Jerry Hadley was one of the most thoughtful singers of the late twentieth century, exploring a wide range of repertoire with a special interest in contemporary works. Hadley began his career with a voice ideal for Mozart and bel canto, possessing a warmly lyrical timbre that earned him acclaim as one of the most beautiful voices since Fritz Wunderlich. Hadley's musicianship and high standards for performance served to make him one of the most interesting tenors of his generation.
Hadley was interested in singing from an early age and as a youth performed as a member of the touring show Up With People. He went to the University of Illinois to study music, where a friend persuaded him to audition for a performance of The Magic Flute. Landing the role of Tamino and enjoying great success with it, Hadley was further persuaded to take up an operatic career. Hadley's debut was at the Sarasota Opera as Lionel in von Flotow's Martha in 1978. In 1979, Hadley began a long association with the New York City Opera at the invitation of Beverly Sills, debuting as Arturo in Lucia di Lammermoor. His stage debut was not an auspicious one dramatically: Arturo appears on-stage for only about 15 minutes, but being unfamiliar with the staging, Hadley found himself catching his sword on a chair and dragging it across the stage before he could disentangle it. He also succeeded in setting his plumed hat on fire and was on the receiving end of a chorus member's sword.
His accident-prone New York debut notwithstanding, Hadley sang roles such as Pinkerton, Des Grieux (Massenet), Tom Rakewell, and Faust (Gounod) at the NYCO. His European debut was in 1982 as Nemorino at the Vienna State Opera, the same year Hadley won the Richard Tucker Competition. In 1983, Hadley made his Glyndebourne debut as Idamante in Mozart's Idomeneo, followed by his Covent Garden debut the next year as Fenton in Falstaff. Hadley's Metropolitan Opera debut was in 1987 as Des Grieux; however, such roles as Offenbach's Hoffmann called for a technique that often "drew on capital," and this began to exact a price on Hadley's vocal flexibility and stamina in the later 1980s. By the end of the decade, Hadley's pitch was not as secure as it had been, and there was rawness in his voice that had not been there before, but these years did witness some of his finest and most lasting achievements. In 1989, he had a superb turn in the title role of Leonard Bernstein's revision of the opera Candide, and his recording of Show Boat in the restored scoring by John McGlinn was one of Hadley's most highly praised and best-selling recordings. Throughout the following decade, Hadley remained very visible, appearing with frequency in opera galas on American public television and recording for RCA-Victor.
Hadley was a champion of twentieth century music, both operatic and in the popular realm. In 1997, he created the title role on Myron Fink's The Conquistador, and in 1999, that of John Harbison's The Great Gatsby; Hadley also created the tenor lead in Paul McCartney's Liverpool Oratorio and led the cast of the premiere recording of the long-delayed opera Desire Under the Elms by Edward Thomas. He recorded an exemplary Sam in Carlisle Floyd's Susannah and his final recording, in the cast of Leos Janácek's opera Jenufa led by Bernard Haitink, won a Grammy. Of Hadley's featured albums, Standing Room Only, a vividly characterized collection of songs from musicals, remains perhaps the best.
Hadley maintained an extremely scrupulous attitude toward performing; he once stated he would not record a role unless he had sung it on-stage, and wrote the English-language translation for his recording of Lehár's The Land of Smiles. After the success of Jenufa, Hadley began to work considerably less, struggled against mounting financial troubles, and battled severe depression. On July 10, 2007, Hadley shot himself with an air rifle in an apparent suicide attempt and died a week later.