Obituary: Richard Versalle

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The Independent Online
Richard Versalle, the American tenor, died in a spectacular manner on stage at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, falling from the top of a 20ft ladder during the opening performance of a new production of Jancek's The Makropulos Case. Though Versalle may not have had a similarly spectacular career as a singer, he had a perfectly respectable one. He appeared mainly in Germany, tackling very heavy Wagner and Verdi roles, and singing for four seasons at Bayreuth in the mid-1980s, when his voice was at its most powerful.

Born in Michigan, Versalle was drafted into the US Navy and served in submarines, then worked as a businessman, before becoming a singer. He studied in Chicago, where he sang with a Baroque ensemble, and had a career as a concert singer before making his operatic debut at the age of 45 in 1977 with Chicago Lyric Opera as the tailor, Augustin Moser, in Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg. Engaged at the Metropolitan, he was given only minor roles and in 1980 went to Saarbrucken, where he sang Verdi's Otello, a very major role indeed.

Back in the US he sang Tichon in Katya Kabanova at Houston, then in 1984 he was engaged at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Dusseldorf. Here he sang Riccardo (Un ballo in maschera), Cavaradossi (Tosca), Florestan (Fidelio), Peter Grimes and Otello. He also appeared in Zurich, Frankfurt, Stuttgart and Bayreuth where, in 1985, he sang Tannhauser. Good, or even adequate, singers of Tannhauser are few and far between and Versalle became a specialist in the role, singing it in Genoa, Tokyo, Vienna and Bonn. He sang Tannhauser at the Metropolitan in 1992. He also attempted another heroic Wagner role, Tristan, which he sang in Florence, Madrid and Sydney.

Versalle may have been overstretched vocally by these very heavy roles, but in the right repertory he was a good and very musical singer. I remember a fine performance of Paul in Korngold's Die tote Stadt at Dusseldorf in 1986, while he was praised for his interpretation of Cardinal Albrecht in Mathis der Maler at Amsterdam in 1991. Earlier this season he sang Jacob Schmidt in Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, broadcast live from the Metropolitan on 9 December. Then on 5 January came The Makropulos Case, in which he sang Vitek, the lawyer's clerk, who has to climb a ladder to retrieve a file from the top of a stack.

Elizabeth Forbes

Richard Versalle, opera singer: born Muskegan, Michigan 12 March 1932; died New York City 5 January 1996.