Jerry Hadley, 55; revered as one of the most versatile opera singers in America

Times Staff Writer

Acclaimed tenor Jerry Hadley, once considered one of America's most versatile and important opera singers, died Wednesday at St. Francis Hospital and Health Centers in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., said family spokeswoman Celia P. Novo. He was 55.

Hadley was found unconscious on the floor of his bedroom in his upstate New York home on July 10 with what police said was a self-inflicted wound to his head from an air rifle.

He was taken to the hospital, where neurosurgeons determined that he had suffered severe brain injury, according to a statement issued by New York State Police Senior Investigator Robert Rochler. Hadley was taken off life support Monday.

Rochler said in his statement that Hadley had been filing for bankruptcy and seeing a doctor for treatment of depression.

Colleagues remembered Hadley fondly.

"I had the great pleasure of conducting many performances in which he sang some of his finest roles," James Levine, music director of the Metropolitan Opera, said in a statement Wednesday. "I particularly admired the strength and sweetness of his voice in the lyric Mozart parts and the imagination and commitment he brought to contemporary works."

"Jerry was a wonderful man as well as an outstanding artist," said Ian Campbell, general director of the San Diego Opera, where Hadley made his company debut starring in Offenbach's "Tales of Hoffmann" in 1994 and also created the title role of Myron Fink's "The Conquistador" in 1997.

"He was one of the most important singers of his generation ... and a man of great charm and grace," Campbell said.

"Jerry's singing would make you cry, and his jokes would make you laugh uncontrollably," said tenor Richard Leech, whose career overlapped Hadley's at the New York City Opera and the Metropolitan Opera. "He was always there for his fellow singers, 100%, and, in an era of competition and vain rivalry, chose the other road, making those of us in his 'club' of tenors feel like brothers. Our family will not be the same, ever again."

A protege of renowned soprano Joan Sutherland and her husband, conductor Richard Bonynge, Hadley made his debut with the New York City Opera in 1979 as Arturo in Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor" and sang with the company until 1989, encompassing roles such as Des Grieux in Massenet's "Manon," Pinkerton in Puccini's "Madame Butterfly," Tom Rakewell in Stravinsky's "The Rake's Progress," Massenet's "Werther" and Gounod's "Faust."

It was as Des Grieux that he made his Met debut in 1987. That year former Times music critic Martin Bernheimer reviewed him in an Opera Pacific production of Puccini's "La Boheme" in Costa Mesa, calling him "one of the great white hopes among the post-Pavarotti generations of tenors. He is handsome, lithe, slender and an attentive actor. His voice -- remarkably sweet, light, bright and pure -- can float deftly to high C."

But the voice was showing signs of wear in 1999, when Hadley created the title role of John Harbison's "The Great Gatsby" at the Met, although he sang there until 2002.

Hadley, wrote Times music critic Mark Swed, "makes for an unusually transparent Gatsby, forthright and a bit shrill (it surely wasn't intended, but a touch of vocal insecurity was apt)."

After that, Hadley's personal problems surfaced. In May 2006, he was arrested on drunk driving charges while sitting in a parked car in Manhattan, but charges were dropped at the request of prosecutors.

His last performance was in May, singing Pinkerton for Opera Queensland in Brisbane, Australia.

Hadley was known for his fresh and expressive lyric beauty and dramatic involvement in opera roles, but he was equally at home on Broadway, in operetta and singing on recordings of Jerome Kern's "Show Boat" and Paul McCartney's "Liverpool Oratorio."

Hadley won Grammy Awards for best opera and best classical album categories for Bernstein's "Candide" (1991), Carlisle Floyd's "Susannah" (1994) and Janacek's "Jenufa" (2003).

"I didn't start always singing the leading roles," Hadley told Florida's Orlando Sentinel in 1999. "I was singing the secondary roles. I was on stage trying to sort things out. I was singing in a lot of not particularly distinguished places. And I got to pay my dues in a way that helped me to understand that no matter where I got to, I would know how to deal with it.

"I had to let go of a tremendous amount of fear. I had to let go of a tremendous amount of physical tension that was brought on by wanting to do it so much. I had to let go of the feeling that I had to prove myself all the time."

Born June 12, 1952, in Princeton, Ill., Hadley made his opera debut in 1978 as Lionel in Flotow's "Martha" at the Sarasota Opera in Florida, and his European debut in 1982 as Nemorino in Donizetti's "The Elixir of Love" at the Vienna State Opera. He also sang at Covent Garden in London and at La Scala in Milan, Italy.

A few days before his last performance in May, Hadley told Australia's Courier-Mail that he had taken a self-imposed exile from singing to recover from the breakup of his marriage to pianist Cheryll Drake Hadley six years ago.

"A wounded bird cannot sing," Hadley said. "It was tough. It was emotionally distressing, and it goes straight to the throat. So I took some time off and sat in the quiet for a while.

"I never really understood how inseparable was the journey of the spirit and the journey of singing and making music. For the first time in my life, I couldn't see a way forward. But I came out on the other side of it with a deeper appreciation of what a great gift and great opportunities God has given me."

Hadley is survived by two sons, Nathan, 19, and Ryan, 14, both of Connecticut; and a sister, Joyce Hadley Jenkins of Kentucky.

Funeral services will be private and memorial services are pending.


For The Record Los Angeles Times Friday July 20, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction Jerry Hadley: The obituary of opera tenor Jerry Hadley in Thursday's California section incorrectly stated that he was born June 12, 1952. He was born June 16, 1952.
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