tour they pounded the rails to Boston, Cleveland, Atlanta,
Dallas, Minneapolis, Chicago and Rochester, Conley singing Almaviva,
Alfredo, Pinkerton and Alfred. Then, by a Met agreement
with Columbia Records, he recorded his début rôle
of Faust with Eleanor Steber, Cesare Siepi and Frank
MILAN AGAIN AND FLORENCE WITH CALLAS
Conley’s Italian forays continued, as reported at the
beginning, when he sang Arrigo in Verdi’s I Vespri
Siciliani at La Scala on 7 December 1951. Amidst gilded
decorations that restored the theatre to much of its pre-war
splendour, the production plunged ahead dominated by two operatic
titans, Maria Callas as Elena and Boris Christoff as the patriot
Procida. For Conley it was not quite what he anticipated: “Eugene
Conley struggled hard to keep his head up opposite the taller
Callas. His fluid lyric tenor suits parts like Lord Arthur in
I Puritani much better than the heavier Arrigo.”
Victor de Sabata shaped the fragmentary nature of the orchestral
melodies with exquisite care through seven performances. Argeo
Quadri conducted the last pair, the final on 3 January 1952.
Moving over to the Teatro Comunale in Florence, Gene sang Arturo
on 9 January in I Puritani with Maria Callas as Elvira,
Carlo Tagliabue as Riccardo and Nicola Rossi-Lemeni as Giorgio,
Tullio Serafin conducting. He was also Don Ottavio in Don
Giovanni with Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, Birgit Nilsson (Donna
Anna), Gladys Kuchta (Donna Elvira) and Rosanna Carteri (Zerlina)
with Serafin again the baton wielder.
Rejoining the Met, he opened in an Opera Guild Student presentation
of La Traviata on 19 February 1952 as Alfredo with Delia
Rigal, followed on 26 February by La Bohème with
Bidú Sayão. Appearances as Turiddu in Cavalleria
Rusticana would be rare but his first occurred on 4 March
with Regina Resnik as Santuzza. After partnering Graciella Rivera
in Lucia on the 14th, he went on tour, but
only with one effort as Rodolfo in La Bohème in
Atlanta on 3 May with Dorothy Kirsten, Frank Guarrera and Hilde
Gueden. Then it was a rush to be transported to Buenos Aires.
At the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires he arrived in time
to sing Des Grieux in the Manon of Massenet on 20 May,
earning high praise for himself and the soprano: “As sung
by (Victoria) de los Angeles, the rôle had a purity and
quality rarely encountered today. Des Grieux was sung by Eugene
Conley, also making his début, and he too scored a success.”
Felipe Romi was Lescaut and Albert Woolf conducted. Before his
next effort, the season was suspended for three weeks owing
to the death of Signora Perón. Upon its resumption, Madama
Butterfly was given by de los Angeles and Conley with Victor
Damiani as Sharpless. Then, before he could depart, Conley was
urged to stay on and sing Rodolfo in La Bohème
as a replacement for Wolf-Ferrari’s Le Donne Curiose.
He did remain and gave his all in the opera with Helena Arizmendi
and Renato Cesari.
His next San Francisco assignment began with Tosca on
21 September 1952 with Dorothy Kirsten and Robert Weede. Then,
on 4 October, Rinuccio in Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi
was an unusual rôle for him that he sang with Italo Tajo
and Dorothy Warenskjold. La Traviata followed on 4 October
with Pons, then Cavalleria Rusticana with Fedora Barbieri
and a Don Giovanni with Rossi-Lemeni. Afterwards he travelled
with the company to Los Angeles to sing La Traviata, La Bohème
and Rigoletto with Pons in each opera, as well as in
Gianni Schicchi. This was followed by appearances in
Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Greenville, South Carolina and finally
in New York where the Met was staging a brave but ill-conceived
attempt to present La Bohème in English. When
the original was restored on 7 January 1953, Conley sang Rodolfo.
Later, Licia Albanese provided a truly Italian Mimi in two performances.
Perhaps Gene was bothered by a pending challenge, for seven
days hence the Met was to present the US Première of
Igor Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress with
him as Tom Rakewell. James Hinton, Jr. wrote in OPERA, “In
the title rôle Eugene Conley sang all of the notes in
one of the cruellest tests yet devised for an operatic tenor.
