Sergei Radamsky

Sergei Radamsky (his own transliteration) was born into a Ukrainian-Jewish family in Łódź (now Poland, then part of the Russian Empire); the date of his birth is usually given as 1890, Wikipedia says on September 15th, but according to his own autobiography, he was 34 in February 1923, so he must have been born in 1889.

Already as a teenager, he participated in the 1905 revolution, whereupon he remained on the radar of the tsarist secret service, eventually resulting in his flight from Russia in 1908. He went to Vienna and then to Alexandria (Egypt), surviving with occasional jobs, and in 1910, he emigrated to the USA, where he was a sewer in a New York City textile factory – and regularly homeless during his first years in America.

His factory colleagues talked him into taking voice lessons because they liked his singing; of course, he didn't have the money for serious studies and had to choose his teachers (and he tried many of them) according to their fees and not their quality. That made for a difficult start; he had no top notes and lots of technical problems, and he was often about to throw in the towel and remain what he still was during working hours, a sewer. Finally, one of those teachers (a Russian-born tenor called Henri Barron) found him a first job in the choir of the Aborn Opera Company, where he also sang comprimario parts; his debut was as Ruiz and Messenger in Trovatore, and it was far from successful.

By chance, he then got to take voice lessons with famous Italian basso Giovanni Gravina, and his voice got steadier. In 1914, he had his first concert in New York, it was a success, and he got a comprimario contract at the Century Opera House; after a smooth start as Beppo in Pagliacci, however, he was again a failure, and was relegated to the choir.

When his contract ended, he was determined to return to his sewing job, but when a low-budget vaudeville show on Broadway searched for someone who was able to imitate Enrico Caruso, he got the job, and was a considerable success – so considerable that Caruso himself heard about it, and invited Radamsky to present him his act. In his (more anecdotic than documentary) autobiography, Radamsky says Caruso was very friendly with him, and gave him good advice on his vocal technique – above all, not to try and sing like himself, or it would ruin his totally different voice.

Radamsky quit his vaudeville contract, and found a new teacher in Boston, a Catalan called Ramon Blanchard (not the famous baritone Blanchart), who gave him lessons in exchange for his services as a male housemaid. Radamsky stepped in for a sick tenor in a student performance of Gounod's Faust in a small New York theater, simply skipping the high C in Salut, demeure chaste et pure – a note that he didn't simply have available. That was in 1917, and Radamsky considered it the real start of his career, which slowly picked up pace – not in theaters, though, but in concert cafés and also in "real" concerts.

In 1923, he tried to obtain US citizenship. The authorities hesitated as he was considered a communist; not without reason: he thought of himself as a socialist, and had obvious sympathy for the Russian October Revolution, and the young Soviet Union. But in the end, he got citizenship nonetheless.

In February 1920, he gave a concert at Aeolian Hall in New York, and it was successful enough to secure him a contract to sing Faust and Turiddu in Philadelphia. Another Aeolian Hall concert followed in November 1921. For a certain period, he was associated with wealthy music lovers in New York, and sang at their private events; his political leanings put an end to that when at one of those parties, he got into a heated argument with the manager of Brooklyn Rapid Transit, who spoke very contemptuously of his workers who were on strike for wages that would have allowed them to sustain their families. The manager said their families were of no concern, the workers only needed to earn enough money for themselves, and if they dared joining the communists, they'd be shot like dogs "since after all, we're not in Russia". Radamsky chimed in and told the manager, "You're right, we're not in Russia. In Russia, you'd be the one who'd be shot like a dog, and justly so." That was it with his high society affiliations.

But he got a contract to sing operatic arias to the accompaniment of a symphony orchestra at the Rialto on Broadway, and the fee he earned allowed him to visit his parents in Łódź for the first time since his emigration, and to go to Italy for further vocal studies (with Arturo Vita in Milano) in February 1923. He loved the country, but soon felt uncomfortable about the political situation – the Fascist government under Mussolini had taken power the year before. He made friends with Aureliano Pertile, who was an antifascist, as well. And finally, he got a contract to sing Edgardo and Almaviva at the tiny (and semi-amateurish) provincial theater of Magenta.

Back to New York, he declined an offer to become a comprimario at the Met; instead, he sang Grigorij and Sinodal with a Russian troupe in Montreal. It was a failure: the first evening, his poorly made denture broke on stage, and without teeth, he was hardly able to sing through the end. Back to the USA, he joined an itinerant troupe that was to stage Barbiere with Shaljapin, but he quit soon since he felt poorly paid (150 Dollars per evening as compared to Shaljapin's 3000), and found Shaljapin intolerably arrogant.

He helped the composer Hall Johnson form America's first classical black choir, which was perceived, at the time, as scandalous enough for a white musician that not only the police but even New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia intervened with Radamsky; of course, as a true leftist, Radamsky stood by his antirascist conviction, and Johnson's choir became a huge success.

