We're neither pure nor wise nor good;
We'll do the best we know.
We'll build our house, and chop our wood,
And make our garden grow,
And make our garden grow.
The first refrain soars; the final line subsides with resignation. It is a metaphor.
The voice that sings these words from Leonard Bernstein's Candide has
a pure, ineffably sweet, achingly sad beauty to it. It belongs to
the late tenor Jerry Hadley, chosen by Bernstein himself as his ideal
hero. As one listens, one understands Hadley's affinity for
Voltaire's hapless optimist. To Jerry Hadley, the artist and the
man, creating optimism and joy in his art and in his relationships was a
mission – one in which he usually succeeded in grand
measure. "Jerry sang from the bottom of his heart with soul
energy," remembers mezzo-soprano, Frederica von Stade.
If Jerry Hadley ultimately
failed as an optimist, it was tragically himself that he shorted.
Though his more than twenty-five-year glorious international career was
ended by his suicide in 2007, the legacy of his quarter century in the
limelight still burns brightly, the memories of his friendship, his
caring, his kindness as a colleague and a friend remain undimmed.
Jerry Hadley - one of the
greatest American singers, a tenor of international caliber with a
unique and unforgettable sound, a commanding stage presence, and the
great gift of versatility – built a career that took him far from his
rural prairie roots. He was born in Manlius, Illinois, on June 16,
1952, of English and Italian parents. He grew up on a farm, far
away from the sophisticated international capitals where he would play
out his adult life. To those who knew him he sometimes confided
stories about the difficult, painful relationship with his mother,
though he told others of his deep and abiding love for his father, whom
he paid tribute to in the last work he recorded, Daniel Steven Crafts'
song cycle setting of Carl Sandburg's poems, The Song and the Slogan.
He attended Bradley
University in Peoria, studying voice and conducting and went on to the
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where he earned a master's
degree in voice and got his first performing experience in campus
productions. He married pianist Cheryll Drake and moved to Connecticut
where he was teaching music and studying with Thomas LoMonaco when he
was discovered by artist manager Ken Benson and his then-partner, Eddie
Benson tells the story which remains, he says, to this day one of his most
memories of the tenor whose career he went on to manage for more than
two decades. "It was 1978. Eddie and I were representing a
baritone who told us he had this tenor friend who was teaching music
whom he would like us to hear. We thought, 'A music
teacher?' But we agreed to listen to him as a courtesy.
Jerry rented a studio at the Ansonia Hotel where he sang for us. He
was suffering from allergies and having problems with phlegm, and he
was very frustrated because he thought he was doing a terrible
job. But instead, Eddie and I were hearing this beauty of voice
and these amazing communicative skills. We went out to a bagel
place, and we sat Jerry down and told him we thought he was very special
and we would be happy to represent him. He was thrilled!"
Benson and Lew represented
Hadley until 1986 when Benson went to Columbia Artists Management to
head his own division there. Initially, Hadley opted to stay with
Lew because, as he told Benson, "I love you both, but Eddie as an
independent manager, needs me more." Benson, who respected Hadley
for his honesty and sensitivity, remembers a few years later receiving a
call from Hadley who was seeking a new agent now that Lew was phasing
out his clients. Hadley went over the names of possible new
agents, seeking Benson's opinion. "I was kind of waiting for him
to ask me, and he didn't. I hung up and then I called him back and
asked, 'What about me?' He replied, 'Thank God. I was
hoping you'd say that!' I often wonder what would have happened if
I hadn't made that call," Benson chuckles. And so their
collaboration lasted until a few years before Hadley's death when the
tenor made the decision to take his career in other directions, but
their friendship endured.
"It was a long, good
friendship," Benson recalls. "He was never difficult; we were
almost always on the same page. He didn't require a ton of time
and attention. He was secure in what he was doing, and if things
were set up in the right way, he would do his part."
Hadley was a trouper from
the first. Benson tells of Hadley's early apprenticeship at the
Lake George Opera, where, as customary, the tenor sang the title role of
Faust in the afternoon and then performed in the chorus of the Mikado
in the evening. Likewise, even after he received his break at the
Washington, D.C. Opera which led to being engaged at the Vienna State
Opera, Hadley insisted on honoring every one of the regional contracts
he had previously signed.
