Search This Blog

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Lauritz Melchior: Defining Heldentenor

It is by now a commonplace to refer to Lauritz Melchior as opera's greatest heldentenor. The term simply means "heroic tenor," but one thing that is never talked about is what exactly is meant by "heroic." Does it refer to the roles themselves, to Wagnerian characterizations in general, to some particularly Nordic voice or style, or all of the above? After all, if it is the role that is referred to, usually Tristan, Sigmund, Siegfried, Lohengrin or Florestan, yes, they are all heroic characters, in one way or another, but then so is Andrea Chenier, along with countless other operatic main characters. As to nationality, James King and Jess Thomas certainly managed very well, as Americans, and Alfred Piccaver or Walter Widdop, great British tenors, acquitted themselves beautifully, as does the Spaniard Plácido Domingo even today. In fact, Piccaver's Florestan was considered classic, as is Domingo's Sigmund. Even Gigli recorded "Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond" from Die Walküre (although to be honest, it was dreadful.) When looked at from all possible angles, "heldentenor," at least as the term is used today, comes down to some particular quality of the voice, and that quality in turn basically derives from the sound of Lauritz Melchior's voice. That is why he is always considered the quintessential heldentenor; because the very definition of the term squarely defines his voice, and vice versa.

Melchior was born in 1890. He begain to study, in Copenhagen, in 1908, when he was only 18. He trained as a baritone, and began singing the commercial repertoire of the time; Pagliacci, Traviata, Trovatore, and so on. It soon became apparent, especially to others, that he was probably a tenor. In 1917 he took time off and retrained as a tenor, and in 1918 made his debut as Tanhäuser. He climb was slow but sure, and by 1929 he was an international success. I remember hearing him once say that he learned a very crucial lesson from Jean de Reske, and that was to save the voice. He used the old axiom about considering the voice as capital in the bank--the smart person lives off the interest, not the principal. A shop-worn old saw, but illustrative and to the point. What Melchior did in fact was to sing as the bel canto singers did, strange as that may sound. People think of his voice as being giant, because the roles are heoic, and the orchestration is thick and can be very loud (often excessively so.) He could be heard through this thick orchestration, and he was a very big man. All those things taken together seem to fulfill the expectation of a huge voice. But it was not; it was a finely focused voice, and that made all the difference. His voice cut in the same way that the voices of tiny little creatures like Galli-Curci and Lily Pons did. Additionally, Melchior, like Caruso, very early on attached himself to any kind of emerging media that promised to spread his voice and name: recordings, movies, radio, and even—at the beginning of his career--a very early concert broadcast by Marconi, which resulted in his being heard by Wagner enthusiast Hugh Walpole, who was so impressed that he gave the young tenor financial support. So Melchior realized, in the most direct way, how important the media were. This is crucial, because his particular voice, finely focused and steely to an almost biting degree, recorded very well. It sounded enormous, even though the super size was an illusion. The intensity of the vocal focus was so great that Melchior's voice is immediately recognizable by any opera enthusiast who hears it. There are very few opera singers of whom this can be said.
One need only consider for a moment those other singers to whom he might be compared. The list, to judge from fansites, would likely include Jacques Urlus, Heinrich Knote, Siegfried Jerusalem, Max Lorenz, Set Svanholm, Jess Thomas, Franz Völker, Ludwig Suthaus, Ramon Vinay, Jon Vickers, Hans Hopf, Ludwig Suthaus, Wolfgang Windgassen, Walter Widdop, Rudolf Laubenthal, and perhaps a few others. Some of these names are well known, many are not. Listening to as many of these tenors as can be consulted on recordings, it is always apparent that Melchior's voice is unique. The first 2 minutes and 45 seconds of the following clip demonstrate very well the quintessential Melchior, singing Siegfried's stentorian "Notung! Notung!" which invariably sends chills up the spine of the listener. It is the essence of Icelandic Saga, heroic to the point of the archetypal, which it in fact is:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BKKKjiWBZ9w



Absolutely stunning! I feel safe in saying that no one has ever done it better, but I always caution that this is a recording. His voice cut like a knife on recordings. This is not to say that it did not also cut and soar in the theater. Not much is available in the way of actual performance clips, but there is at least this 45 second clip from Bayreuth, 1934. The opera is Götterdämerung:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xfv7POg6deE&feature=related



This is certainly very convincing, although it is worth noting that the soprano's voice comes close at certain moments to overwhelming his. (They are in different positions on the stage, however,and this may have to do with microphone placement.) His characteristically steely sound is in evidence in this fragment.