All of a sudden, in 1927, Radamsky became a star. Novelist Theodore Dreiser, a noted US socialist, had been invited to the Soviet Union; he prompted the Soviets to invite also his personal acquaintance, Sergei Radamsky. They did; a Russian emigree with American citizenship and nonetheless with sympathy for the Soviet Union must indeed have been tempting for them. Radamsky's first USSR concert was at the Moscow Conservatory; it was a mixed aria-and-lied program, and he dared singing Rachmaninoff. That was a big no-no since Rachmaninoff was an enemy of the Soviet Union, but Radamsky was just as stubbornly principled there as on the other side of the ocean and did what he deemed the right thing to do. It was accepted, and he sang further concerts and also on the radio.

Immediately the same year, he was back for a second USSR tour, during which he also made records – the first foreigner ever recorded in the Soviet Union. This time, he sang not only in Moscow, but also in Saratov and Nizhnij Novgorod.

Back home, he got what was the most important operatic contract of his career: Andres in Berg's Wozzeck in Philadelphia, under the baton of Leopold Stokowski – a big success for everyone, including Radamsky.

The next nine years, until 1936, Radamsky divided his time between the USA and the USSR, with increasing prevalence of the latter. He sang in many part of the huge country – in Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, throughout Siberia on a long tour organized by the Red Army, and even in the recently founded Jewish Autonomous Region Birobidzhan in Siberia's far east. In 1932, he gave a concert in Moscow with a New York jazz band (!). All in all, he gave about 200 concerts in the USSR in those nine years. Beyond singing, he was kind of a correspondent for the US Communist Party's newspaper "Daily Worker". He tried to be kind of a cultural ambassador between the two hostile powers, and many times even successfully so, fueling a certain amount of cultural exchange.

But in fact, he was caught between all stools: in the US, he was suspect for being a communist, in the USSR, he was closely observed since he was American; both secret services thought him to be a spy, and the British thought so, as well (they were involved because Radamsky's wife, a soprano who was always with him, was British, and a distant relative of the royal family). Radamsky was certainly a leftist and probably a communist, but definitely no supporter of Stalin and his reading of communism. He was anything but blind to the devastating poverty in the USSR that the communist government was unable to remedy, he was vigilant enough towards the increasing Stalinist terror to decline the offer to become a voice teacher at the Moscow conservatory – and he had, from a Stalinist point of view, the wrong friends in the USSR, both inside and outside the musical business. One of those friends was Shostakovich, whose "Lady Macbeth Mtsenskogo uezda/Lady Macbeth of Mtsenk" he greatly admired (he had also helped realize its US premiere in 1934) – precisely the opera that Stalin disdained so much that Shostakovich fell in disgrace with him. The Union of Soviet Composers held a conference about the "Shostakovich case", and there was no doubt that Shostakovich had to be condemned in sycophantic obedience to the expert judgement of the Dear Leader. Radamsky was present at that conference, and when the composer Lev Knipper launched the umpteenth and particularly vicious diatribe against Shostakovich, Radamsky said loud and clear "podlets", which is a fierce invective along the lines of "stinker" or "whoreson". This caused an uproar, several other participants turned out to be (previously closemouthed) Shostakovich supporters, as well, and the whole session had to be interrupted. Radamsky's situation in the USSR was now untenable; his upcoming concerts were cancelled by the authorities, and so was his visa – he and his wife had to leave the Soviet Union. This was in spring of 1936; he was to return only once, for a brief visit to Moscow, several years after Stalin's death.

Back in New York City, he was still caught between the stools. For the music business and the public authorities, he was a communist (more than ever!), for his former US comrades, he was now a traitor, and suspect of being a Trotskyite. He continued to sing the occasional concert for a while, and during WWII, he was even welcome at the US Army for troop entertainment. Primarily, he was now a voice teacher and stage director in Los Angeles. He managed to bring two of his sisters to America, and thus saved them from the Nazis; his two other sisters, their husbands and children, and his brother were all killed in the shoah.

After the war, during the McCarthy era, Radamsky had another hard time. He was observed by the FBI, and eventually questioned for a total of 13 hours in two consecutive days. He was suspected of receiving huge amounts of money from the Soviet Union (where he was of course still persona non grata). The FBI couldn't prove anything, but in a certain way, they were successful: Radamsky left the USA for good, and settled with his voice studio near Paris. However, he still felt observed by every possible secret service, and before long, he moved on to Vienna, where he was a very successful voice teacher.

Among his students were Kari Nurmela, Otto von Rohr, William Blankenship, Frederick Guthrie or Theo Baylé. He later divided his time between Vienna and the Tuscan Island of Elba, where he died on January 28th, 1973.

Reference 1: Sergei Radamsky Der verfolgte Tenor. Mein Sängerleben zwishen Moskau und Hollywood, München 1972
Reference 2: Wikipedia
Picture source (top and bottom): Opera+

Sergei Radamski sings Tosca: E lucevan le stelle

Sergei Radamski sings Bye and bye (spiritual)
Recorded in Moscow, 1930
Source for the spiritual recording: Yuri Bernikov's fantastic website Russian Records.

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