He also looked presentable.” Curt Weller, also for OPERA,
wrote favourably too: “... he left no doubt that he is
in the front rank of present day tenors.” According to
the New York Herald-Tribune, “Eugene Conley sang angelically
... it is not easy to think of a tenor who would have done better
dramatically while doing half so well vocally.” Nevertheless
it proved controversial and caused pain at the box office. It
was not Puccini. Reiner led a goodly run of seven performances
though the composer conducted when a recording was made concurrently.
Naxos has it on CD.
After the Stravinsky episode, Conley undertook Rigoletto
on 22 February with Silveri and Genevieve Warner as well as
a broadcast performance on 7 March with Warren and Gueden. He
then sang Alfredo in La Traviata on 13 March as well
as three with Licia Albanese and Leonard Warren. After a Don
Giovanni with George London on 14 March, he travelled with
the company to Baltimore to sing La Bohème with
Nadine Conner and Robert Merrill. Back in New York, he took
part in another La Bohème on 4 April with Licia
Albanese. In Cleveland, the first stop on the spring tour, Conley
sang in Rigoletto and on 17 April in Tosca with
Dorothy Kirsten. Continuing, he sang in Boston (Tosca and
Butterfly), Washington (La Bohème), Dallas
(Don Giovanni), Oklahoma City (La Bohème),
Minneapolis (Don Giovanni), and Toronto (Rigoletto).
Seventeen artists, Gene included, gave freely of their talents
to cheer hospitalized veterans along the way.
That autumn at the Met, he faced six La Bohèmes
with three Mimis: Hilde Gueden, Lucine Amara and Nadine Conner,
prompting James Hinton, Jr. to write in OPERA NEWS: “Eugene
Conley’s voice seems to have taken on more resonance and
body in the middle without losing its ring at the top.”
After three Rigolettos, he was rehearsing La Traviata
for a first performance that season on 5 December 1953 when
he had to withdraw in order to replace Jussi Bjoerling in the
Faust matinée that day. When the Swedish tenor’s
laryngitis persisted, Conley sang four additional performances
with de los Angeles and one with Conner as Marguérite
but he did manage a La Traviata on 11 December with Licia
Albanese and the brilliant Ettore Bastianini.
CARNEGIE HALL, A PRESTIGIOUS PLACE
Not every tenor of stature has an opportunity to sing in fabled
Carnegie Hall, but Conley did so on six occasions. On 20 May
1947 for a Pops Concert, he launched a salute to Puccini with
‘Recondita armonia’ from Tosca, ‘Che
gelida manina’ from La Bohème and the ‘Vogliatemi
bene’ duet from Madama Butterfly with soprano Violeta
de Freitas. He must have impressed for at a second Pops on 14
June, he sang ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ from Donizetti’s
L’Elisir d’Amore and ‘La donna è
mobile’ from Rigoletto with Valter Poole conducting.
At this concert he also added three songs: ‘I Hear you
Calling Me’, ‘Finnegan’s Wake’ and ‘Beloved’,
the latter based on Rubinstein’s Romance, with piano accompaniment
supplied by Marcel Frank. His appearance on 12 November 1949
must have been arduous for, though his lyric tenor was hardly
suited to Wagner, he took part in a benefit for the Pension
Fund of the New York Philharmonic, and sang excerpts from Tristan
und Isolde and Siegfried with soprano Mariquita Moll
and mezzo Virginia Paris with Leopold Stokowski and the orchestra.
The following year after singing Cavaradossi at City Opera,
by pre-arrangement, he showed up at Carnegie Hall to sing in
Mahler’s 8th Symphony on 6, 7 and 9 April with
Stokowski conducting the New York Philharmonic.
