Born:Stockholm on the 11th of July 1925
Died: 8 January 2017
The complete international tenor is surely the Swede, Nicolai Gedda. Born in Stockholm on the 11th of July 1925.
Born of a Russian father Ustinov, and a Swedish mother Gedda, his early musical experiences were in Leipzig. Where his father served as choirmaster of the Russian orthodox church for six years.
Before moving back to Sweden in 1934, on the advent of Adolf Hitler to power.
With such a background, he quickly developed a fluency in several languages, so that by the time he came to record, he could sing in English and Spanish. As well as the singers in basic trinity of Italian, German, and French and his own native Swedish and Russian.
His repertoire of over 70 roles displays a staggering variety of parts, Russian, French, Italian, German, all came easily to this artist.
And they range from the days of Rooney to Samuel Barber and Yan Carlo Menotti.
He was outstanding in both operetta and oratorial. And sang the songs of Richard Strauss, Fore, Rachmaninov, Respighi, Terina etc with equal mastery.
So, where to begin with such a singer?
Well, why not at his debut at the royal Stockholm opera in 1952.
That was of course, from Adam’s opera, Les Postillions de Longjumeau, and needless to say, Gedda was an instant success.
After finishing high school, he had begun a career in banking, before daring to approach a friendly customer, who was a player in the opera’s orchestra.
Call on Karl Ullman, (heard earlier in our survey by the way), and let him hear your voice, he is the best teacher in Sweden, was the advice given.
Ullman accepted him at once and secured a place for him at the Royal Conservatory.
As luck would have it, EMI were looking for a Russian speaking tenor, to sing the role of Dimitri, in their new recording of Boris Godunov with Boris Cristo.
Having heard of Gedda’s spectacularly successful debut, they sent over their top man, the celebrated Walter Legg, to hear the new sensation.
Not only did Legg sign him up, for the Boris Godunov recording, but he sent off two telegrams that evening.
One to the intendant of La Scala and one to Herbert von Carrian. They read. “Just heard the greatest Mozart singer in my life”.
His name is Nicolai Gedda.
With such a recommendation, Gedda was quickly signed up by Von Carrigan for his recording of Bach’s D Minor mass, and also made his debut at la Scala in Don Giovanni.
In 1954, he secured a three-year contract at the Paris opera. And later that same year, he made his debut at Covent Garden in Verdi’s Rigoletto.
Thus, within two years of his debut in Stockholm, Gedda had embarked on a fully fledged international career.
He made his Salzburg festival debut in 1957, and that same year, his American debut, as Faust, firstly at Pittsburgh and then triumphantly at the Metropolitan Opera.
Three months later in January 1958, he sang the tenor lead, in the world premiere of Samuel Barber’s, Vanessa.
His impact at the metropolitan was such, that he was invited back several times every season for the next 20 years.
For my next choice, I have selected an aria from one of Gedda’s favourite French roles, Pelini in Berlioz’s rarely performed opera, Benvenuto Cellini. Which he first sang at the Holland Festival in 1961, then in Geneva in 1964, and in the new production at Covent Garden in 1966, which was subsequently revised in 1969, and taken to la Scala for its bi-centenary celebrations in 1976.
Accused of abduction and murder by Rome, Cellini has been told that unless his statue of Parses is cast within the day, his life is forfeit.
He reflects that a simple shepherd has a happier life than he, the great artist.
Seul Pour Lutter, Seul avec Mont Courage.
When Gedda’s international career made it impossible for him to study with Ullman on a regular basis, he looked for a new teacher in New York.
Madam Afula Novikova was highly recommended, she had been a pupil of the great Mattia Battistini, and had taught amongst others, Ingrid Siegfried, and John London.
On introduction, there’s was an immediate rapport, and she remained his teacher until her death in 1967.
His first idol was Richard Tauber, which probably accounts for his own liking of operetta.
Then subsequently he heard Benjamino Gigli and Tito Schipa and decided he would always try to achieve their lyrical grace and delicacy.
Perhaps this will be a good time then, to hear him in an Italian aria.
As far as recordings go, Gedda has been rather overexposed.
As John Steane points out:
He has made several versions of one aria or another, indeed complete operas. And can often find himself competing against his earlier self. He is not a routine artist and can be inspired by occasion, conductor, and fellow artists. So that the standard of achievement can vary from one recording session to another.
From Helen Matthew Poulos’s book, Bravo, we discover that he has an enormous gratitude of a help and encouragement of Walter Legg. And considers Maria Callas, the last, truly great singing actress.
He is invariably disappointed with most of what he sees and hears onstage today.
Apart from inadequately prepared singers, performing the wrong repertoire, he considers that another major factor contributing to the decay of vocal standards, is today’s producers. Whom he calls a real scourge and unmusical, and even worse, anti musical.
We must now hear him in something from Russian Opera, since he has been the finest exponent of Russian tenor roles outside of Russia itself, for the last 30 years.
Glinka, a Life for the Tzar, or if you prefer, the Soviet version, Ivan Susanin.
Brother in the Darkness sings Subanen, trying to inspire his comrades to push forward during a storm, in their search to punish some Polish enemies who have captured their leader.
Gedda considers that it is technique more than anything else, that determines a singers lasting power and level of artistic excellence.
The human voice is like a diamond, in need of constant polish, without which it becomes abused.
First, there are signs of wear and tear and tiredness. Then the high notes disappear and so on. He is critical of young singers, who don’t continue to work and study all through their careers, as he has done.
And they must learn to take care of themselves and make sacrifices, if necessary, refrain from smoking, excessive drinking, too much social and nightlife etc
He recommends a strict discipline, when it comes to choice of repertoire and to select only roles that they and their voice are happy with.
When he eventually retires, he regards it as a mission, that he should teach and pass on the knowledge of his vast experience.
Lucky will be the pupil who gets Nicolai Gedda as tutor.
To conclude, we must hear him in song and in operetta, for Gedda was outstanding in both genres.
The song I have chosen is Gedda’s wonderful recording of Richard Strauss’s “Befreit Release”. In which the poet recognizes the coming of death and bids his beloved farewell for the last time.
And from operetta, we hear “Liebste Glaub An Mich”. From Lehar’s “Shaun E di Velde” or as we would say, wonderful world.