Melchior sang his last performance at the Met in 1950, when he would have been 60 years old. He was getting on in years, and Rudolph Bing was about to usher in a new Italian age at the Met which effectively squeezed out the Wagnerian wing. He also disliked Melchior, as many people did. Melchior could be annoyingly diffident, in the same way Lawrence Tibbett could, and was also somewhat prone to silly behavior and publicity stunts, including appearing in grade B movies (Two Sisters From Boston, etc.) and on early television. Like Russia's Ivan Kozlovsky, he was a bit of a clown, and that did not go down well with some of the more earnest Wagner enthusiasts. Most people of my age, who grew up in the early 50's, are likely to remember him doing a lighter repertoire, such as the old sentimental favorite "Because":

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FMoXf9DR52g


A magnificent sound and singing technique, even on this old warhorse!
Weaknesses and quirks to one side notwithstanding, one thing is certain. He was, and will always remain, in the eyes of almost all opera lovers, THE heldentenor.

23 comments:

Anonymous said...

Yes, he is the ultimate heldentenor; even “Because” sounds heroic. His timbre is absolutely beautiful and clear, without any unpleasant tone in it. You wrote very interesting things about the size of his voice. I heard scary stories about heldentenors – that even a huge voice was not enough to sing Wagner, and sometimes poor tenors died onstage. I got the impression that Wagner’s music required superhuman strength from singers ; they really have to be gods and goddesses:) So, your words about Melchior’s voice correct that impression.

I read that Kozlovsky fought against “symphonization” of the orchestral sound in opera in the 1930-40’s. He did it in his typical manner – he stopped singing when he thought that the orchestra was playing too loud. A conductor usually got scared and stopped the orchestra; then Kozlovsky showed off his voice in all its beauty. Other singers agreed with him, because the style of conducting gradually changed, demanding a bigger orchestral sound than what was called for in the period when Nezhdanova and Sobinov sang “Lohengrin.” Maybe the style of Wagnerian singing changed the same way. The question is silly, perhaps, but would it be possible for Melchior , if he was a modern singer, to become such a star in Wagnerian repertoire? Or they would make him sing Alfredo?:)

n.a.

Edmund said...

I love the vision of that huge man as Alfredo:) Yes, he would be fine today, basically for the same reason he was so successful in his time; the voice was extremely penetrating, and could be heard through even heavy orchestration and great volume. There are tenors who try to be heard by singing as loud as they can (Wolfgang Windgassen, Siegfried Jerusalem, Gary Lakes and Jess Thomas come to mind)and the result is a very "muscular" kind of singing that is not very musical or interesting to listen to, and it certainly isn't pretty. They also ruin their voices after while. Probably Ben Hepner, of the current crop of singers, comes closer than anyone else. He is superb, but even he doesn't have the squillo, or cutting power of Melchoir, who was unique. Kozlovsky really got away with murder, didn't he? It would be impossible to get away with a stunt like that during any historical period I know of in the West. Recently, in Milan, Roberto Alagna tried something similar, and walked off the stage when people in the audience booed his rendition of "Celeste Aida." The result was that he was banned from La Scala for life. In fact, of course, Kozlovsky was probably right. Some conductors think that opera is all about the orchestra, which of course it isn't. Very good and interesting comment, as usual. Edmund

corax said...

another amazing post. you really should be writing for OPERA NEWS ...
or doing a book on opera ... or some such.
or, hey, a blog! called GREAT OPERA SINGERS! that's exactly what you
should be doing.
anyway, thanks for doing it -- i continue to learn so much from you, every time.

Edmund said...

Very kind of you indeed, my friend! I don't think I would survive long in the area of commercial publishing. I'm too opinionated:) The blog format suits me just fine. If I took even a dime in advertising money, somebody would find out about it, and complain to the advertiser:) It's nice to be able to say whay you think, and besides, the enthusiasm of cognoscenti such as yourself and the faithful readers who comment is all the reward a fussy old man needs!

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Edmund. Reminded me of the opposite Barry Banks, TINY guy but his voice cut right through the orchestra (not my favourite tenor, but very effective):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HGgs7GOjjYw

Edmund said...

Thanks for video site: yes, indeed, Banks is a very good bel canto tenor. He has all the attributes--squillo, high lyric placement and immaculate pronunciation. The voice rings like a bell. It's always heartening to see that kind of tenor making a name for himself. There is hope yet! :)

Anonymous said...

"I love the vision of that huge man as Alfredo:)"
:)How tall is he? With good directing a big Alfredo can be OK. But if a director makes Alfredo manhandle Violetta, as they love to do now – it will be scary. I saw a big man, singing Werther (on Youtube); he chased Charlotte around the stage and looked like a sexual maniac. It was not his fault, as I understood.
“Kozlovsky really got away with murder, didn't he? It would be impossible to get away with a stunt like that during any historical period I know of in the West”.
Artists of the Bolshoi didn’t have villas or much money, but they could argue with conductors. Especially those artists, who sang for Stalin and Politburo. Kozlovsky was a champion, of course, but Lemeshev, Reizen, Pirogov could argue too, though in a different manner.

n.a.

Edmund said...

Well, if memory serves, he was about 6 feet, 3 inches tall (190.5 centimeters) and around 130 kilos. Big fellow:) Yes, he could have sung Alfredo, but the voice would not be a fit. That role is usually given to higher, lighter, sweeter voices....like Lemeshev. He made a perfect Alfredo. Yes, dreadful stage direction and acting seem to be in vogue these days, especially in Europe. Netrebko, например:)

And of course you make a good point about the realities of the Soviet system. I see what you are saying, and you are right. That would certainly help explain it.

