The creator of the title role of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide as well as the part of Tom Rakewell in Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, the American tenor Robert Rounseville enjoyed a long career in opera, operetta, and musical theater. His suave, dark tenor voice and photogenic face served him well both on stage and on film.
Born in Attleboro, Massachusetts, in 1914, Robert Field Rounseville – who would sometimes go by the name Robert Field – studied medicine but soon turned his attention to music. He made his Broadway debut when he was twenty-three in the original production of the Rodgers and Hart musical Babes in Arms (1937), playing a member of The Gang. The next year he returned to Broadway as an ensemble player in The Two Bouquets, a short-lived operetta featuring Leo G. Carroll and Alfred Drake. Later in 1938 he had a small part in the original production of the Kurt Weill-Maxwell Anderson musical Knickerbocker Holiday.
Another Rodgers and Hart musical, Higher and Higher, brought Rounseville back to Broadway in 1940, though the work lasted for only twenty-four performances. Later in the 1940s he sang in The Merry Widow (1943) and Romberg’s musical Up in Central Park (1945). Nevertheless, he hoped to make a career in serious opera and found himself frustrated in the 1940s to be performing in nightclubs and, eventually, even in vaudeville. After an ulcer forced him to reassess his career, he studied opera at Tanglewood and returned to New York to join City Opera, appearing as Pelléas in Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande opposite the legendary Maggie Teyte in 1948. He followed this up with a much-admired performance as Hoffmann in The Tales of Hoffmann at City Opera in 1949.
After his triumph, he was cast as Hoffmann in the 1951 movie of The Tales of Hoffmann, a now-classic adaptation of an opera that made inventive use of the film medium, with Thomas Beecham conducting. Also in 1951, he created the leading role of Tom Rakewell in Stravinsky’s neoclassical opera The Rake’s Progress, first performed at La Fenice in Venice under the composer’s direction, with a cast that included Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Jennie Tourel. The following year, Rounseville and soprano Dorothy Kirsten were the star artists on recordings of Lehár’s The Merry Widow and Romberg’s The Student Prince. Also in the 1950s Rounseville was a member of touring opera companies and performed in several Gilbert and Sullivan productions on Broadway.
In the filmed version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel (1956), Rounseville played Enoch Snow. Also in 1956, he was the first to perform the title role in Bernstein’s Candide, playing opposite Barbara Cook as Cunégonde. The sophisticated musical, based on Voltaire’s famous book, was the product of several formidable talents, including Lillian Hellman and Richard Wilbur, and Columbia issued an original cast recording.
Rounseville’s last role on Broadway was that of the Padre in the original production of Man of La Mancha (1965), the Don Quixote-inspired show that won multiple Tonys®. He reprised the role in the 1972 revival.
Television credits include a 1959 production of The Mikado featuring Groucho Marx as Ko-Ko.
Rounseville died in his Carnegie Hall studio in 1974.