Book review of “The Hard Bargain: Music, Medicine and My Father (Richard Tucker, Opera Legend)” Authors David Tucker and Burton Spivak. Xlibris, 2018. By Diana Di Mauro
We all know the story: an aspiring musician grows up wanting to make a career out of their art, only to have their strong-willed, though well-intentioned parents tell them to give it up and focus on a real career instead. Most of the time the youngster, not fully-committed to their fantasy life end up focusing on something more stable, putting their dreams aside for the good of their future, perhaps cursing or perhaps grateful to their parents for pushing them in that direction. But what happens when your dreams of becoming a famous singer are squashed by one of America’s living opera legends at the peak of his career? What happens when that opera legend is your father?
This is the story of The Hard Bargain, the captivating and balanced story of David Tucker, aspiring opera singer turned ophthalmological surgeon and his father, the great tenor Richard Tucker.
The story begins in the living room of Richard’s family’s home in Great Neck, Long Island in the 1950’s. David, a teenager at the time, has one of his many brushes with death. Only this time, it was at the hands of his father after a brutal prank he played on his mother which temporarily blinded her (without any serious injury). Nonetheless, this was a prank that would not only foreshadow his tumultuous relationship with the great Tucker, but also his future as an ophthalmologist.
Richard Tucker is an opera singer who’s legacy still lives on in the hearts and ears of opera lovers around the world. His performances at The Metropolitan Opera in New York were the stuff of legend. Canio in Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, Andrea Chenier in Giordano’s namesake opera, and Calaf in Puccini’s Turandot are only a few of the iconic tenor roles that Tucker embodied throughout his illustrious career. Even young tenors like Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo could be found asking Richard for advice on their budding success. His legacy is still celebrated in New York, with a monument to him placed prominently in the park in front of Lincoln Centre Plaza. As well, the Richard Tucker Foundation, created in his honour by his eldest son and late wife, annually celebrate young, cusp-of-success opera singers with $50,000 career grants.
His impact on the art form as well as his almost religious devotion to his career make him an incredible role model for any young tenor, but above all, the young tenor who grew up in his artistic shadow. In The Hard Bargain, David Tucker, the second of Richard’s three sons, describes growing up with a father blessed with such resounding international fame and celebrity. Richard was a famous opera singer at the most glamorous and important opera house in the world, The Met in New York. He was constantly surrounded by celebrities, the wealthy, legions of fans and as many beautiful women. It’s no wonder David, an outgoing personality who was naturally uninhibited, was so attracted to the stage and so intent on following in the footsteps of his famous father. Throughout the first part of the book we follow the young David from his first moments onstage (in an attempt to impress the girls) all the way to singing for Giacomo Lauri-Volpi at his home in Italy and attending the New England Conservatory of Music. His spirit and determination lead him to start a career far from the limelight of his father, taking on the stage name David Nello, in an attempt to carve out a career for himself based on his own merit.
The stories that David tells of Richard’s daily and pre-performance rituals describe a highly disciplined, dedicated and serious performer who placed his career, his religion and the well-being of his family at the top of his priorities, even to extremes. David, his hard-working, determined son, channeled so much of his energy into singing early on, making a hard bargain with his father about achieving success in medical school in exchange for his vocal training.
Richard was in no way interested in hearing anything about his son pursuing a career in music, nor about training as a singer, nor to listening to him sing at all, for that matter. Richard was a devout Jew who began his career as a cantor, and sang religious services all over the world for the rest of his life, even at the height of his performance career. He felt that a career in music was at best the result of carefully strategized luck, and at worst, a complete disaster. Whereas a career in medicine, the life of a healer, was the noblest profession any person could choose. This noble, humble career was the one the Richard wanted for his middle son, not the glitzy life of a singer.
The Hard Bargain takes the reader through the ups and downs of his difficult relationship with his father, the realities of wanting to become a singer under the shadow of his larger than life dad, and the incredibly competitive world of medicine. With scandalous anecdotes from backstage at the opera as well as from inside the surgery room, David’s life is ever as intriguing. Burton Spivak did a wonderful job capturing David’s voice and crafting vivid, elegant prose. The detail that went into the chapters on David’s medical career, from pre-med at Cornell, to interning and working in Europe, Columbia, and Florida, tales from the emergency room, the surgeons table, his time at Mount Sinai in New York, his research at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, Maryland, his thirty-five year career as chief of the Department of Ophthalmology of the Jewish Hospital in Cincinnati and all his many other residencies, posts and clinics around the world are fascinating and filled with the sort of medical detail that make for a truly engaging story. As an opera lover, I never expected to learn so much about the medical world in this book. I’m sure the same could be said for anyone interested in medicine in general, or ophthalmology who picks up this memoir, as they would read an incredibly interesting story about a star surgeon while learning about the realities and lifestyle of a star opera singer.
Besides music and medicine, family and the Jewish faith, both in it’s most supreme and most tragic moments, are central to the story.
The Hard Bargain is a gem of a book that will appeal to anyone with an interest in music, medicine, and devotion. A wonderful read that exposes the private lives of two illustrious figures.