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Wagnerians – Ivan Ershov, Lotte Lehmann, Leo Slezak, Kirsten Flagstad, Marjorie Lawrence & Lauritz Melchior

Richard Wagner was a foul, disgusting, loathsome anti-semitic who I am sure hated singers. He also wrote some of the most sublime music in history. In the process he imposed on his singers some of the most difficult and treacherous music ever written and then made them stand in place for three and four hours to sing it with orchestrations designed to overwhelm all but the strongest of voices. Most lryic tenors and sopranos avoid Wagner until near the end of their careers because they know that once their voices adapt to Wagner’s requirements, there is no going back. A once beautiful lyric instrument will darken and, it’s flexibility gone forever, never return to a pristine state.

Once, Wagnerian singers sang a wide spectrum of music without problem. But once there were vocal teachers and coaches who were part of a long tradition, and managers, conductors, and directors who understood and cared about a singer enough to direct him or her away from roles they were not ready for. Now a good Wagner singer is a rarity. And bad ones … well Bad Wagnerian singers are not merely bad, they are often genuinely awful. They stand-and-bellow until their instruments rebel against such unnatural abuse and begin to quake and wobble or they croon to avoid such inhumane misuse and destroy the very real beauty of Wagners music and in the process find their voices gone very shortly.

So I would like to mention some singers of the past who achieved excellence while maintaing careers that oftn lasted well into their 60’s and 70’s. I realize that I will inevitably ignore some very fine people such as the tenors Set Svanholm, Max Lorenz, Ben Hepner, or more recently Jonas Kaufman and sopranos Astrid Varnay, Frieda Lieder, and Elizabeth, Rethberg. And I have ignored baritones completely, but there is only so much room.

Ivan Yershov (1867-1943) also spelled variously as Ershov, Ershoff, and Irshoff. Born the illegitimate son of poor parents in Novocherkassk, Russia, he made his operatic debut in1893 in Gounod’s Faust. He had crystal clear diction and rich voice of enormous size.

A true Heldentenor, he was certainly the greatest heroic tenor of his era and was enormously popular in Russia. Once established. He never ventured outside the country. In 1903 he recorded a handful of arias (in Russian) from Wagner, Meyerbeer, and Tchaikovsky. He found the results totally unsatisfactory and vowed never to repeat the process. He was probably right as contemporary reports indicate a much richer voice than the records show.

Ershov was regarded so highly that Cosima Wagner, the composers widow, invited him to sing at Bayreuth but he declined because he didn’t want to re-learn the roles in German (he also preferred his more Bel Canto style of singing to the declamatory style in voguie at Bayreuth. He was a quiet, reserved, and humble man who believed in opera as an art. His wife was also an opera singer and his son, Igor, became a well known painter and graphic artist.

Lotte Lehmann (1888 – 1976) was born in Perleberg, a province of Brandenburg, Germany and made her operatic debut in 1910 with the Hamburg Opera, made her Covent Garden debut in 1914, and appeared throughout the world from then on.

Besides Wagner, she specialized in German opera and had over 90 operas (from Manon to Tosca) in her repertoire. Her Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier was her most famous role.

She discovered the Trapp Family Singers (of Sound of Music fame) and persuaded them to make their first public appearance. While Lehmann had a voice powerful enough to ring out over Wagnerian orchestrations, her vocal flexibility and natural, unaffected manner of singing made her German lieder recordings among the finest ever made.

Because her step-children had a Jewish mother, she fled Germany and moved to the United States in 1938, singing at the Metropolitan and San Francisco operas until 1945. After retirement, she moved to Santa barbara, California and taught master classes there and in cities around the world.

She appeared a one film in 1948 playing a Jewish mother and even at the age of 60 her voice was extraordinary.

Leo Slezak (1873 – 1946) 1873 was a very good year for music. Enrico Caruso, Feodor Chaliapin, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Leo Slezak were all born that year. Slezak, who came from Sumperk, Moravia, was tall, handsome, and possessed with a wonderfully rich and mellow tenor voice which had a lyric quality that allowed him to excel in Verdi’s Otello as well as in Wagnerian roles.

He made his operatic debut in 1896 and by 1901 was a permanent member of the Vienna state Opera. He made his metropolitan Opera debut in 1909, leaving three years later when the Met could not meet the high fees he had by then commanded. He sang a wide repertoire besides his Wagner roles, became the most famous Otello of his generation.

Slezak never allowed the demands of Wagner to ruin the musicality and lyricism of his voice.
Slezak made several hundred recordings and, when he retired from opera, became a successful film actor, making several movies between 1932 and 1943, where his amiable personality made him a favorite of European audiences.

His son Walter Slezak (a well known character actor in American films) told the great story of the time in Lohengrin when the elder Slezak sttod on stage waiting to board the swan Boat – and watched as it sailed right past him! He turned to the audience and said, “What time does next swan leave?” His granddaughter Erica Slezak became an actress and appeared on the soap opera “One Life To Live.” Leo Slezak died of heart failure in 1946.

