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Richard Conrad: 1935-2019

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Singer, voice teacher, and impresario Richard Conrad died peacefully at home in Eliot, Maine on August 26th after a long illness. His brother Howard, sister-in-law Susan, and longtime friend and colleague Ellen Chickering were at his side. The dynamic performer, insightful voice teacher, and brilliant operatic interpreter ranged from Monteverdi to Brel, touching countless lives with his singing gifts and distinctive ability to teach his craft to others.  

Eldest son of Lester and Mildred, Conrad grew up in Larchmont, NY. He graduated from New York State University and Boston University where he studied commercial and fine arts. Conrad began his vocal studies in Boston as a baritone under Harry Euler Treiber. Here he studied Lieder and German operatic repertoire with famed conductor and composer, Felix Wolfes, who is noted for his piano-vocal scores of operas by Strauss and Pfitzner, as well as his achievements at the Metropolitan Opera and teaching at New England Conservatory. Conrad pursued additional repertoire studies with art song champions, Aksel Schiøtz and Pierre Bernac.

During these early studies, Conrad developed exceptional skill in managing the “head” register, and was encouraged to emulate baritones of the 18th and the early 19th centuries, many of whom sang as tenors. As a result, in 1961 he debuted as a tenor in Boston in the American premiere of Mozart’s La finta semplice, following which came his recital debut in Washington, DC.

Conrad astonishingly caught the attention of the acclaimed Joan Sutherland and her husband conductor Richard Bonynge during their 1963 Boston tour. Persuasive fans of a local singer named Richard Conrad informed the superstar couple that they had heard a young tenor who could sing florid bel canto music “just like Miss Sutherland.” Almost overnight, a successful audition in New York led to his joining forces in London with Sutherland, Bonynge, and Marilyn Horne for a series of groundbreaking recordings of this repertoire, including Decca’s The Age of Bel Canto.

In his seminal work, The Grand Tradition, music critic, musicologist, and literary scholar J.B. Steane described Conrad’s work on The Age of Bel Canto in radiant terms:

[Conrad] has runs with a flexibility unheard on records since [Fernando] de Lucia . . . the runs and decorations are astounding in Conrad’s performance as in de Lucia’s; in some ways, rather more so, for one of his runs carries him up to high C and down with perfect evenness to comfortable bass G, while the trills are a delightful embellishment that de Lucia did not offer, and the triplets of the often abbreviated final passage are all scrupulously in place . . . moving on to one of Handel’s florid arias, Sesto’s ‘Sperai ne m’ingannai’ from Giulio Cesare, we have to again marvel at the virtuosity of scale-work in the da capo section, and to ask whether any tenor has recorded Handel with this kind of skill before him.

Move to Italy—Bella Italia, alfin ti miro!

After abundant early triumphs, Rome became Conrad’s base. He performed tenor repertoire in recital, with orchestras, in opera, and on radio and television throughout the United Kingdom, Italy, various European music centers, North America, and Africa. Of particular note were his exceptional programs on florid singing for RAI, Italy’s national public broadcasting company.

Return to the States—You Can Go Home

In the early 1970s, Conrad’s appearances in numerous productions, including Così fan tutte,

La rondine, and Help, Help, the Globolinks in Detroit led to a seat on the voice faculty of Oakland University in Rochester, MI, where he began an intercontinental commute, splitting his time and talent between Rome and Detroit. In addition to his Oakland University students, Conrad assembled a studio of private students, many of whom went on to regional and international professional singing careers. Conrad’s gifts as an impresario shined brightly in this period of his life as a distinguished champion producing operatic concerts with several orchestras in the Detroit area.

