Although not regarded as a great operatic actor, Cornell MacNeil possessed one of the most sumptuous baritone voices of the twentieth century's second half. A mainstay at the Metropolitan Opera, his rounded, heavyweight instrument coursed magnificently through such roles as Tonio, Amonasro, Rigoletto, Germont, Nabucco, and Scarpia, making vocal points impossible to ignore. MacNeil's occasional tendency toward unsteadiness was mitigated by the sheer splendor of his sound. MacNeil was one of the last of the true dramatic Verdi baritones, and the end of his career left a void that is still unfilled.
After study with Wagnerian bass-baritone Friedrich Schorr at the Hartt College of Music in Hartford, CT, MacNeil sang in Broadway musicals before he created the role of John Sorel in Menotti's The Consul in Philadelphia on March 1, 1950. He made his debut with the New York City Opera in 1953, singing Germont in a March 21 matinee performance of La traviata with Frances Yeend as Violetta. He remained with the company until the fall season in 1956, singing among other roles Escamillo, Rigoletto, Valentin, and Stephano in the American premiere of Martin's The Tempest (Der Sturm). In 1955, MacNeil made his debut in San Francisco as Escamillo, his acting tepid, but his voice having "the ring of great promise."
A 1957 production of Manon Lescaut with Tebaldi and Björling introduced him to Chicago audiences on October 21. He followed that with a powerfully sung Alfio two nights later and returned for the 1958 season as Ford and Sharpless, also singing the Prologue in Pagliacci before yielding to Tito Gobbi as Tonio. In 1965, MacNeil offered his Rigoletto in a production regarded as otherwise lackluster.
Debuts at both La Scala and the Metropolitan Opera occupied the baritone in 1959. In Milan, he appeared as Carlo in Ernani, while at his March 21 Met debut the role was Rigoletto, the first of nearly 500 performances ranging over 26 roles. MacNeil's large, rolling voice found a congenial home at the old Met and, later, in the even larger new theater. In addition to the great Verdi roles for which he was so well-suited, he mastered such verismo roles as Michele in Il Tabarro and the chilling Gianciotto in Francesca di Rimini, the latter in a production televised to a large national and world-wide audience. In the latter part of his career, his interpretations showed increased dramatic specificity and vitality; some indeed were strongly compelling.
In addition to his performing career, MacNeil took time to serve as president of the American Guild of Musical Artists beginning in 1969.
In bass Jerome Hines' book, Great Singers on Great Singing (1982), MacNeil was outspoken about a variety of issues facing both fledgling singers and established artists. Given his long career (he was still singing leading roles in his mid-sixties), his words merit attention. MacNeil was particularly critical of the term "color," insisting rather that singers think about intent. "Breath control," too, is a term he disparaged, preferring to believe that good singing results from balance of physical elements. On the issue of support, he considered that the diaphragm is "enormously overrated" as the basic means. Rather, he stated that the floating ribs of the singer's back provide the cushion on which breath is made available -- and that most singers take in more breath than is necessary.