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:
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:
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":
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.