Opera goers of the 1950’s and 1960’s had an almost unbelievable richness of choice in tenors, probably not equaled by any generation in history. Franco Corelli was probably the most viscerally exciting tenor since Enrico Caruso. Mario Del Monaco’s huge if somewhat crude singing thrilled audiences as did the fiery Guiseppe de Stefano, whose frequent pairings with Maria Callas on stage and in recordings, made him a major star. The American Richard Tucker dominated the Metropolitan Opera, and overshadowing them all was the incomparable voice of Jussi Bjorling.
With Bjorling’s early death in 1960 at the age of 49, no one could equal his vocal beauty but three other tenors emerged to offer much of his style, refinement, and musical sensibility. Born within a few years of each other, they would outlast all their competitors. While Carlo Bergonzi was probably the most popular of the three, none of them would ever achieve the “Tenore Primo” status of Bjorling and Corelli, or later Domingo and Pavarotti but they would each have careers lasting nearly 50 years.
The critic Alan Blyth wrote that “His singing evinces an innate feeling for shaping a line on a long breath, an exemplary clarity of diction, words placed immaculately on the tone . . . add to those virtues the manner by which he gives to each phrase a sense of inevitability and you say to yourself, in a mood of sheer pleasure, this is exactly how the music ought to sound.”
The New York Times said: “He is a natural singer in that everything he does seems right and inevitable — the artful phrasing, the coloristic variety, the perfectly positioned accents, the theatrical sense of well-proportioned climaxes, the honest emotional fervor. Best of all, Mr. Bergonzi obviously uses these effects artistically because he feels them rather than intellectualizes them.”
Carlo Bergonzi, was born in 1924 in Polesine, near Parma, Northern Italy. As a child he sang in church, and in children’s roles in local opera productions. He left school at age 11 to work with his father at a cheese factory in Parma. At 16, he entered the Arrigo Boito Conservatory in Parma to study piano and voice. He was initially considered to be a baritone but in 1942 he was conscripted into the Italian army.
Bergonzi was in a military hospital when Italy surrendered and declared war on Germany. The Germans retaliated by occupying most of Italy and putting Italian soldiers (including Bergonzi) into prisoner-of-war camps. His camp was liberated by the Russians but he and many other soldiers chose to walk nearly 100 miles to an American camp.
In 1948 made his operatic debut in Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” and in 1950 he married Adele Aimi. They had two sons and the marriage lasted until her death in 2014. Competition for baritones was stiff and his high notes where not very good. Bergonzi had a rather small lyric baritone which regularly cracked on F and F sharp so he got little work.
And then in 1950, he was doing vocal exercises. Singing scales he reached a high C. Suddenly he realized what was wrong with his vocal production. He was a tenor, not a baritone, Bergonzi didn’t have the money to rent a piano or a hire teacher so worked on lightening his voice by himself and in 1951 he made his debut, as a tenor, in the title role in Umberto Giordano’s “Andrea Chénier.”
And he got lucky. Italian public radio (RAI) signed him to sing in Verdi’s “Giovanni d’Arco” with Renata Tebaldi in the title role, which led to his 1953 début at La Scala. He was still struggling to be noticed when in 1955 new management at the Chicago Lyric Opera produced a short five-week season with Maria Callas, Renata Tebaldi, Guiseppe Di Stefano, Jussi Björling, Tito Gobbi and Giulietta Simionato all signed for a series of 12 operas. Chicago needed younger (and less expensive) singers to fill out the roster and they chose Bergonzi among others. A few months later, Mario Del Monaco cancelled his performances of “Aida” and “Il Trovatore” at the Metropolitan and Rudolf Bing needed a tenor. Again, Bergonzi was available.
In 1957, both Bjorling and Del Monaco had disagreements with the Met, and Bergonzi covered for both. Decca records signed him for a recital album and he was soon known as a rising star.
His acting was barely adequate and he was short, stubby, and less than handsome, but as he said, “I know I don’t look like Rudolph Valentino. I have tried to learn to act through the voice. The proper, pure expression of the line is the most important thing.”
