Norman Treigle was one of America’s most remarkable bass-baritones in the two decades following World War II. He was particularly known for roles of villainy and supernatural evil. He had a strong stage presence and a theatrical manner of singing. Divorced from the visual element, a pinched quality in his voice and a habit of taking on a rasping tone to express evil became somewhat too evident on recordings.
He graduated from high school in 1943 and even though underage joined the U.S. Navy to serve in World War II. After the war ended in 1945, he was discharged from service and returned to New Orleans, where he marred Loraine Siegel in 1946 and in the same year began studying voice with Elisabeth Wood of Loyola University of New Orleans.
He sang with the local symphony and in 1947 formally debuted in opera at the New Orleans Opera. That season, he sang the parts of the Duke of Verona in Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette and as Lodovico in Verdi’s Otello. He continued his studies at Loyola and lessons with Wood until 1951.
He joined the New York City Opera, debuting there in 1953 as Colline in La Bohème. He quickly became known as an outstanding opera singer-actor and was, with Beverly Sills, one of the major pillars of that company. Both artists shared the misfortune of getting on the bad side of Rudolf Bing, director of the Met, and were not able to make Metropolitan Opera debuts for an unseemly long time. In Treigel’s case, he would not be invited to sing there until 1972, after Bing’s retirement, when the Company suddenly found it could use him in a variety of roles.
By then, Treigle had gained great fame, a process that began in 1956 when he triumphed in a new opera, Susannah by Carlisle Floyd, as the villainous Reverend Olin Blitch. He so impressed the composer that he was cast in the premieres of three of his subsequent operas, The Passion of Janathan Wade (1962), The Sojourner and Mollie Sinclair (1963) and Markheim (1966). He was also a notable Figaro in Mozart’s opera and one of the darker and more evil incarnations of the same composer’s Don Giovanni, and had a notable success as Handel’s Julius Caesar. He also sang the grandfather in Copland’s The Tender Land and the title role in Luigi Dallapiccola’s The Prisoner.
But his most vivid characterizations were in personifications of evil: The four baritone nemeses in Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann, Mephistophélès in Gounod’s Faust, the same character in Boito’s Mefistofele, and Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov.
After his Metropolitan Opera success in 1972, he enlarged his international activities, appearing in Hamburg, Milan, and London (debuting at Covent Garden in 1974). Following his London appearance in Faust, La Scala of Milan invited him to sing Mefistofele with them, and a strong international career seemed inevitable.
However, it was not to be. He died unexpectedly in New Orleans in 1975 of a possibly accidental overdose of sleeping pills. He left only three professional studio recordings, plus several “dall vivo” recordings (authorized and unauthorized), and one videotaped scene from Susannah.
He also left a worthy successor, his daughter Phyllis Treigle, who likewise studied at Loyola, became an exceptional singing actress and joined the New York City Opera, debuting as a supernatural incarnations of evil, the predatory ghost Miss Jessel in Britten’s The Turn of the Screw. Among other roles of evil, she has taken the part of Médée and, in yet another parallel with her father’s career, has had success in the title role of Floyd’s Susannah.
Portrait by Alen MacWeeney, 1967