Lauritz Melchior, the Heldentenor, was born in Copenhagen, Denmark on March 20, 1890. His childhood was full of amateur performing, and he was a boy soprano in the choir of Copenhagen’s Anglican church. He made his debut as a member of the Royal Danish Opera in the role of Silvio (Pagliacci) in 1913, after instruction with Poul Bang and others. 1913 was also the year of his first phonograph recordings. His performances for Royal Danish Opera over the next four years consisted of smaller baritone and even bass roles.
In 1917 he trained with retired Danish tenor Vilhelm Herold. In 1918, now singing as a tenor, Melchior gave his first performance as Tannhäuser. He left Denmark for England in 1920. In England he tested new roles through concert singing-as a regular at Sir Henry Wood’s ‘Proms’-while training with Victor Beigel. He performed regularly between 1922 and 1923, mainly in England, however in concerts, not in the opera. Removing to Germany in 1922, he studied with retired Wagnerian soprano Anna Bahr Mildenburg in Munich, and Ernst Grenzebach in Berlin.
1924 saw his first performances at Bayreuth (Siegmund, Parsifal), and at Covent Garden (Siegmund), two of the most important theaters of his career. Another crucial debut came in 1926: the Metropolitan Opera, portraying Tannhäuser. The remainder of the 1920s passed by in a whirlwind of newness. He debuted Wagnerian roles he would become most associated with internationally, such as Siegfried and Tristan, along with Italian and French roles he would not.
In the mid to late 1920s, his performances were divided between Berlin’s two opera houses, the Städtische and the Staatsoper, and the Hamburg Staatsoper, in addition to the aforementioned Covent Garden, Bayreuth, and Met. Perhaps the most important German theatre as far as his career was concerned (excepting Bayreuth) during the late 1920s was the Hamburg Staatsoper, as here occurred his first Lohengrin and Otello.
Although in the 1920s Melchior was planning to make Germany the center of his career, the unforeseen Nazification and Great Depression of the early 1930s in fact moved him away from that country’s theaters, including “Hitler’s Bayreuth.” After 1933, the majority of his opera season was spent at the Metropolitan. It was a Dionysiac time for Wagner performance. His only new operatic role in the 1930s was Florestan.
Melchior’s European opera career ended at Copenhagen’s Royal Opera, where it had begun, shortly after the outbreak of World War Two, 1939. Melchior spent World War II in the United States, where his operatic performances were confined to the Met, with visits to San Francisco (debut, 1934) and Buenos Aires (debut, 1931). Melchior appeared in four Joe Pasternak-produced Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer musicals between 1944 and 1948 (discussed further here). Coincidental with his foray into Hollywood, his guest appearances on radio shows began during World War II; his appearances on the radio paired him with almost all popular singers and comedians of the time. After the war he eased up on opera performances. He turned increasingly to concertizing across America, in big cities and small. He became an American citizen in 1947.
Melchior left the Met and the opera after a much publicized kafuffle with incoming General Manager Rudolf Bing, giving his last performance (Lohengrin) in February of 1950. His final movie role was in Paramount’s The Stars are Singing (1953). Intense concertizing, which included everything from joint Wagner concerts with soprano Helen Traubel to two summers in bandleader Guy Lombardo’s musical comedy, Arabian Nights, continued until early 1956, when Melchior, at 65 year old, more or less retired. He continued to give periodic charity concerts and make television and radio appearances, such as a 1960 Danmarks Radio performance of Die Walkure, Act I to mark his 70th birthday. For a good part of the 1960s, Melchior worked to start a “Lauritz Melchior Heldentenor Competition,” finally established through Juilliard in 1969.
Lauritz Melchior died in Santa Monica, California on March 18, 1973 at age 82. His ashes are buried in Copenhagen.
Melchior with his wife
Melchior with his collegues at London
Melchior with Kleinchen and Lotte Lehmann
Melchior with princess Kira of Prussia
A quite private rehearsal
Melchior with his former colleague Emmy Land Wolff
Lauritz Melchior as a boy:
A boy soprano in the choir of Copenhagen’s Anglican church choir, the young Lauritz Melchior
“knew nothing more beautiful than singing.” (*as quoted in Jerrild, 1936)
Lotte Lehmann and Lauritz Melchior
as Tristan Bayreuth 1928
Lauritz Melchior’s grave in Copenhagen