Hadley impressed Beverly
Sills at the National Opera Institute auditions, and she offered him a
contract for the New York City Opera, where he made his debut as Arturo
in Lucia di Lammermoor in 1979 on short notice. The story
of that evening is one opera fans still recount. As Benson tells
it, Hadley, who had not had any stage rehearsal, tripped down the
stairs, managed to get his sword stuck, then backed into one of the tall
candelabras igniting the plume on his hat. "Never underestimate
what can go wrong on stage," Benson laughs. "What seemed like a
safe five minute debut turned into a comedy of errors. He learned
from it, though."
Sills, who had a marvelous
sense of humor, could barely contain herself in her box. But it
did not deter her enthusiasm for the young tenor whom she would showcase
in leading roles for more than a decade. Hadley sang so many acclaimed
successes for the now-defunct company, among them Les Pêcheurs de Perles, The Rake's Progress, Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny, and Werther.
Benson remembers the
break in the early 80s that catapulted the tenor from "Omaha to
Vienna." "Jerry had auditioned for Frank Rizzo in Washington, but
it hadn't gone all that well. Then a tenor cancelled the entire
run of Barbiere di Siviglia at the last minute, and Rizzo was
desperate. He called several people who recommended Jerry. Rizzo
hired him on a Sunday; Jerry threw his laundry into a bag and got on a
plane. He was in the air when Rizzo made the connection that this
was the kid who kept cracking at his audition. But Jerry proved
him wrong, and he made a beautiful debut there. Rizzo became a
While he was in Washington, Hadley had the opportunity to perform at the Kennedy Center in La Bohème for
the Reagan inauguration under conductor Lorin Maazel. "Maazel was
just about to take over the Vienna State Opera," and Benson continues,
"he offered Jerry five roles there right on the spot. Suddenly, we
were negotiating contracts for him for Munich, Glynbourne, Florence,
Though he had been engaged to debut as Alfred in Fledermaus later in the year, Hadley actually made his Metropolitan Opera debut as Des Grieux in Massenet's Manon on
March 7, 1987, after the original tenor and his replacement both bowed
out because of illness. This time the stars lined up more
fortuitously for Hadley, who was hailed for "singing sweetly with a
healthy, hearty, light tenor." (NYT). Benson remembers being called
to engage Hadley on a Thursday for a Saturday performance. "It
was enough time for him to have his friends be there to support
him. After his success, the Met rewrote his contract in much
stronger, more favorable terms."
At the Met, where he reigned for the next fifteen years, Hadley made distinguished appearances in Eugene Onegin, Rigoletto, Così Fan Tutte, Don Giovanni, La Traviata, Die Zauberflöte, Lucia di Lammermoor, Elisir d'Amore, as well as in modern works like The Rake's Progress, Susannah, and the world premiere of The Great Gatsby. The revival of Harbison's Gatsby saw Hadley's last performance at the Met in May 2002.
For the remaining five
years of his life he would experiment with taking his career in other
directions, while still remaining active in concert, commissioning new
works, teaching, and recording. Ken Benson explains the
change. "There was a period in his early fifties when we realized
the career was changing after twenty years, that it was time to step
away from the Nemorinos. We began exploring some different kinds
of repertoire – some Britten, Janacek, Idomeneo, even Mime and character
roles. He wanted to branch out and do some more popular things as
well. I think he had a plan, and his main intent was to do good
But sadly, there were
complications. In 2002 he was divorced from his wife. The
split left him reeling emotionally and financially, and according to
Frederica von Stade, he confided that he was devastated over the
estrangement from his two sons, Nathan and Ryan, whom he adored.
"A wounded bird cannot sing. It was tough. It was emotionally
distressing, and it goes straight to the throat. So I took some time off
and sat in the quiet for a while," he told a journalist.
"I never really understood
how inseparable was the journey of the spirit and the journey of
singing and making music. For the first time in my life, I couldn't see a
way forward. But I came out on the other side of it with a deeper
appreciation of what a great gift and great opportunities God has given
me." Hadley spoke these words to the Australia Mail Courant in May 2007 on the occasion of his return to the stage as Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly
in Brisbane, performances where the tenor was hailed for "a new-found
sense of youth and clarity, coupled with a perfect technique and sure
Less than two months later
he was dead, a week after shooting himself in the head with an air
rifle in his Clinton Corners, NY home on July 10, 2007.
That unspeakable tragedy
silenced forever a voice that had been one of the treasures of opera
history, but it could not extinguish the memory of Jerry Hadley's
exquisite artistry. "There was nothing anonymous about his
voice," Ken Benson asserts. "It was a full lyric tenor,
slightly darker than usual, sensual, very accessible. He had a
beautiful, distinctive sound that did darken over the years. And he was
so communicative with words!"