J.D. Hobbes said...

I like the comment above that you should write reviews or letters for some opera or music publication. You know the business part of it too. So many of the critics have never "been there" from the ground up, so to speak. But I also understand your feelings. Some age and maturity bring independence and the freedom to pursue one's own interests.

Edmund said...

Thank you very much. I appreciate your comment. Yes, I have seen it from the inside out (ask me anything about dealing with the stagehands union:) and it is perspective-building, to say the least. But, as you also wisely observe, it is very pleasant, after a certain age, to kick back and deal with it all at one or more removes. Lot easier on the nerves, too:) Thanks again, I always appreciate your comments, which are invariably spot-on. Edmund

JD Hobbes said...

Good point about the stagehands' union. The people I know are too often enamoured of opera or "great" music but have no idea of the reality of composing, performing, financing, and staging those productions. They dress up, go out to eat, drink wine, and follow the score. That is fine, but does it represent much knowledge of what all is required in the back rooms? Some speak of the concepts of Aristotle and other "greats." They should also look at the keen wit of Shakespeare and Goethe when they talk about directors, actors, writers, and the public whom they must please. On a more contemporary scene, they should take a good look at Christopher Guest and some of the really funny movies he has made about the world of performance, whether it is a dog show or a local, small-town theater production. "Perspective," as you say.

Edmund said...

Indeed. The disconnect is great, as I suspect it is in almost all professions. Realities are always basic. In some ways, Mozart's lighthearted operetta Der Schauspieldirektor speaks to that very point--largely how expensive it was, even in the 18th century, to produce opera and how tiresome it was--and is-- to deal with the egos and the silliness of it all. I will say, however, that in the case of the classical arts, the discipline and dedication required can, when all else is in place, work toward the creation of something truly elevating; something that can inspire to the point of changing lives. I know my own would be much less were it not for the quality, beauty and sheer inspiration that is available in and through the world's greatest music and dance.

JD Hobbes said...

Yes, "Discipline, dedication, and work," as you mention. That is what makes the difference, and that is why there are so few who understand.

Anonymous said...

You mention Set Svanholm. Do you know if there are any performance clips of him anywhere? (Not just PowerPoint with audio but actual performance video.)

Edmund St. Austell said...

I am very sorry to say that I do not believe any exist; at least not any that have been made available. I too wondered that, at one point, and searched Youtube, to no avail. Neither can I find any commercially available film. I hope I am wrong about this, as he was a magnificent tenor, and it would be great to see him in action, as it were. There must be some someplace, but they are well hidden, I fear!

Anonymous said...

you may be interest in the unpublished biography of Lauritz Melchior now available on the internet at www.lauritzmelchior.com

Edmund St. Austell said...

I certainly would be! I'll check it out right away. Thanks so much for the comment and the tip!

Anonymous said...

Very nicely written article - thanks for sharing this with people. I have always been a huge fan of Melchior. I remember watching him as a child and being touched by the combination of gusto, elegance and poise he brought to everything he did. I felt as though he were singing directly to me, and considering I was watching on a small B&W TV that's quite an accomplishment. There are singers who thrill with their voices, but Melchior did so much more than this...he really seemed to have the gift of being able to caress the soul of his audience with his wonderful singing.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much for a lovely comment! I appreciate it, and I share your enthusiasm for Melchior. I also remember as a kid watching him on a black and white TV. I started buying LP's when I was 17, which is a long time ago. The first was a Caruso album, and shortly after that was a "Lighter Side of Lauritz Melchior" recording, which I still have, and all of which I have posted on my channel by now. Always been a fan. Yes, he was great, no doubt about it! Thanks again for the comment.

Mark Giugovaz said...

Great post! I've come to admire the blog. It's no wonder that with his effortless and clear emission he sang until his death. He knew exactly what the music demanded and he knew how to do it. That usage of the squillo and the tuning of the overtones reminds me of Tamagno. That is the way to sing heavy roles. Great blog and I hope to contribute more in future. I'll be making my way to the Gedda article soon - that really caught my eyes. Thanks, Mark

Anonymous said...

Very interesting blog; but I have to point out that the 1934 Bayreuth clip is not of Melchior but Max Lorenz singing with the marvellous Frida Leider in Gotterdaamerung.

Leslie Lim said...

You have done a great work. Thanks for making this blog. You helped me a lot on my research topic. Keep it up guys!

Kendra
www.imarksweb.org

Anonymous said...

I see much speculation here about Melchior singing Alfredo. It is true he appeared in "Traviata" but never as Alfredo. He sang Papa Germont in his early days as a lyric baritone. A Melchior Alfredo would have required at least a Flagstaff or Nilsson as Violetta to balance him. It's an amusing fantasy but I'll bet Nilsson could have pulled it off. After all, she used to play around with "The Queen of the Night" after finishing Brunhilde.