Heroic tenor James McCracken achieved international fame in the heaviest tenor repertory; unusually, he did this only after leaving the famed Metropolitan Opera, where he felt his career had stalled in comprimario roles. Taking leave of the Metropolitan in 1957, he was engaged at Bonn and steadily made his way forward singing dramatic roles; this trend eventually culminated in Otello, which served as his reintroduction to America in 1960 at the Washington Opera. Unlike many heroic tenors, who often begin their careers as baritones, McCracken's voice was placed in the tenor range from the very beginning, and he took pride in the fact that he sang the high Cs in Il trovatore, eschewing the transposition that many spinto-weight singers take for granted. A singer of stupendous intensity, his vocal approach sounded highly pressurized, but his voice remained undiminished right to the time of his death at age 61. Clearly, as he himself insisted, he had been singing correctly; otherwise, his voice could not have remained fresh and secure in such a punishing repertory.
McCracken studied at Columbia University and sang on Broadway during that period. His principal voice teacher was Wellington Ezekiel. While his debut took place as Rodolfo in a 1952 production of La bohème in Central City, CO, his Metropolitan Opera contract kept him in an unending string of small roles. From his first Met performance as Parpignol (La Bohème) on November 21, 1953, he progressed little and, after four seasons, departed for Europe to pursue the repertory for which his large voice was suited. In Bonn, he sang Canio, Max (Der Freischütz), and Radames. His protagonist in Washington's 1960 production of Otello attracted worldwide attention. Later that year, he sang the role in Vienna and Zurich and returned triumphantly to the Metropolitan in 1963 as the jealous Moor. London heard his Otello in 1964 and thereafter, he continued to enjoy an active European career.
Counting those performance amassed as a minor singer in his first four seasons, McCracken sang more than 400 performances at the Metropolitan from 1963 on, always in the dramatic or heroic repertories. Among the Canios, Samsons, Manricos, Calafs, and appearances as Radames and Tannhäuser were two striking productions of exceptional interest. When Leonard Bernstein conducted Carmen with Marilyn Horne in 1972, McCracken was his José and the production was subsequently recorded. When Meyerbeer's sprawling Le prophète was revived in 1977 after decades of neglect, McCracken was assigned the title role, Jean de Leyde, in a cast including Horne, Renata Scotto, and Jerome Hines. While many felt in advance that the tenor's technical approach would be too strenuous, in fact he sang the role with both power and a good measure of elegance, employing falsetto for some soft, high-lying passages. This production, too, was recorded and has remained in the catalog ever since. McCracken spoke freely about his vocal technique. He insisted that, despite the explosive sound he produced, he attacked notes gently. During the decade before his death, he worked with Joyce McLaine in New York, noting that he had grown increasingly aware of keeping all the physical elements in alignment. Wisely, he limited his Wagner roles, realizing that these would pull down the center of his voice and cost him his spectacular top register. Together with his wife, mezzo soprano Sandra Warfield, McCracken sang numerous recitals, particularly during the latter part of his career.