In 1953, before embarking on the Met spring tour, Gene joined
Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie
Hall on 28 March to broadcast and record Beethoven’s Missa
Solemnis with Lois Marshall, Nan Merriman and Jerome Hines
and the Robert Shaw Chorale. It was issued on 2 LPs and later
on CDs. During his final visit on 24 April 1957, he joined Leontyne
Price and Cesare Siepi in a concert to benefit Haarlem House
and the Dutch community, his contribution being Verdi’s
Inno dell nazioni with the Collegiate Chorale conducted
by Alfredo Antonini.
for Mrs Conley, Winifred Heidt was following up her rôle
of marriage broker in a televised performance of Martinů’s
The Marriage with an appearance as the Princess inSuor
Angelica, also on TV on 7 March 1953. By this time the Conley’s
had three children, the eldest bearing his father’s first
name so he was Eugene, Jr. Gene Sr. was no stranger either to
the media world with frequent appearances on radio and TV. Some
idea of the variety of his work can be gleaned from the discography.
That summer, Gene sang in a brief Gala Season in Cuba with leading
Metropolitan artists, made possible by a subsidy authorized
by the President of Cuba. It drew Havana’s opera-lovers
to enjoy four operas between the first and twelfth of June.
Singing in three, Conley offering a ‘discreet’ Faust
in the first with Ann Ayars as ‘a sweet and youthful Marguérite’
while Dora Carral, a local darling, brought her fans out to
see her portray Siébel. Cesare Siepi was Méphistophélès.
Next, he joined Roberta Peters and Cesare Bardelli in Lucia
di Lammermoor and for his third venture, he sang in Madama
Butterfly with a tantalizing Lydia Ibarrondo as Cio-Cio-San.
After a Faust with the Met in Philadelphia on 15 December
1953, Conley took a few days off and courtesy of Opera News,
we can look in on the busy revellers: “Eugene and Winifred
Conley’s Christmas seems traditionally American. A New
England turkey dinner at Thanksgiving is followed on the Conley’s
agenda by a traditional duck or goose at Christmas on their
western New Jersey farm. Winifred Heidt Conley serves as cook
and bottle-washer; the tenor’s mother bakes the three
pies that come to the holiday table. The family’s Christmas
customs include cutting the Christmas tree from the farm’s
woodlands and decorating the house and guest-house with cedar
boughs. The gift exchange includes practical presents: a hand
sander for refinishing antique furniture, marked for Winifred,
a chainsaw for her husband’s wood-cutting.”
But duty called, and in costume on Christmas Eve, Gene sang
Rodolfo with Nadine Conner and repeated on 15 January 1954,
while all the while, preparations were ongoing for a revival
of The Rake’s Progress. Even though the performers
were more at ease in their difficult assignments, audiences
remained unreceptive and after two performances it was shelved.
After singing twice in Don Giovanni in New York, Conley
went on tour as Faust in seven cities as well as the
Duke in Rigoletto in Chicago with Roberta Peters as Gilda
and Almaviva in Il Barbiere di Siviglia in Toronto with
Roberta as Rosina.
That summer, a concert in Lewisohn Stadium on Friday evening,
30 July, featured something different, Gene singing excerpts
from Les Pecheurs de Perles, the rôle of Nadir
surely a rarity for him. For a while the concert seemed in doubt
as shortly before 8, it started to drizzle, sending the audience
scrambling for shelter. But the rain soon abated and everyone
ambled back to let the Bizet programme begin as scheduled.
Returning for the 1954/55 Met season, he faced four Madama
Butterflys, literally: Licia Albanese (13 November), Lisa
Della Casa (19th), Victoria de los Angeles (27th)
and Dorothy Kirsten (6 December). Tosca on the evening
of the 25th made for rather gloomy Yuletide fare
but Conley sang anyway with Albanese and George London. After
the holidays, he journeyed to San Antonio on 6th
February for Lucia di Lammermoor with Pons, the petite
and charming Lily being her inimitable self. For his part Conley
was “a debonair Edgardo, exhibiting ringing high notes
and a thorough schooling in bel canto. Ettore Bastianini,
a wonderful Enrico, won bravos for his superb, extremely flexible
voice as well as his handsome stage presence.” At the
Met on 18 February 1955, Gene sang Faust with Heidi Krall
and Norman Scott and then on the 27th, his last “new”
role at the Met, Des Grieux in Manon with Eleanor Steber.
Then he devoted his time to Almaviva in Il Barbiere di Siviglia
with Lily Pons and as Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni with
Jerome Hines as his evil nemesis. After aLa Bohème
on 26 March, Gene went traveling for his fifth and busiest tour,
packing in an even dozen performances in eleven communities.