That voice was
complemented by Hadley's histrionic abilities. He threw himself
ardently into the grand dramatic passions of the roles tenors play, and
he possessed an equal capacity for subtle and wicked wit. "Jerry
was an excellent actor because he was all very much of a piece,"
Benson says. "[His performances] were organic; he gave the audience
real, believable human characters and he was very involved facially and
with the expressive potential of the words."
"He was so wonderful to perform with," von Stade recalls,
"because you would look at that face, and you were in it because he was in it. Everything he did was so genuine."
But Hadley was a risk
taker as well, especially with his repertoire. Over the course of
his career he sang the gamut from bel canto to modern works, verismo to
operetta, oratorio to Broadway shows, art song to pop song. And,
amazingly, he succeeded at them all with stylistic aplomb. A
three-time Grammy winner, he is one of the most widely and well recorded
artists in recent memory.
Among so many outstanding roles, his Nemorino in Elisir d'Amore
is one for the ages- liquid sweetness and squillo in the voice and just
the right blend of bumpkin and boyish hero; so, too, his Werther – he
was a master of the French style though it is difficult to listen
to the last act these days without being overwhelmed by sadness.
So, too, was he attuned to German operetta: he was a cheeky, romantic
Alfred in Fledermaus, and a project he always cherished but never
came to fruition was a production of what Benson calls "his own, very
singable translation of Léhar's The Land of Smiles." And in Weill's Mahagonny and Stavinsky's Rake's Progress, as well as Harbison's Gatsby, Jerry Hadley was able to bring a raw dramatic and textual intensity that was riveting.
But one of the things that Jerry Hadley did so extraordinarily well was the Broadway musical repertoire.
While many artists made forays into "crossover" music Hadley, along
with Frederica von Stade and several others of their generation,
redefined the term. His recording of Jerome Kern's Showboat with von Stade and Teresa Stratas, as well as his performances of My Fair Lady, Sweeney Todd, all evidence Hadley skill in this repertoire. Leonard Bernstein, when he recorded his final "authorized" version of Candide,
chose Hadley to sing the title part, calling him his ideal interpreter,
and surely, the surviving video and Grammy-winning recording bear out
In the 1990s Hadley
together with friend and colleague Thomas Hampson recorded and performed
a program of tenor-baritone duets, affectionately dubbed "The Tom and
Jerry Show." The first act consisted of classic operatic exchanges
and the second Broadway duets, and the performances proved object
lessons in idiomatic mastery of the respective genres. Benson
reminisces about "the organic pairing" of his two clients, as well as
"the long tradition for such partnerships, among them Bjoerling and
Warren or Merill and Tucker."
But it is on his recording of Broadway classics, Standing Room Only,
that Hadley's haunting way with American show music leaves an indelible
impression. He sings the full range from romantic to upbeat, plaintive
to whimsical. To listen now to What I Did for Love is to understand the meaning of heartbreak or there is Les Misérables.
"I remember his memorial service at University of Illinois," von Stade
recounts. "It began in the dark and you heard the recording of
Jerry's singing Bring Him Home –" she does not finish.
Queried as to why Hadley succeeded so well in this music and in other mixed genres such as Bernstein's Mass and Paul McCartney's Liverpool Oratorio,
Benson opines, " He met the music on its own terms. He sang it,
but not in an overly operatic manner. It was his way of handling
the English language, too; he never over pronounced." Von Stade
agrees, adding," I grew up with Jerome Kern and Gershwin, and so
did Jerry. There was a cherishing of the words and trying to keep
simple some very difficult vocal things."
That quest for simplicity
and that focus on words also made Jerry Hadley a fine interpreter of
song – the classic European repertoire, of course – but especially
American song. Between 1995 and 1997 when I was attached to a PBS Great Performances project, Thomas Hampson: I Hear America Singing,
I had the opportunity to work with Jerry on this repertoire. The
surviving video showcases his energy, his charm, his versatility:
he sang in a medley of folk tunes, Charles Wakefield Cadman's neo-Native
American By the Deep Blue Waters, Charles Ives' boisterously characterized The Circus, and John Duke's Richard Corey. It is this last setting of Edwin Arlington Robinson's tragic poem about a man who glittered when he walked and who one fine day went home and put a bullet through his head that now unbearably unnerves, listening to it in Hadley's darkly manic performance.
Hadley retained his
interest in American song until the end. Two of his final
collaborations were with composer Daniel Steven Crafts.
remembers "Jerry always had a song project or a commission in the
works." Crafts tells of meeting Hadley in San
Francisco and finding their views of contemporary music copacetic.
