When James McCracken walked out of the rehearsals for the Metropolitan Opera's opening-night production of Wagner's ``Tannh"auser'' in a publicized dispute six years ago, it looked very much as if he would never sing on that stage again. The burly tenor with the shock of snow-white hair explains with candor, ``It's conceivable my career at the Metropolitan Opera was over, which is a big kind of stand. Because that's a big [personal] loss -- an American tenor in his prime who wants to move out of there because he wants to do something he believes in.''
Mr. McCracken has sung more Otellos at the Met than any other singer in the company's 101-year history. Tomorrow night, he will sing Radam`es on a ``Live From the Met'' telecast of Verdi's ``A"ida'' (tomorrow night, PBS, check local listings for station and simulcast details). The evening will also mark the last operatic performance of Leontyne Price's career. The season after next, Mr. McCracken will be featured in another telecast -- in the leading role of Canio in Leoncavallo's ``I Pagliacci.''
Of his Met departure, the tenor added further, ``I knew that if I left there, it was pulling my thumb out of a bucket of water: I wasn't about to think that I was doing them any great harm.'' And, it was not the first time he had actually left the Met. As a young tenor, he had joined the roster in the early '50s, singing small roles and getting nowhere fast. He decided to give Europe a try in the last years of the decade, walking out of a sure job into the void overseas.
After a few years of struggle, he gave a successful audition for Herbert von Karajan and made his Vienna State Opera debut as Bacchus in Strauss's ``Ariadne auf Naxos.'' But it was when he had his first crack at Verdi's ``Otello'' over 20 years ago that the world really stood up and took notice. His role as the Moorish leader gained him entry into the major houses of the world. The Met gave him two new productions of the opera. And from there, Mr. McCracken branched out into such roles as Manrico (Verdi's ``Il Trovatore''), Calaf (Puccini's ``Turandot''), Samson (Saint-Sa"ens's ``Samson et Dalila'').
At the Met, his other new productions included Meyerbeer's ``Le Prophete,'' Wagner's ``Tannh"auser,'' Bizet's ``Carmen,'' and ``A"ida.'' But he notes emphatically, ``you can have an awful lot of new productions, and sing an awful lot of performances, and not reach the people that you do with one television show . . .'' Not singing at the Met has meant several new aspects to his career: ``Have I packed and unpacked my suitcases! But I'm not complaining. I've been running around here and there, and I've enjoyed it. I've gone to places that I wouldn't have ordinarily gone to, seen some scenery I wouldn't have seen, done some concerts with my wife [mezzo-soprano Sandra Warfield] we wouldn't have done. And you can't be in two places at once.''
In our conversation about his years in Europe, it emerged that he feels America offers too few learning opportunites for the young singer. He is most convincing when he declares that without his Zurich experience, he would not have been ready for his expanded career when it finally came along. ``I am sorry, but we don't have the same thing in this country. Let me put it this way: If there's a high school quarterback that's worth anything at all, all the colleges know where he is and they keep their eye on him. If there's a college quarterback that's any good at all, the pros all have their eyes on him. There are singers out there, but who is finding them, nurturing them, and giving them the opportunity?
``When I've done my master classes -- and I've only done about 10 in my life -- I say that if there is anything that I say here in this class that can discourage you, then you'll never make it anyway, which is true. So I tend to be a little pessimistic when I do master classes, because what else is there? I'd just be painting a rosy picture that isn't there.''
He continues with what for some would be an heretical thought. ``There are an awful lot of microphones around in a lot of the [American] opera houses now. That being true, the voices are not necessarily being developed to get bigger, or to grow in volume. And if that is going to be the way it is, we should know it, and it should maybe be made universal with the exception of the big opera companies. And then young singers should say to themselves, `I am going to make a career, but I don't necessarily want to sing without microphones.' ''
Would Mr. McCracken hope to teach someday? No. He sees himself more as a fine-tuner, though Indiana University keeps asking him to come and teach there. ``I don't know how much longer I'll sing . . . but I don't think I'm qualified [to teach].'' If I were to go [to Indiana], I would want to go somewhere else first for a year to see if I could do it.'' He says all this with the sort of earnest candor that sets Mr. McCracken apart from other opera singers, makes him a colleague with a splendid reputation for kindness, understanding, and helpfulness -- something of a rarity these days. He brings a directness any opera house -- including the Met -- could use more of from all the artists who perform there.