It was almost as if he was anticipating the end of a pleasurable
After appearances in Puerto Rico in July 1955, and a concert
version of La Traviata under Arthur Fiedler in San Francisco,
he retired with his wife to their farm near Flemington, to lay
aside his scores and take up a paintbrush. Afterwards only two
Met assignments remained, the first being a finale in New York
on 17 November 1955 as the conniving Duke in Rigoletto
with Peters and Warren. Then, on 25 and 27 January 1956, he
appeared with the Houston Grand Opera, and apparently was not
in good voice but he plunged ahead in Madama Butterfly
with Nancy Winford Blackburn as Cio-Cio-San and Guy Gardner
as Sharpless. On 8 May he joined Peters and Warren in Rigoletto
during a visit to Birmingham and thus ended his Met career.
Fittingly that summer on 28 June in Robin Hood Dell, Philadelphia,
he sang Verdi’s Messa da Requiem with Frances Yeend,
Regina Resnik and Nicola Moscona with Erich Leinsdorf conducting.
That summer Faust predominated in San Antonio and Cincinnati.
In November in Philadelphia, he varied his efforts in Tosca
with Steber. Ending the year on an elevating note, he took off
to join the San Carlo Opera in Naples and on 15 December he
sang Almaviva in Il Barbiere di Siviglia with Gianna
d’Angelo (Rosina), Ettore Bastianini (Figaro), Marco Stefanoni
(Basilio) and Renato Capecchi (Bartolo) with Armando La Rosa
Early in 1957, he appeared in dual rôles with the Cosmopolitan
Opera Company in San Francisco, in Tosca with Zinka Milanov
and as Almaviva in Il Barbiere di Siviglia with Graciela
Rivera and Giuseppe Valdengo. In the summer he flew to Amsterdam
for the 10th Annual Holland Festival where The
Rake’s Progress, was being given in English on 15
June. Graziella Sciutti as Anne with Otakar Kraus (Nick Shadow)
and Mimi Aarden (Baba) all performed brilliantly under Erich
Leinsdorf. It was noted that “Eugene Conley has matured
in the rôle of Tom Rakewell since he first sang it in
New York; he has learned to make Tom a creditable dramatic figure
believably drunk in the Brothel Scene, believably craven in
the Graveyard Scene, believably mad in the Bedlam Scene.”
The rest of the year was spent in “the good
ole USA”: in a Martha in San Antonio with Dorothy
Warenskjold, a La Traviata at the Greek Theatre in Los
Angeles on 21, 23 and 24 August with Nadine Conner, a Tosca
in New Orleans and a Rigoletto in Philadelphia. In 1958,
he continued the pattern in Hartford with Faust on 8
February with Eva Likova. Opera lovers in Cincinnati relished
him again on 1 March, but apparently not at the Zoo, as Don
José in Carmen with Nell Rankin, Nadine Conner
and Frank Guarrera. On 11 March, he sang Faust for San
Francisco Cosmopolitan Opera with Ellen Faull and Hines.
If Rigoletto on 10 March 1959 with Cosmopolitan Opera
was indeed his swan song, Conley left in fine fettle. His Gilda,
Gianna d’Angelo drew a rave reaction: “What a magnificent
voice! Bright, silvery, amazingly accurate, infinitely varied,”
etc. etc., while “Cornell MacNeil proved conclusively
in the title role that he merits the acclaim he has received
in the east and in Europe.” As for Gene, he “was
in far better voice than in recent appearances here.”
In a time for farewells, the old Metropolitan Opera house marked
its closing with a mammoth concert on 16 April 1966. Conley
was one of three-dozen creaky warriors seated in a semi-circle
at the back of the stage where they were almost as enthralling
as the artists who sang. It ended at 1:30 in the morning but
everyone was loath to leave.
In another form of good-bye, Gene and Winifred parted company,
and after the divorce, he married Alvah Odetta Young. Karen
Zaremba, granddaughter of Winifred and her first husband, continues
the singing tradition and played Mrs. Mullen when Carousel
was revived on Broadway with Barbara Cook as Julie Jordan.