"We agreed on what it should be and perhaps more importantly what it
should NOT be," Crafts says. "Jerry had no use for the
perpetually dissonant styles – he used to call it 'fart and squeak.' And
he turned down any number of minimalist pieces calling them
arbitrary. What we both loved was melody - melody which lets
beautiful voices soar."
Hadley invited Crafts to
submit some music and was pleased with what he heard. He told the
composer, "I really love the way you set text. A lot of composers
say they write melody, but you really do. I want you to compose
for me." And so they selected Carl Sandburg poems for Crafts'
cycle, Emmy-award winning The Song and the Slogan. It was
premiered in 2000 at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and
filmed and recorded by PBS in 2004 in a performance that included
Hadley's old mentor pianist Eric Dalheim and friend Barbara Hedlund on
cello. The encore for the work was a song which Crafts had not
been able to incorporate into the cycle, but which Hadley asked him to
set separately. The Illinois Farmer is a beautiful, elegiac
piece about which Hadley later confided to the composer that "for him
the poem was about his father. I always get a little weak in the knees,"
he told Crafts "when I sing that poem which you set so
beautifully." Ironically or perhaps fittingly, it was the last
work Hadley would ever record – the farm boy himself returning to his
Following the success of the Sandburg cycle, Crafts had also composed From a Distant Mesa for
Hadley, who had fallen in love with the New Mexico landscape while he
was performing in Santa Fe. The work for orchestra and tenor was on
schedule to be performed at the New Mexico Symphony in 2008, when
Hadley took his life. A concert version was eventually mounted
with Hadley's protégé, tenor Brian Cheney, but Crafts says a full
staging has yet to materialize.
This passion for American
opera and song remains a defining feature of Jerry Hadley's
career. In many ways he was, as soprano Cheryl Studer called him,
"THE American tenor of his generation."
"Every young American
tenor knows who Jerry Hadley was," Benson, who consults on voice and
vocal careers at Juilliard, affirms. "Whenever I mention Jerry,
tenors will light up and know his recordings. And that makes me
very happy to know he is remembered."
Frederica von Stade
continues this train of thought: "When you spend your life singing in
other people's languages and you are able to come home to American
music, it feels SO good. We were somewhat lucky to be singing at a
period when American artists and American music were experiencing a
It is no coincidence that
the present generation of tenors remember Hadley as one of their great
forebears because he always took an interest in teaching and in
supporting young colleagues. Indeed, one of the last profound
relationships of his life was with his protégé, tenor Brian
Cheney. Cheney, who still speaks emotionally about his mentor,
says "I am trying to honor him through my singing. He was my mentor and
Hadley, who had himself
been mentored by the likes of Richard Bonynge and Leonard Bernstein,
believed he had an obligation to "pay forward" the gifts he had
received. Cheney tells how he met Hadley in 2004 when they were
rehearsing and performing a new piece, Raoul, about WWII hero
Raoul Wallenburg. "He was a big name, and we were all young
singers. He was always jovial, but most of the others were afraid
to approach him." Cheney recounts how one day he took the plunge
and invited Hadley, who was by himself, to join the group for
lunch. "We instantly hit it off, and after a week of rehearsal, he
and I went out to dinner. He talked about his relationship with
Bonynge and Lenny and of the responsibility for older artists to nurture
young talent. He told me that he had promised Bernstein that if
he ever got to the point where he could do that, he would. 'I
think you are that person,'" Hadley told Cheney. "He never charged me a
dime," Cheney adds gratefully.
Thereafter, whenever Hadley was back in the area, he called the Connecticut-based Cheney, and they would work together.
says that Hadley taught him to sing "from a physical perspective.
It's not about placement and all about the mechanism." Hadley
also shared with Cheney his approach to interpretation. "He was
freeform; he would start talking about a role and how to give the
conductor what he wanted while still bringing your own thoughts to the
table. He was amazing with text, and he would bust my chops to
sing meaning, not just language."
But even more than this
teacher-student relationship, the pair became fast friends. "He
was breaking down so many walls for me," Cheney says. "We
became very close and shared so much more than music. I realized
after he died how open he had been with me." Cheney says Hadley
regarded him as "a spiritual son," and they shared so many zany as well
as serious times together. He narrates a story about accompanying
Hadley to a meeting of history buffs who celebrated the Alamo – how
Hadley insisted they come costumed and how absurdly and riotously funny
the experience had been. Cheney tells also of how, upon learning of
Hadley's shooting himself while he was singing in Tulsa, he made a trip
to the Alamo itself to mourn and remember.
