Jerry Hadley’s attractive lyric tenor voice, all-American good looks and exceptional acting ability carried him from a humble farm upbringing in northern Illinois to the world’s major opera houses, including a distinguished career with Lyric Opera of Chicago for nearly two decades.
Hadley died Wednesday at St. Francis Hospital in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., two days after he was taken off life support. He was left with severe brain damage after attempting suicide with an air rifle at his home in Clinton Corners, N.Y., on July 10, police said. He was 55.
During the late 1980s and 1990s he was riding high in the opera world, delighting audiences in Mozart, French lyric and Italian roles and modern parts such as Tom Rakewell in Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress.”
But opera and concert bookings fell off in his later years. Although Hadley recently had discussed reviving his career by moving into character roles, his personal life was complicated by bouts of depression and financial worries, according to friends.
Hadley was a longtime favorite at Lyric Opera, where he sang an impressive 11 leading tenor roles between his debut with the company as Camille de Rosillon in Lehar’s “The Merry Widow” in 1986 and his final performances with the company, as Luigi in the world premiere of William Bolcom and Robert Altman’s “A Wedding,” in 2005.
Lyric officials say he is the only American tenor to have sung that many principal roles with the company in its entire 53-year history. Moreover, Hadley’s 82 Lyric performances in a principal role put him near the top in that category as well.
“Jerry had so much to offer as an artist - voice, looks, musicianship, theatrical flair, extraordinary stylistic versatility,” William Mason, Lyric Opera’s general director, said in a statement. “He was a natural for all the standard lyric tenor heroes but he also sought out all sorts of off-the-beaten-track repertoire. He always sang the English language with fabulous clarity, which was a huge asset whether he was singing Broadway tunes, operettas, or the title role in `The Great Gatsby.’ The range of Jerry’s artistry was very evident at Lyric.”
Hadley’s light voice and easy charm also made him a natural for the American popular song and for music theater repertory, of which he made several recordings. Indeed, some critics, such as New York Magazine’s Peter G. Davis, found him more involved and engaging in such works as Jerome Kern’s “Show Boat” than in the Puccini or bel canto repertories, which, some critics felt, put more of a strain on his vocal resources.
Hadley was born in Manlius, Ill., and grew up on a 600-acre farm near Princeton, Ill. After vocal studies at the University of Illinois and in New York, he made his debut as Lionel in Flotow’s “Martha” in 1978 in Sarasota, Fla. That year, Beverly Sills, who died earlier this month, heard him at auditions of the National Opera Institute and offered him a contract with the New York City Opera. He soon became one of the star singers on the company’s roster.
Hadley made his European debut as Nemorino in Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore” in Vienna in 1982 and later appeared in Berlin; Salzburg, Austria; Milan, Italy; London; Berlin, and Munich, Germany as well as at England’s Glyndebourne Festival.
He sang at the Metropolitan Opera for the first time in 1987. His final Met performances, in 2002, were in the title role in John Harbison’s “The Great Gatsby,” a role he created at the Met in 1999 and sang with Lyric Opera in 2000.
Hadley returned to his alma mater, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in February 2006 to sing one of his specialties, the title role in Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide.”
“His reputation was huge and the large student cast met him with awe. The awe lasted about five minutes. Jerry was so inviting and personal, so human, so real, that the cast quickly took to him as one of (their own),” said Stephen Fiol, who directed the production.
“I envisioned he would become a great mentor and educator in his old age. We are all poorer for this tragic loss.”
Hadley’s last major performances were in May of this year, when he sang Pinkerton in Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” at Opera Queensland in Brisbane, Australia.
Hadley was divorced. Survivors include two sons from that marriage.