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John Macurdy, stalwart bass in roles large and small, dies at 91

John Macurdy played Ezra Mannon in “Mourning Becomes Electra,” at the Met in 1967.
John Macurdy played Ezra Mannon in “Mourning Becomes Electra,” at the Met in 1967.Sam Falk/New York Times files

John Macurdy, an American bass who belonged to the select group of solo singers tallying more than 1,000 performances at the Metropolitan Opera, died on May 7 in Stamford, Conn. He was 91.

His death was confirmed by his wife, Justine Macurdy. She did not specify the cause.

During a career that spanned 38 years and encompassed 1,001 appearances at the Met, Mr. Macurdy was admired for his rich, firm voice and poised, dignified stage presence. He sang 62 roles in works of wide stylistic diversity, including notable world premieres.

Though he achieved success in key roles like Gurnemanz in Wagner’s “Parsifal,” King Marke in Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde,” and Sarastro in Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” Mr. Macurdy proved essential to the house for his standout performances of supporting roles, including the Commendatore in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” which he sang 75 times at the Met; Daland in Wagner’s “Der Fliegender Holländer”; the King of Egypt in Verdi’s “Aida”; and many more.

Mr. Macurdy said in a 2005 interview with Opera News that these small parts would be “added to your contract, even though you might be singing so-called leading roles at the time.” But his willingness to take them on, his skill at learning a new role quickly, and his vocal consistency made him indispensable to the Met for years. Critics often singled out his performances even when his stage time was limited. The New York Herald Tribune critic Alan Rich, reviewing a 1964 production of Saint-Saëns’s “Samson et Dalila,” wrote that Mr. Macurdy “sang the few lines of the Old Hebrew with powerful resonance.” In Mr. McCurdy’s 1976 performance as the jailer Rocco in Beethoven’s “Fidelio,” a meaty role, his intonation was “rock-firm,” the critic Andrew Porter wrote in The New Yorker. A “magnificent voice,” Porter commented, “was kept within the bounds of character.”

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Mr. Macurdy took part in some historic evenings at the Met, including the gala farewell to the old house in April of 1966 and the inauguration of its Lincoln Center home five months later, at which he sang Agrippa in the world premiere of Barber’s “Antony and Cleopatra,” starring Leontyne Price. He created the role of Ezra Mannon in Marvin David Levy’s “Mourning Becomes Electra,” the company’s second world premiere of that inaugural season. He gained attention beyond the opera world for portraying the Commendatore in Joseph Losey’s 1979 film of “Don Giovanni,” which drew international audiences but received mostly poor reviews.

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During his prime years he appeared with the Paris Opera, La Scala in Milan, and other international houses.

John Edward McCurdy was born on March 18, 1929, in Detroit. (He changed the spelling of his last name at the recommendation of his first manager.) He was the oldest of three children of Blanchard Archibald McCurdy, who came from a prominent Canadian family of financiers and ministers and worked as an engineer, and Dorathea (Radtke) McCurdy. His musicality and vocal gifts were apparent when, as a small boy, he earned a quarter from his German maternal grandfather for singing “O Tannenbaum” beautifully.

He studied engineering at Wayne State University for a year before transferring to an apprenticeship program at General Motors in Detroit, where he made patterns for die models. During these years he studied voice privately with Avery Crew, whom he credited as his one and only voice teacher, and who provided the grounding for his solid technique.

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With the outbreak of the Korean War, Mr. Macurdy joined the Air Force. While stationed at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Miss., he took vocal coaching sessions in New Orleans and was noticed by conductor Walter Herbert, the general director of the New Orleans Opera.

When Mr. Macurdy auditioned for the company, it was the first time he had stepped on a stage, his wife said in an interview. He was cast as the Old Hebrew in “Samson et Dalila,” making his debut on opening night of the season in 1952 in a cast headed by two Met Opera luminaries, Blanche Thebom and Ramón Vinay, and conducted by Herbert. He continued to sing with that company and elsewhere, including the Santa Fe Opera, where in 1958 he appeared as Earnshaw in the world premiere of Carlisle Floyd’s “Wuthering Heights.”

While participating in an opera workshop in Wheeling, W.Va., he met a pianist who was working there as a coach, Justine Votypka. They married three years later. Besides her, Mr. Macurdy leaves a son, John B. Macurdy; a daughter, Allison Hays; two grandchildren; and a sister, Elisabeth Andrews. A major break came in 1959 when he made his New York City Opera debut as Wilson in the company’s first performance of Kurt Weill’s “Street Scene.” He appeared with City Opera regularly for three years in familiar roles like Colline in Puccini’s “La Bohème,” as well as in contemporary works, notably the 1959 premiere of Hugo Weisgall’s “Six Characters in Search of an Author.”

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He took part the next year in a live television broadcast of “Don Giovanni,” singing the Commendatore in a cast including Leontyne Price and Cesare Siepi.

His Met debut came in 1962 with the small role of Tom in Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera.” His final performance, in 2000, was as Hagen in Wagner’s “Götterdämmerung,” conducted by James Levine. Others like him in the 1,000-plus Met solo singer performance club include bass Paul Plishka (more than 1,600), bass-baritone James Morris (1,100 and counting) and tenor Charles Anthony, the record-holder at 2,928.

Mr. Macurdy always emphasized that while many of the bass parts he sang involved limited stage time, parts like Hunding, Fafner, and Hagen in Wagner’s “Ring” were vocally substantive and dramatically crucial. These old roles felt “like a good suit of clothes,” he said in a 1980 interview with Bruce Duffie for the Chicago radio station WNIB. “The ones that fit, fit very, very well,” he said, “and the other ones just hang in the closet.”

“I look at how Wagner wrote,” he added, “and every one of the bass roles fits my voice like the day it was made.”