From 1959 to 1987, he sang 26 roles in more than 600 appearances at the Metropolitan Opera, including more than 100 performances of Rigoletto. In a 2007 interview James Levine commented:
The larger and more complex the part, the better he was: Boccanegra, Rigoletto, Macbeth, Nabucco, Falstaff, Iago — a lot of these parts could be said to be the most challenging and varied. He sang lots of Amonasros and Scarpias marvelously well, but those more complex ones were where he was at his best.”
During the war MacNeil joined the Radio City Music Hall Glee Club and also did backstage announcements. It was his sonorous baritone that announced the news to Radio City audiences of both the German and Japanese surrenders.
He made his operatic début in 1950 in Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Consul, though he was 30 before he gave up his job as a supervisor at a Bulova watch factory in New York to devote himself to opera.
In 1953 MacNeil made his New York City Opera début, as Germont in La Traviata. Though acclaimed for his sumptuous singing in that performance, it was obvious that he didn’t know the Italian he was singing:
I decided then I was not going to sing any more Italian operas until I really knew the language.”
His Germont was later immortalised in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1982 film of the opera with Teresa Stratas and Placido Domingo.
Days after appearing in Verdi’s Ernani at La Scala in 1959, he was asked to substitute for an ailing Robert Merrill in Rigoletto at the Metropolitan Opera. MacNeil arrived in New York on the day of the performance, with only enough time to be fitted for a costume before the opening curtain. A 1977 Met telecast of Rigoletto features MacNeil with Placido Domingo and Ileana Cotrubas.
Learning Italian served him well when he sung in Parma. During a performance of Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera in 1964, the Parma audience continually hissed at a soprano, preventing MacNeil from singing his third-act aria.
I was getting more and more angry as the rumbling and noise got worse. Finally, I couldn’t stand it any longer.”
Using his newly fluent Italian, MacNeil shouted, “Basta, cretini!” (“That’s enough, idiots!”) and stormed off the stage. A near-riot broke out backstage. As the staff tried to block MacNeil from leaving the theatre, the stage manager punched him in the jaw. After a series of lawsuits, MacNeil was required to return half of his performance fee.
He sang Tosca‘s Scarpia more than 90 times at the Metropolitan following his début in the role in 1959. He can be seen as Scarpia at the Met in the 1978 telecast with Luciano Pavarotti and Shirley Verrett, and again with Domingo and Hildegard Behrens in 1985. His final performance at the Met was in this role in 1987. He retired from the opera a year later.
In Jerome Hines’ book “Great Singers on Great Singing”, MacNeil said:
Opera is an excessive art form populated by excessive people. We make it more excessive than necessary. Singing is really a very simple thing.