Woog’s World / Westporters may not recognize the name David Tucker
The name Richard Tucker may not mean much to millennials and younger generations. Opera is not on their radar. They have never heard of the man who, for three decades following World War II, was one of America’s leading tenors, live and on records.
Westporters may not recognize the name David Tucker either. He lives quietly in town, having moved here with his wife, to be close to their children and grandchildren, after a successful career as an eye surgeon in Cincinnati.
But our 77-year-old neighbor is Richard Tucker’s son. He has always had a wonderful voice, and loved opera too. Yet it was his famous father who pushed — almost forced —David into medicine.
It took a while for the son to come to terms with the career he had, rather than the one he wanted. Like so many others, his relationship with his father was complicated and often-changing.
Unlike most people though, Tucker has written about that life. His name will help interest readers — at least those of a certain age — in “The Hard Bargain: Music, Medicine, and My Father.”
David’s story begins in Brooklyn, where he was born. (His uncle — his father’s brother-in-law — was Jan Peerce, another internationally known opera singer.)
Tucker grew up near Ebbets Field (and still loves the old Brooklyn Dodgers). He calls himself “a street kid” who drove his father crazy. “I didn’t like authority.”
Before his operatic career, Richard Tucker was a well-known cantor. David — was thrown out of a Crown Heights yeshiva. “I didn’t like getting hit by rabbis,” he explains simply.
David — the middle of three sons — loved to sing. In 1952, when he was 11, his father arranged for the three boys to sing on Sam Levenson’s popular television show.
But, David says, his father “revered the medical profession. He downgraded what he himself did. ‘I have a hard life,’” he told his son.
So the tenor designed that “hard bargain”: He would pay for music lessons, and support David financially, if he would study medicine in school.
David became a pre-med major at Tufts. At the same time, he trained with a retired Met tenor at the New England Conservatory of Music.
Important people recognized his vocal talent. But, David says, “My father never came to one of my lessons. And he never talked to me about music.”
During summers, David traveled with his father to Italy. Lauri Volpi — who had, David says, “the mantle of Caruso” — asked the young man to sing. He told Richard, “I’ll make him a star in a year.”
The father replied, “Maestro, no. He’ll be a doctor. Let’s have lunch.”
There were more humiliations. When David sang for him, Richard walked out of the room to shave, then took a shower. “I heard everything,” he said dismissively when the soon followed him into the bathroom. “Go back and sing.”
David tried for a Broadway career. But he honored the bargain, and entered Cornell Medical School. During his third year, when he began seeing patients, he realized there was “a sense of purpose” in helping people.
He got married, and had four children (“my father thought I was Catholic,” he jokes). Richard called David’s graduation from med school “the best day of my life.”
The son notes, “This was a man who sang for five presidents.”
During three decades as a leading eye doctor, and chief of surgery, in Cincinnati, David kept two photos on his desk. One was Teddy Roosevelt. The other was his father. “I idolized both,” he says.
The couple’s four childen all went east for college, and never returned. So David and his wife followed them here. In Fairfield County, she has developed a career in hospice care.
He taught medicine at New York University. He also began writing about his life. It was time to put on paper the stories he’d been telling for years.
He says his memoir “came out of love. It was tough love, but I loved my parents. My mother told me that my father treated me the way he did because I was just like him.”
His book, he adds, tells “a good, interesting, universal story.” It appeals to “everyone who had a relationship with their parents. They’re human beings, not icons.”
“A Hard Bargain” has been called “the most dramatic exploration of the private life of a legendary singer in the annals of opera literature.”
But because it is written by legendary singer Richard Tucker’s son, “A Hard Bargain” is something many memoirs are not. “I think a classical music audience, a Jewish audience, and the medical community will really like it,” the Westport author — with a very interesting life himself — says.
Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog's World” appears each Friday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His personal blog is danwoog06880.com.