James McCracken, who died Sunday, was a triple rarity in opera: a full-fledged dramatic tenor, an American, and a genuinely warm human being. The facts of his career are well known - his bit-part work at the Metropolitan Opera in the 1950s, his flight to Europe, his return to the Met as a star.
In 1978, he severed relations with the house he had served so well when a telecast of ``Tannh"auser,'' which he felt he was due for years of loyal service, was abruptly canceled; he was not afraid to leave a thriving Met career behind when he felt a principle had been violated.
The timbre of his voice was dark, the manner of its production deemed by some controversial. Yet it always rang amply and vibrantly through the expanse of the house. From his return in '63 to his walkout in '78, he held up the entire Italian heroic wing of this art form with distinction - the only American in his voice category to have built so remarkable a career. His Otello made him a star. His other Verdi roles - Radames (pictured at right), Manrico, and Don Alvaro - and his Canio in ``Pagliacci,'' Calaf in ``Turandot,'' and Jean de Leyden in ``Le Prophete'' - established him as an exemplary musician.
Last December, when he sang in Respighi's ``La Fiamma'' at Carnegie Hall, it was remarkable to note this imposing, white-haired gentleman singing with the robustness and majesty of tone that were always the McCracken trademarks. He was in a noteworthy Indian summer, one that would doubtless have continued well beyond a run of Manrico at the Met that was to have begun last month.