Kirsten Flagstad (1895 – 1962) One critic wrote: “No one within living memory surpassed her in sheer beauty and consistency of line and tone.” She was born in Hamar, Norway and initially sang lyric roles, but after successfully managing Aida she moved on to Wagner and never looked back.

She had the distinction of singing opposite both Leo Slezak and Lauritz Melchoir, the greatest Wagnerian tenors of the 20th century. She debuted at the Metropolitan Opera in 1935 as Sieglinde in Die Valkerie and she was a sensation. She sang all three Brunhilde operas there that season plus Lohengrin, Parsifal, Tannhauser, and Beethoven’s Fidelio.

Flagstad was a strong willed lady not averse to fighting for her position. When the Metropolitan’s Generall Manager refused to allow her the conductor of her choice, she went over his head to the Met’s Chairman of the Board of Directors and won her point. Against the advice of friends, she returnd to Nazi occupied Norway in 1941, where her husband had remained. During this period she sang only in Sweden and Switzerland, countries not occupied by the Nazis, but her popularity suffered, especially when her husband was arrested after the war for profiteering.

She returned to the world stage after the war and sang the world premiere of Strauss’s Four Last songs at a concert in 1950. Her voice darkened but never deteriorated. She retired from the stage in 1953 but continued making recordings, giving concerts, and became a director of the Norwegian National Opera. In1960 she was diagnosed with bone marrow cancer and died two years later.

Marjorie Lawrence (1907 – 1979) began her career singing Wagner. She made her operatic debut as Elisabeth in Wagner’s “Tannhauser” and, while she did occasionally sing other less demanding roles (she was an excellent Carmen”) it was the Wagnerian repertoire that she concentrated on.

Marjorie Florence Lawrence born in a small town near Melbourn, Australia. Her father was a butcher, her mother a church organist who died when marjorie was only two years old. She was a church soloist at ten and won many vocal competitions. She traveled to Paris for further study and made her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1935 at the age of 28 singing Brunnhilde in “Die Walkure.” It was in that production, singing opposite Lawrence Melchior, that she became the first soprano to play the immolation scene as Wagner had intended – by riding her horse into the flames.

She had a powerful voice with great range and this, combined with her beauty, made her an audience favorite. Her athleticism and physicality in the Dance of the Seven Veils from Richard Strauss’ “Salome” made it both erotic and fruightening and her “Carmen” was equally imaginative and she was quite capable of scaling down her voice for romantic effect when needed.

In 1941, while performing in Mexico, she discovered that she could not stand upright. She had been stricken with polio. She refused to give in to the disease and, after undergoing treatments for muscle stimulation, returned to the stage less than two years later performing ina chair (and occasionally reclining on a special platform.) She performed for allied troops in World War II, sang an Aida in Paris in 1946 and gave concert performances until she retired in 1947.

She wrote an autobiography, “Interrupted Melody”, which was made into a film (she thought it “untrue to life”) with Eleanor Parker playing the lead and lip-synching to the voice of Metropolitan Opera soprano Eileen Farrell. Marjorie Lawrence died of heart failure athe the age of 71 in Little Rock, Arkansas.

And at last we come to Lauritz Melchoir (1890 – 1973) , arguably the most famous (and greatest) Heldentenor who ever lived. In a career that spanned forty years, he performed in five Hollywood musical films, on television, and in 519 performances at the Metropolitan Opera, all the while singing some of the most demanding music ever written.

Born in Copenhagen, Denmark, he began as a boy soprano, then when his voice changed moved to baritone and bass roles. Blonde with a cherub’s face, he stood six foot four inches tall and weighed 300 pounds in his prime. He was an imposing figure on stage and the dominant Wagnerian tenor of the 20th Century.

He was in his mid-twenties before a colleague, hearing him sing a high C, wrote to the Royal Danish Opera, where he was under contract, and suggested that he be given a leave of absence to re-study his voice. Two years later his high baritone had been transformed into a tenor

He probably would have made an excellent Otello or a Pagliacci, but in a short time he found his calling and a Wagnerian Heldentenor was born.

Soon he was singing in opera houses and concert halls throughout the world. He sang at Covent Garden in London in 1024 and debuted at the Metropolitan Opera in 1929. With the outbreak of World War II, Melchior moved to the United States (becoming a citizen in 1947) making film and radio and television appearances. His outgoing, lovable, personality made him an audience favorite.

He sang with every major conductor and Wagnerian soprano (Flagstad, Lehmann, Traubel, and Rethberg come to mind) until his retirement in 1955 but he continued to make public appearances and sang the first act of Die Waikerie in 1960 on Danish Radio on his 70th birthday.

Lauritz Melchoir died at the age of 80 at his home in Santa Monica, California.

Your comments or questions are welcome.