By 1970 his top notes were becoming problematic but he had developed a truly beautiful sound in his middle register, more honeyed and sweeter. He sang almost 40 different roles, but it was as a Verdi interpreter that he was best known. He continued to sing into his 70’s.
In 1981 at Covent Garden he sang Verdi’s “Luisa Miller” and superb “Lucia di Lammermoor” opposite Joan Sutherland. But in 2000, when he sang Verdi’s “Othello” for the first time at the age of 75 it was a disaster and he left the stage after the second act. It became his farewell performance.
Carlo Bergonzi, died in 2014 at the age of 90,
When Walter Legge, the head of EMI/Angel Records, auditioned Gedda sing for a recording of Boris Godunov, he wrote: “Gedda had, I believe, sung only once in public. He sang the Carmen Flower Song so tenderly yet passionately that I was moved almost to tears. He delivered the difficult rising scale ending with a clear and brilliant B flat. Almost apologetically I asked him to try to sing it as written — pianissimo, rallentando and diminuendo. Without turning a hair he achieved the near-miracle, incredibly beautifully and without effort. I sent word to my wife (Elizabethh Schwartzkopf) that a great singer had fallen into my lap.” Legge signed Gedda to a contract with Angel Records.
Luciano Pavarotti said of him, “There is no tenor alive with a greater ease in the upper register than Gedda.”
Harry Gustaf Nikolaj Gädda was born in Stockholm, Sweden in 1925. His family was bilingual, his mother Olga was Swedish and his father Mihail was Russian, and they lived first in Sweden before moving to Liepzig, Germany where Nicolai learned to speak that language also. His father sang bass in the Don Cossak Choir and was a cantor and choir director in a Russian Orthodox church. His father gave him his first singing lessons and taught him the basics of music. When Hitler came to power, the family left Germany and returned to Sweden.
He was a shy child, especially unsure of himself with girls, but good at athletics. At school he enjoyed singing, history and languages and would eventually become fluent in nine languages including English, French, and Latin. The family was very poor and after leaving school Nicolai worked as a bank teller in Stockholm and gave almost all his earnings to his parents.
But he wanted to become a singer and he was exceptionally lucky when a bank client recommended Martin Oehmann to him. Oehmann had been a well known singer and it was he who discovered Jussi Bjorling and recommended him to the Royal Swedish Academy of Music. Gedda had no money (he was supporting his parents) but Oehmann was impressed with him and took Gedda as a pupil without fee.
Oehmann taught him how to cover passagio notes, support the voice, and correct posture. Gedda learned rapidly but about this time, his emotional life was badly upset when he discovered that the woman he thought of as his aunt was really his mother. Olga and Nicolai had taken him in as a baby but, being quite poor, they were not allowed to legally adopt him. They hadn’t told him because they had lived in fear for years that he would be taken away from them.
His vocal idols were Gigli, Björling, Richard Tauber and Helge Roswaenge. He was admitted to the Swedish Royal Academy of Music and the Opera School in Stockholm. While he was still a student, the Swedish Royal Opera needed a tenor for a new production of Adam’s “Le Postillon de Longjumeau.” The opera includes the tenor aria “Mes amis, écoutez l’histoire”, one of the most difficult in all of opera, calling for a high D, and they had no tenor capable of singing the role. Gedda auditioned and made his operatic debut in 1952 at the age of 27.
Only one month later, Walter Legge auditioned Gedda and signed him to a contract with EMI/Angel Records and he made his La Scala debut after auditioning for Herbert Von Karajan. The Paris Opera and London’s Covent Garden followed in 1954 and he was on his way.
Von Karajan was of great help to Gedda’s career but it was a difficult relationship. Gedda eventually decided never to work with his mentor again. “What I learned from him,” he said, “was musical flow and style, but … he was cold, impersonal, power hungry and unpleasant … He was extraordinarily egocentric. He always saw himself as the great star, beside whom there were no others … Karajan never saw the singers as living individuals but only as cogs in the machinery of his own music-making. He never passed an opportunity to humiliate a singer or a member of the orchestra.” .
