Jerry Hadley’s suicide has set the small town that is American opera to buzzing. It was a surprise–I can’t think of another well-known classical singer who has killed himself–but on further reflection I didn’t find it all that shocking. Hadley’s career had been in decline for a number of years, and he’d long since dropped off my scope. The last time I saw him on stage was in the 1999 Metropolitan Opera premiere of John Harbison’s operatic version of The Great Gatsby, which didn’t make much of an impression on me. The New York Sun‘s obituary quoted something nice I’d said about him in my 1988 High Fidelity review of his recording of Show Boat, and it took me a moment to remember that I’d written the piece.
To outlive your own fame is a terrible fate, and it is all the more poignant for a performer. As I wrote when Johnny Carson died:
I wonder what he thought of his life’s work? Or how he felt about having lived long enough to disappear into the memory hole? At least he had the dignity to vanish completely, retreating into private life instead of trying to hang on to celebrity by his fingernails. Perhaps he knew how little it means to have once been famous.
Alas, Hadley, unlike Carson, lost his fame comparatively early, and all too clearly longed in vain for its return. He was, of course, an operatic tenor, and as such the closest thing in music to an athlete, which suggests an appropriate epitaph: Now you will not swell the rout/Of lads that wore their honours out,/Runners whom renown outran/And the name died before the man.
UPDATE: I’d also forgotten that I reviewed the premiere of Gatsby for Time:
The score is strictly mainline modernist yard goods, while the libretto is a filet of Fitzgerald containing all of the action, most of the famous lines (“Her voice is full of money”) and none of the elegiac, bittersweet tone that is the novel’s essence. Gatsby is given a pair of clumsily confessional arias, a fatal mistake; the great mystery man of American fiction would never have revealed himself in that way, not even to himself. It doesn’t help that Jerry Hadley’s voice is frayed and throaty, or that he is stocky and unglamorous–hardly the gorgeous, gold-hatted charmer of Fitzgerald’s imagination….Harbison has turned Fitzgerald’s quicksilver masterpiece into a slow-moving opera that is stolidly competent and totally superfluous.
I wish my last memory of Hadley were a happier one.