Tenors are supposed to be the peacocks of the opera world: vain, ill-tempered and loud. But then there is genial James McCracken, born in Gary, Ind., nicknamed “Moose,” who at 50 is rated among the world’s best today. He trains like an athlete, beginning his day with 50 sit-ups in bed, then swimming half a mile in a pool. A Weight Watchers diet keeps him at a husky 250 lbs. on a 5’10” frame “unless I’m singing. Then it’s more bread and more spaghetti.”
A tenor’s four-minute mile is high C and, says McCracken’s admiring wife, mezzo-soprano Sandra Warfield, 50, “Jimmy goes for it every time.” Many tenors in Trovatore and Bohème have whole arias transposed down a notch or two, but not McCracken. Nor, with a 50-inch chest, has he ever been known to run short of wind.
Tenor fanciers, who collect statistics about the breed with all the avidness of baseball fans, also point out that not since Enrico Caruso has any tenor sung in four new Metropolitan Opera productions (Otello, Carmen, Aïda and Le Prophète) in four consecutive years. Next month McCracken will make it five when he sings the taxing Heldentenor role in the Met’s new Tannhäuser, his first Wagnerian opera. It is a part he once feared would destroy his voice. But Sandra, listening attentively as he practices, shrugs aside his fears. “For him,” she says, “it will be duck soup.”
“Those high notes are why I fell in love with Jimmy,” Sandra adds. “There’s something about a male voice singing that high that’s very sexual.” After almost 23 years of marriage, McCracken is equally gallant. “Without her, I might never have gotten out of the choruses on Broadway,” he says, recalling his early days when he sang Lover four times a day, seven days a week at Manhattan’s old Roxy Theatre. “Sandra said right away that I belonged at the Met.”
The two first got acquainted while he was singing Samson to her Dalila in Norfolk, Va. Both were married to other people at the time, and McCracken had a 1-year-old son, John, but two years later McCracken and Sandra were husband and wife and onstage at the Metropolitan.
At the beginning Sandra’s career flourished; McCracken was bogged down in spear-carrying roles. They decided to cut out for Europe, where McCracken could work in German and Italian opera houses. At first roles were scarce. For a while, after their daughter was born in 1958, they lived in a Milan attic apartment furnished with orange crates. Gradually McCracken began to be heard in Milan and Vienna. Then on March 10, 1963, six years after leaving, he returned to the Met in triumph as the jealous Moor in Verdi’s Otello, a role he has sung more than 200 times and now just about owns.
His nightly labors earn McCracken fees of $5,000 to $7,000 and have provided a Swiss chalet and a cabin cruiser, Dalila II, on the Zürichsee. Offseason he and Sandra, a native of Kansas City, give concerts, and they have often sung in operas together. “I stab her in Carmen and strangle her in Cavalleria,” McCracken laughs. “Maybe venting all that emotion makes life easier at home.”
At home or on tour, Sandra will have none of the old Italian tradition that sex before a performance makes the voice ring like a bell. “Thank God my husband isn’t like that,” she exclaims. “Our joke is that we don’t do it the day before he sings; we don’t do it the day he sings, and we don’t do it the day after he sings—and he sings twice a week.”