OF ALL THE IMPORTANT TENORS active during the latter half of the twentieth century, Nicolai Gedda was by far the most versatile and industrious, a questing musical spirit who left few areas of the operatic and song repertories unexplored. During a career that spanned nearly fifty years, Gedda was in demand the world over for the warm, sweet, silvery beauty of his voice, his patrician command of style, and an unshowy but dazzling technical virtuosity that was invariably in the service of the music.
Born to poor parents in Stockholm, Gedda was raised by his father’s sister and her Russian husband, a Don Cossack singer and cantor in a Russian orthodox church. It was from his strict stepfather that Gedda picked up his facility with languages and reading music—as well as an innate shyness and a distaste for confrontation that did not serve him well in later dealings with opera managements, not to mention two unhappy early marriages. The vocal rudiments were there from the beginning, however, and while he was working at his first job, as a bank teller, one of his helpful customers recommended a teacher—Carl-Martin Oehman, a former lyric tenor at Stockholm Opera and mentor of Jussi Björling.
Oehman, Gedda once recalled in his typically modest way, “taught me all the essentials, which I knew nothing about.” One can’t help thinking that the perfect vocal placement, firm muscular support, smooth register management and sovereign musical instincts were already present, just waiting to be coaxed out. Additional studies at Stockholm Conservatory lasted just two years before Gedda—in 1952, at age twenty-six—was given the leading role in Adam’s Postillon de Lonjumeau at the Royal Opera and created a sensation, especially with the brilliant high Ds that cap the coachman Chapelou’s famous entrance aria. Walter Legge, EMI’s legendary record impresario, and his wife, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, were in town and demanded to hear the new tenor everyone was raving about. After a short audition, Legge immediately fired off cables to conductor Herbert von Karajan and Antonio Ghiringhelli, the intendant of La Scala: “Just heard the greatest Mozart singer in my life: his name is Nicolai Gedda.”
What happened next would probably leave any young singer breathless. Gedda was instantly cast as Dimitri in EMI’s splashy new recording of Boris Godunov, starring Boris Christoff (“that Boris recording opened the doors of the world to me,” Gedda once remarked), and he made a La Scala debut as Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni under Karajan’s baton. Gedda suddenly had invitations to sing everywhere—Faust and Weber’s Oberon in Paris, the Duke of Mantua at Covent Garden and dozens of other requests from Rome, Vienna, Salzburg, Berlin, Munich and Tokyo.
Meanwhile Legge kept Gedda busy in the recording studios after Boris with Bach’s B-minor Mass under Karajan, rarities such as Cornelius’s Barbier von Baghdad and the French version of Gluck’s Orphée, Strauss’s Capriccio, Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly, Faust, as well as solo recitals covering a wide range of repertory. One of the most impressive examples I know of the young Gedda on disc, at age twenty-eight, is Lehár’s Land des Lächelns, in which he sings the mysterious yet passion-driven Prince Sou-Chong, a role made famous by Richard Tauber. It’s a ravishing piece of singing, delicately shaded and exquisitely controlled until all the character’s banked-up emotions come tumbling out in a glorious rendition of the Tauberlied, “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz.” Even here, vocal connoisseurs will marvel at the singer’s technical control when Gedda eases into the reprise of the big tune without so much as drawing a breath.
Rudolf Bing snapped up Gedda early on (an unusual move by this canny impresario, who usually liked to keep Metropolitan Opera audiences expectantly waiting, even for the most sensational new discoveries), and Gedda made his Met debut on November 1, 1957, as Faust. Thereafter the tenor, like so many important singers of his generation, tended to base himself in New York, while reserving plenty of time to fulfill engagements in Europe and make hundreds of recordings. So New York heard Gedda display the full range of his vocal talents and language facility until he left the company in 1983—classic roles (Don Ottavio, Admèto in Alceste), standard repertory (the Duke, Alfredo, Rodolfo, Pinkerton, Edgardo), French specialties (Hoffmann, Don José, des Grieux, Pelléas, Roméo), bel canto (La Sonnambula, L’Elisir d’Amore, Don Pasquale), Russian roles (Dmitri, Lenski, Gherman), new American opera (Vanessa and The Last Savage) and even a touch of operetta (Johann Strauss’s Gypsy Baron). Gedda never generated the hysterical fan response of, say, Franco Corelli, but few left his finely nuanced, vocally secure, emotionally generous performances feeling cheated.
Gedda wound down his career slowly during the 1990s, giving concerts, teaching and taking on occasional character roles, such as the ancient Abdisu, Patriarch of Assyria, in Covent Garden’s 1997 production of Pfitzner’s Palestrina. He also finally found marital contentment in 1997 with Aino Sellermark, who collaborated with Gedda on his memoirs, My Life—My Art. The couple settled in what appeared to be an idyllic retirement in Tolochenaz, a Swiss villa, where Gedda could take pride in recalling an extraordinarily productive career that had made him one of the most admired and widely heard tenors of his generation. —Peter G. Davis
Courtesy: OPERA NEWS