Richard returned to Boston in 1980 where he founded The Boston Academy of Music. Described as “one of Boston’s dearest treasures,” Boston Academy was modeled on Lowell Mason’s influential 19th-century performing and educational organization of the same name. Here, in the subsequent 20 years, he produced intimate and large scale concerts with orchestra, along with staged operas and operettas ranging from American premieres of lesser-known works of well-known composers (Arthur Sullivan’s Ivanhoe, Rossini’s La pietra del paragone), bel canto masterworks (Donizetti’s Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda), perennial opera favorites (Puccini’s Il trittico, Strauss’ Arabella, Verdi’s La forza del destino), the first full studio recording in over 50 years of Barber’s Vanessa, to annual Thanksgiving weekend performances of the Gilbert and Sullivan canon.

Richard Conrad’s buoyant spirit and discerning artistic leadership brought Boston Academy and its successor company “The Bostonians” to the vanguard of the Boston musical scene.

Calamity and Comeback

In 1983 Conrad was the victim of a mugging in which his voice was severely injured with little hope of continuing his beloved profession. After exhaustive rehabilitation and retraining under Gisela Rohmert at the Lichtenberger Institut in Germany, Richard reemerged as a baritone specializing in Italian bel canto buffo roles and taking many star turns throughout the United States in choice comic Gilbert and Sullivan roles including KoKo in The Mikado and The Major General in The Pirates of Penzance.

In 1985 he began touring in revues of music by Cole Porter, Jacques Brel, Jerome Kern, Kurt Weill and Noël Coward. In 1990 he made his New York theater debut in the premiere of Janet Hood and Bill Russell’s Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens, and, in 1991, he sang in the premiere of Move! at the Royal Theater Carré in Amsterdam. He has also delighted audiences and enjoyed standing ovations as Albin in La Cage aux Folles and as Cervantes/Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha.

While leading Boston Academy, Conrad found himself in great demand as a singing teacher in both Boston, where he maintained a private studio and taught for a short time at the New England Conservatory, and in New York, where he taughtin the living room of his dear friend and colleague, legendary American soprano, Eleanor Steber. His celebrated vocal instruction was primed by the post-mugging rehabilitative work with Rohmert, and his association with Steber. Many of his students have appeared as soloists with the Boston Symphony and Pops, Boston Lyric Opera, other major New England-based ensembles, and dozens of leading orchestras and opera companies across North America, Asia, and Europe.

A Living Legacy

In addition to the influential The Age of Bel Canto, Conrad’s commercial recordings include: Handel operas with Joan Sutherland (Atalanta and Giulio Cesare); Barber’s Vanessa; disks of songs of Noel Coward, Stephen Foster, and Arthur Sullivan; and, as yet unreleased collections of songs of Richard Strauss, and his friend and colleague, Daniel Pinkham. Videos of staged bel canto opera excerpts with Joan Sutherland from CBC-The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation regularly appear on internet social media.

Conrad was known not only for his quick wit (and even quicker tongue) but also for his “family” of beloved beagles, owning and simultaneously walking four of the hounds near his home in Boston’s Charlestown neighborhood. He leaves behind thousands of students, collaborators, and fans who will be forever grateful for the expertise, opportunities, and love he shared with them. Plans for a memorial gathering (and concert) are in the works.

9 Comments »

9 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Richard Conrad was an amazing musician, singer, teacher, and student of the history of singing.

    Comment by David Daniels — August 29, 2019 at 10:53 pm

  2. Richard literally changed my life. My voice had been damaged by a bad teacher and I had given up ever being able to have a career as an opera singer. When I auditioned for Richard, he said “Yes, you have some serious problems, but if you will do what I tell you for two years, you can go to Europe and have a career. That’s exactly what happened! I sang one audition in Germany and got a contract. Teach the Angels how to sing, Maestro!

    Comment by Nancy (Puskas) Beier — August 30, 2019 at 12:55 am

  3. I like to think that Richard and I were more than acquaintances and perhaps not quite real friends.

    We were just one year apart at Boston University. In my mind I can see me visiting his Boston Apt.
    Years later, as noted in the obituary, I had a super lunch at his home in Charlestown. It
    took place in the small garden outside the kitchen, a garden overgrowing with all kinds of
    greenery. It was a very elegant lunch.