With his many triumphs at Cincinnati’s ‘Opera at
the Zoo’, it must have been somewhat overwhelming for
him at the Farewell Gala on 12 July 1969. Over twenty artists
of past and present attended so he could reminisce with former
colleagues Licia Albanese, Nicola Moscona, Frank Guarrera, Blanche
Thebom and Charles Kullman as well as newcomers Sherrill Milnes,
Mary Costa, Barry Morell and others while stepping forth to
deliver ‘Recondita armonia’ from Tosca midway
through the concert.
Reports became fewer as teaching became his prime concern in
1960 as tenor-in-residence and professor of voice at North Texas
State University but he obliged whenever asked to give recitals.
Invariably they were pleasing affairs.
His recording of hymns brought cheer to my mother in the mid-1970s
when she was hospitalized after a fall. I copied the LP onto
a cassette and played it during a visit; then I asked her to
record a few words of thanks to send to the tenor. I told him
that ‘Softly and tenderly’ was our favourite. When
Mom died in 1976, Conley wrote, “I’m sorry your
mother had to go but am glad to know my recording was of some
happiness to her.”
When he gave a recital on 19 September 1978 at Alice Tully Hall
in New York City, “he let everyone know he was still singing,
still with youth in his voice as well as in his looks. His singing
was quite beautiful, still displaying his high Cs, his performance
of songs by Schubert and Strauss being admirable.” That
year he returned to private life.
Late in 1980 I received a note at Christmas: “Last June
I suffered a stroke and spent the month in hospital. However,
I am recovering nicely and walking around. Although my teaching
and social activity is curtailed, we are attending the Dallas
Civic Opera season.” Eugene Conley died of cancer in Denton,
Texas on 18 December 1981. His partner throughout the halcyon
years, Winifred, died in Boynton Beach, Florida in 1986.
Along with James Melton and Brian Sullivan, Conley was a member
of the generation of American tenors who faced competition from
such European greats as Jussi Bjoerling, Giuseppe di Stefano
and Ferruccio Tagliavini, while in addition he stood in the
shadow of Jan Peerce and Richard Tucker, both revered performers.
When he left the Met, exciting newcomers such as Nicolai Gedda,
Flaviano Labò and Franco Corelli were charging hard.
“He is a typical exponent of an objective form of singing,
developed particularly in the U.S. which sets greater store
on virtuoso tone production than on the cultivation of individual
distinctive vocal timbre. In one respect Conley was superior
to most of his contemporaries: his reliability in the exposed
high range was phenomenal and was the characteristic for which
he was most famous.” His was an amazing career!
Martin L. Sokol: The New York City Opera, Macmillan Publishing
Co. Inc., 1981.
William H. Seltsam: Metropolitan Opera Annals, First Supplement,
1947-1957, The H. W. Wilson Company, 1957.
Quaintance Eaton: Opera Caravan, Farrar, Straus and Cudahy,
New York, 1957.
The Metropolitan Opera News, 1949-1956.
John Ardoin & Gerald Fitzgerald: “Callas,” Holt,
Rinehart and Wilson, New York, 1974.
Cardell Bishop: The San Carlo Opera Company, 1913-1955.
Juan Dzazópulos: Carlo Morelli, The Record Collector
Vol. 45, No. 1.
Larry Lustig & Richard Lindau: Aroldo Lindi: The Record
Collector Vol. 46, No. 4.
First of all, I would like to remember Eugene Conley for his
kindness and the information he provided. I also deeply appreciate
the assistance of Michael Bott who kindly provided the Cincinnati
data, helpful contacts and much more. Gino Francesconi, archivist
at Carnegie Hall, and Jack Belsom, archivist at New Orleans
Opera, each detailed the tenor’s activities in their cities.
Father Matthias Montgomery of Hubertus, Wisconsin tracked down
a birth record. Stefan Johansson provided cast data for operas
in Stockholm. Norman Willey, here in Winnipeg, spent hours exploring
the Internet for family details. My niece Linda Waverick in
Vancouver also tapped into the Internet. Alfred de Cock in Belgium
and Norman Staveley in England sent useful data. I also appreciated
the help of the ever-resourceful Larry Lustig who supplied data
pertaining to the Gallo San Carlo, Arena di Verona, Mexico,
Philadelphia and other ports of call. My sincere thanks to everyone!