In 1957, Gedda made his Metropolitan Opera début as Gounod’s Faust, and went on to sing 28 roles there over the next 26 years.
He sang in the world premieres of Barber’s “Vanessa” and Menotti’s “The Last Savage.” During the 1960’s he began a series of Lieder recitals singing the works of Poulenc and Tchaikovsky and the Scandinavian and German Lieder.
He continued appearing on opera and recital stages throughout the world and making innumerable recordings. At the age of 76, he recorded the role of the Emperor Altoum in Puccini’s Turandot and in June 2003, 51 years after his operatic debut, Nicolai Gedda made his last recording as the High Priest in Mozart’s “Idomeneo.”
Gedda was married three times, the first two marriages were financially and emotionally disastrous (in his autobiography his second wife receives only two paragraphs and is never mentioned by name), but the third time seems to have been the charm and his marriage to journalist Aino Sellermark remains intact. In fact, his autobiography is the result of interviews by her before their marriage.
The youngest of the three tenors in this group, he sang for 53 years until his death at the age of 71. He was an aristocrat in everything he said or did, courteous in manner and style but reserved and somewhat aloof. Musical integrity was always his first consideration. His tone was warm and his style was refined. His voice could reach a D above High C when needed to but he wasn’t interested in vocal display for its own sake. He used his voice to express the emotions of the characters he portrayed. He was offended by the “Concert of the Century” and was widely criticized for saying that Pavarotti, Carreras and Domingo were not popularizing opera so much as vulgarizing it.
He refused to work with conductors who he felt tried to sublimate performers’ personalities, and he had little patience with productions that “modernized” operas by ignoring the composer’s instructions. He also made a point of appearing in small Spanish and Italian opera houses normally outside the limelight and he preferred to make his own career decisions. In fact, he
didn’t have a personal manager during his most active years. He owned and personally supervised a small Spanish record label, Carillon Records which was the first Spanish company to release a complete opera set.
Alfredo Kraus Trujillo was born in 1927 in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria in the Canary Islands of Spain. His father was Viennese and his mother Spanish. He began his musical career with piano lessons at the age of four, and he sang in the school choir when he was eight. His father had become a naturalized Spanish citizen and wanted Alfredo to study the sciences, so he went to college and earned a degree in electrical engineering. But he wanted to sing and in his mid-20’s he began studying music and voice, first in Valencia and Barcelona, and then later in Milan, Italy. His older brother, Francisco, was a baritone and studied music and opera alongside him. From the beginning, he focused on the bel canto repertoire which he knew were right for his voice.
At 28, he won first prize at the Geneva Competition, and he made his professional opera debut at the Cairo Opera in 1956 as the Duke in “Rigoletto” and in his only performance of “Tosca.” In 1958 he sang Alfredo in “La Traviata” to the Violetta of Maria Callas in what would become known as the legendary “Lisbon Traviata.” Covent Garden and La Scala quickly followed as did the Chicago Lyric Opera and, finally, his Metropolitan Opera debut in 1962.
Kraus continually refused to sing roles which he felt were not suited to his voice. He said: ”It’s a matter of knowing what kind of voice you have from the very beginning and learning to use that voice onstage, with the right technique.”
He sang his first “Werther” in 1966 and it became his signature role. Aside from the beauty and elegance of Kraus’ singing, his portrayal of Werther as mentally unstable, masochistic, and manipulative has been called “One of the most effective and insightful readings ever.”
Kraus was always careful not to overextend himself and he retained his youthful tone and delivery almost to the end. He began to limit his performances in the 1980’s and concentrated on teaching. He gave Master Classes in Italy, at Covent Garden in London, and at Juilliard in New York.
When his wife, Rosablanca, died in 1997, he stopped performing for almost a year. Then he said, “I don’t have the will for singing but I must do it, because, in a sense, it is a sign that I have overcome the tragedy. Singing is a form of admitting that I’m alive.”
Alfredo Kraus died in 1999 in Madrid, at the age of 71, after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. He was later was reburied in his native Canary Islands and is survived by his four children.