    As said in the obit. as well, Richard lived in Rome for quite a while. When I was on Fenn School
    sabbatical in 1971 I had the pleasure of Richard’s former roommate driving me around Rome
    at night, with all the important Roman ruins as well as new buildings lit up.

    I heard him sing many times and have the few recordings he made. I went to all the Academy
    performances he directed in which sang small roles. Particularly La Forza del Destino in the
    original version written for Russia, and esp. Vanessa in which Richard sang the doctor when
    he really couldn’t quite make it. He should have sung an even lesser role. Nevertheless I
    have the CD. Yes, it was released commercially.

    Sorry that I didn’t make it to his 70th birthday concert which was given ON my 71st birthday.
    I think Richard becomes the first person to have died who truly was part of my life. He gave
    me a lot of pleasure. His nickname for me was the Mozart aria: “Martern aller Arten” from
    from Die Entführing aus dem Serail. I liked that. (Think what you will!)

    martin

    Comment by Martin Segal — September 1, 2019 at 3:05 pm

  4. I saw Richard as the Sacristan in Tosca in 2003, and he got as big an ovation as the leading lady, and at the time I wondered why. He was very good, but… size of the role? My teacher, Frank Kelley, who sang Spoletta, told me who he was and that I should listen to his recordings with Sutherland, and that he used to be the closest thing in the 20th century to a Rossini tenor in the old style. One of his students told me that he insisted that you never sing coloratura faster than you could sing EVERY NOTE beautifully, and what a difference that makes!

    Comment by Thomas Dawkins — September 1, 2019 at 10:19 pm

  5. I heard a clip of him recently– for some reason, he escaped my attention earlier, although my parents’ collection would have had his work with Sutherland. It is very 19th century as best I can tell. The closest I can recall was a wonderful wartime performance of Rigoletto in the USSR, featuring a tenor allegedly trained in the 19th (and/or by one of the bel canto era survivors). That was featured some years back on the WHRB follow-on to the Met broadcast. Great stuff that we should hear more of today.

    Comment by Camilli — September 2, 2019 at 1:52 pm

  6. Richard was a joy to be around. He loved whatever it was that he was working on. He was always loyal to his friends and musicians.
    I worked with him for over 25 years – he will be sorely missed.

    Comment by Ken Pope — September 3, 2019 at 10:55 am

  7. Early in his career, Richard sang quite a lot of early music, with Daniel Pinkham, and with the Camerata of the Museum of Fine Arts. When he returned from his initial Sutherland-Bonynge Bel Canto tour, he resumed concertizing with the Camerata.

    With Pinkham he recorded some music of Buxtehude, in the company of the great Hugues Cuénod and of Mark Pearson. If my memory is correct, he sang the countertenor line of that vocal trio.

    Comment by Joel Cohen — September 10, 2019 at 3:55 am

  8. Richard was, to me, a truly great exemplar of the singing teacher in every sense – supportive, keen-eared, imaginative, appreciative of beauty, and wide-ranging in his knowledge. While I didn’t study with him, I could hear his input in the singers he taught (and in the affection they clearly felt for him), and learned enormously from his energy and enthusiasm when he engaged me for several Boston Academy and Bostonians productions and recordings. All the operas I sang in after returning to the Boston area in 1995 were his doing; if he said a part was right for me, I knew it would work.

    He was a uniquely gifted raconteur, with a fascinating life to draw on, and I will remember with fondness the off-color ditty he sweetly sang at his 84th birthday party, rising to the occasion brilliantly, only days before his death. We shall not look upon (or hear) his like again, I am sure.

    Comment by Andrea Matthews — September 11, 2019 at 6:13 pm

  9. A more extended narrative, bittersweet but compassionate, in this morning’s New York Times:
    https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/11/arts/music/richard-conrad-dead.html

    Comment by Joel Cohen — September 12, 2019 at 4:01 am

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