Born: 5 February 1884
Died: 23 September 1958
The Englishman was Alfred Piccaver, and to call him an Englishman is rather stretching the point, I think it’s fair to say. He went to America when he was about two years old, and spent his formative years there, then came to Europe when he was 23, and spent the next 31 years in Austria. He did decide however, to keep his British nationality and he retired to England in 1938. Returned to Vienna in 1955, for the opening of the rebuild Vienna State Opera House and stayed there until his death in 1958. Discounting holidays and tours etc he was a resident of England for eighteen and a half years, the United States for 21 years, and Austria for 34. His first vocal training was with the Conrid Metropolitan School of Oprah, Conrid being the Manager of the metropolitan at that time of course. He visited Conrid in Munich where he was recuperating, in the summer of 1907. Then went on to Vienna for the rest of the summer months, staying with friends there. Whilst there, he went to see Noimman, director of a theatre in Prague, and secured a three-year contract to sing there. So, it was in fact Czechoslovakia then, that Alfred Piccaver made his official debut as Fenton in The Merry Wives of Windsor on the 9th of September 1907, after learning the part in only eight days. And he could not have began in better company, as Margarita Zind was his leading lady.
Other appearances quickly followed, Faust, Pagliacci, Traviata with Zymes again, Tannhauser, Martha, Butterfly, and the Magic Flute. The critics noting rapid improvement on each occasion, and to finish his season, a fine Faust with guest artist Arnoldson and Arimondi. In those days Battistini was touring with his own company and arrived in Prague without a tenor, this didn’t seem to worry Battistini and Guile, for as long as he sang, a full house was guaranteed. Indeed, on one famous occasion, for a performance of Pagliacci, he walked on in full evening dress and sang the prologue only and then left. When he had finished, half the audience got up and left, thinking their money well spent. Anyway, he hired Piccaver on the spot, and for appearances in Vienna, his next port of call. That was in Rigoletto, with Piccaver, Battistini, De Hidalgo, and Arimondi. This was Piccavers first appearance in the house, which he was to adorn for so many years. Let’s listen in then to that Rigoletto.
Piccaver sang at Prague for five years, each successive year becoming more and more popular there, and there was a very sad crowd that saw him leave for the Vienna state opera, one of the world’s greatest opera houses as we already know. And so began twenty-seven glorious years at Vienna. He rapidly became the idol of the opera going public, who’s gratitude he earned by his loyalty to the city. When he joined the Staz Opera, the roster can fairly be described as star-studded. When he left, the aged door keeper was in tears, and on being asked if the departure of her Piccaver meant so much to him, he replied, ‘but he is all we have left’. Slezak also wrote about the fallen standards after the first war.
Piccaver went in whilst the spirit of the man who built it up, still reign, and can be said to have gone right through the decline and fall of the Mother Empire.
A few comments on those 27 years at Vienna. He had a wonderful galaxy of heroines to sing to, during those years. Loti Layman, Adelle Kern, Elizabeth Schuman, Maria Yaritza, Maria Nemat, Bertha Corina, Lucy Viète, and perhaps most popular of all, Zelma Kurtz. He generally sang in about 50 performances a year, and throughout this time, was their leading lyricist spinto tenor. In later years, he undertook heavier roles, but he knew his limitations and sang nothing that was outside his range. Radames and Aida was the absolute limit, and even that began to sound strained as time went on.
One bad habit he had, was calling off. And at one time, the joke going round Vienna, was that in September, he worked out his indisposition for the whole season. He would try his voice out on the morning of a performance and if not satisfied, he’d cancel, saying his public must have it’s ‘his best’ or nothing. He was spoiled in Vienna and could do no wrong as far as the public were concerned. His final performance there, was in Tosca on Jun 2nd, 1937, and on the following March, Hitler annexed Austria.
Now, what about America? Piccaver had studied at the Met’s Opera school and was friendly with Conrid, the manager. It could be assumed that he would someday be obliged to sing there. But Conrid had died and Gatti Cazaza, the new manager, had sent Piccaver a contract in 1914, for that and the three following seasons. Guaranteeing seventeen roles over the next four years, starting at $400 a performance, and rising to 600. Piccaver never signed the contract, and he did not go. And it is said, that Gaetti Casazza never forgave him. Apparently, he was never ever asked again. He did however appear at the Chicago lyric opera during two seasons in 1923/24 and 1924/25. He sang in Rigoletto, Cavalleria Rusticana, and Tosca there, and was much admired.
Here are a few press quotes:
The Chicago Daily News
Gifted with a voice that is more robust in lyric, he still has some excellent ideas of tone differentiation. So, when the text demanded it, he sang a fine quality of Mezzavoce, and even with delicate penas with more effect. He is perfectly ‘at home’ on the stage, his presence is imposing, and his Italian was clearly enunciated.
Piccavers voice, is a dark tenor and therefore colorful. At times, in his high notes and again in his middle register, makes one think of Caruso. He has an even register, his top notes having the same beautiful richness that marks the lower part of the range. The voice throughout is full, big and beautiful, with an individuality that makes it distinctive. It is lyric dramatic, suitable either to the purely lyric roles or the heavier parts of the dramatic operas. Despite its robust quality, Piccaver uses it skillfully in the softer measures and in the quartet, it was almost unbelievably rich and lovely. The tenor is an actor of no mean ability and has a fine stage presence despite a tendency to fleshiness.
He disclosed a remarkable voice, which one imagines is now at its peak of its development. It is an honest, manly, ring to it. Possesses splendid quality and has been trained until it responds to any colleague, who dares to put upon it. He himself is personable, stage wise, and has a graceful manner which specially appeals. His heroines during these performances, were Rosa Raisa and Claudia Muzio. His debut at Covent Garden was in Tosca, on the 5th of June 1924 and he also appeared in Rigoletto, that season with Evigan and Farmic. He was well received by public and critics alike, being compared to Caruso in beauty of voice and method of production.
Were for Odeon in 1912 and he continued with this company until 1920, making some 60 sides in all. Then comes a short series of 12 sides for eVox in 1924, before his contract with Dutch gramophone, Polydor in 1923, comprising of 39 pre-electric, acoustical sides and 52 electrical sides. Recording for this company continuing up until 1930. In 1932, he made 32 sides for Decca, all of songs, and then in 1939, twelve sides for Brunswick, all songs again. Then in finally in 1940 and 1941, a total of eight sides for Decca, once again, all songs. Including unpublished titles, and these include three Victor test pressings, the record collector discography, lists 229 sides, by Piccaver.
After leaving Vienna and returning to England, Piccaver concentrated on the concert platform. He had begun his concerts in 1921 and was extremely popular as a recitalist. On one occasion in 1925, at the Albert Hall in London, Tetrazzini who was in the audience, was so entranced, that at the end, she ran onto the platform, embraced him, and gave him the bunch of violets, she was wearing.
As an honorary life member of the Vienna state opera, he was invited back to the city, for the Galleria opening, after it had been rebuilt in consequence of its destruction by fire, during the war. This was in November 1955.
Piccaver decided to stay in his ‘main hometown’, as he called it, and died there on September the 23rd 1958. The Viennese gave him, what can only be described, as a state funeral.
The main route, the ring, was closed to other traffic, and the cortege halted outside the state opera house, where on the 27th, the coffin was placed on a laurel decorated caterwauls, to the strains of the funeral March from Beethoven’s Eureka Symphony. Thousands of people stood in silence in the pouring rain, while a prominent member of the government and the director of the then Opera House, paid tribute to the man who had been Vienna’s idol, for so long.
This for a foreign artist who had not sung there for 20 years, Piccaver had come home to rest.