"He changed my life, so
every time I would sing afterwards, it was hard," Cheney recalls.
At the same time, it was a kind of therapy for me. One of my goals is to
further his legacy, to keep his memory alive."
Jerry Hadley seems to have
universally inspired that kind of devotion in his friends and
colleagues. "I found him to be generous, caring, and one of the
most interesting human beings I have ever met," declares Crafts.
"You felt safe around Jerry. He was glad to see you; he was always a comfort to me," von Stade reminisces.
Benson concurs, stressing
Hadley's integrity as a performer and a person. "He was a classic
colleague. Everyone loved him. It was important to Jerry to
be liked, and he was well liked. He was good at bringing people
together, of diffusing tension with a joke, or making connections among
His New York City Opera
fellow tenor, Richard Leech concurs: "He was always there for his fellow
singers, one hundred percent, and in an era of competition and vain
rivalry, [Jerry] chose the other road, making those of us in his "club"
of tenors feel like brothers."
The Jerry Hadley I knew
whenever I had the pleasure and privilege of working with him on a
project was unfailingly kind, courteous, gallant, sensitive to the
dynamics of situations and eager to promote harmony. Moreover, he
had the gift of making everyone – even those of us in supporting jobs –
feel important and special.
This he did more often
than not with his bright smile and infectious sense of humor.
Hadley's jokes were legendary! "He was usually the life of the party,"
Benson remembers. "He loved telling jokes; he collected
them. He would embellish them and play all the roles. Each
time you heard the story, it was a little more elaborate than the
Hadley as Gatsby
And he could use that
sense of humor to take the edge off stressful situations. One of
Frederica von Stade's favorite stories about Hadley tells of a
performance she, the tenor, and bass Samuel Ramey were doing of The Damnation of Faust
at La Scala. "It was one of those productions with everyone in
black leather, and I think the idea was a romance between Faust and the
devil, so they rolled around on the ground at one point, " she sighs in
amusement. After that bit, "Jerry came off stage and said to Sam, 'I
don't know about you, Sam, but I could use a cigarette.' He could
just nail it like that every time!"
Brian Cheney sums up the
sunny side of Jerry Hadley with this caveat: "He was truly open, sweet,
funny, but there were definitely moments when his insecurities would
take over. Cheney talks of the darker side of Jerry Hadley's
psyche, the side he kept, for the most part, so carefully hidden. In
those last years, Cheney says he knew Hadley was depressed. "He
understood that he wasn't singing his best. It wasn't that his
technique had failed him; it was just that because of events in his
life, he was singing scared." And Cheney also cites the business
"which turned its back on him. Jerry took it so personally when he
reached out to some people who didn't reciprocate." But like the
other friends willing to talk about it, Cheney was still blindsided by
the tragedy. "I was shocked, but I wasn't surprised. When he got
back from Australia, I could tell something was wrong. My wife and
I tried to talk with him, but he had a psychiatrist and he was on
medication, and I thought he would be OK."
Crafts agrees. "He
was plainly down, but I had no idea his condition was so severe.
He had met a woman he clearly loved, and things seemed to be looking up
in general. He was looking forward to singing From a Distant Mesa. I miss him more than I can say."
"I had so much of a sense
that Jerry loved being alive," von Stade says quietly. "It is
such a heartbreak that something knocked that will out of him."
Like everyone else who expresses their sadness, von Stade, Crafts, and
Cheney allude to the general feeling of helplessness and incomprehension
But painful as they
are, it is not these thoughts which prevail. "It is the
voice that lingers in my mind," soprano Cheryl Studer states.
There was the glorious tenor voice he gave his audiences as a
professional singer. But then, there was his own very personal,
warm, cheery, and very witty voice carrying through the halls to welcome
The voice - it is
the voice we remember - the voice of an artist and a man - a voice
imbued with great humanity, with large capacity for expressing both
sorrow and joy. To understand this, we need only turn to another
solo from Candide, the Act One meditation and listen to the tenor sing, There is a sweetness in every woe; It must be so; it must be so.
In these arcing phrases
so filled with light and pain, we hear the sweetness of Jerry
Hadley. It is in the voice, itself, that instrument of exquisite
and exceptional loveliness; it is in the man who never stopped striving
to love and be loved, and it is, most assuredly, in the artist's legacy –
in the ephemeral beauty of that song.
Ephemeral, yet LASTING. It must be so.