Cornell MacNeil (1922-2011)

Great American Verdi baritone dies aged 88


The renowned opera singer Cornell MacNeil has died at the age of 88. One of a line of great American baritones, MacNeil was in particular known for the range of his voice, able to reach an A (above middle C) with ease. Keeping himself to relatively narrow repertoire, however, he was undoubtedly heard at his best in the operas of Verdi.


Born in 1922, MacNeil wanted to sing from an early age, but it was only at 27 that he started studying opera seriously. In 1950, he made his debut, singing the lead role in Menotti’s The Consul in Philadelphia after being auditioned by the composer himself.

An early hic-cough in his career came in his debut as Germont in Verdi’s La traviata at New York City Opera in 1953, when a marked discrepancy between his hand gestures and the words he was signing indicated that he didn’t have the remotest grasp of Italian. Panned by the critics, he quickly vowed to change that situation – and did – though his acting in general would never be his forte.

He went on to make his name as a fearless, hugely accomplished singer of some of the most testing roles. ‘The larger and more complex the part, the better he was,’ reflected conductor James Levine in 2007.

Over the years, MacNeil became a regular at The Metropolitan Opera in New York, singing the Verdi roles of Rigoletto, Iago in Otello and Renato in Un ballo in maschera many times. He was also a fine Baron Scarpia in Puccini’s Tosca, a role ideally suited to his tremendous vocal power and presence.

MacNeil retired from the stage in 1987.


Alice Gräfin Grote