Remembering Nicolai Gedda


Tenor Nicolai Gedda

The passing of tenor Nicolai Gedda will elicit testimonials and remembrances of the artist, of the person, of performances & great moments.

I’m just sharing this because I think it’s important to do so, arguably all that we have.  Drama and music are written down on paper, and so we may sometimes lean very heavily on books as authorities, so much so that we badly distort our understanding of the disciplines. It can get a little insane, when some people think the most perfect version is in their head, sitting on a chair reading rather than in a performing venue. Music has been thrown off track by the apparent authority of recordings, which may seem to be live, but distort the reality: in the absence of wrong notes, in the absence of audience coughing, in the artificial stillness. I recall this distortion in a recent film I saw, the curiously ideal film about JS and Anna Magdalena Bach, featuring performances of such perfection as to seem to be inside my head.


Still available from amazon: because it’s still a valuable resource

Pardon me if this is turning into a diatribe or manifesto. But I remember hearing something that I took to heart back when I was doing my MA in drama at U of T, something counter-intuitive. Professor Lise-Lone Marker relied very heavily on one book, namely A.M. Nagler’s A Source Book in Theatrical History. I took this course a long time ago, but the book’s still available, still a landmark of sorts. The heart of this book is a series of testimonials, reporting things people saw. We can write all the books of theory that we want, but the subjective response to a live performance is very valuable, sometimes the only authority we have. And so I will report a bit of what I heard.

Nicolai Gedda might be the greatest tenor ever, and alas he died recently. His death was reported this week, although it happened roughly a month ago, January 8th 2017. Coincidentally, Leontyne Price, possessed of one of the great soprano voices of all time, just had her 90th birthday. I was fortunate to hear both live (although my recollections of Price –at a solo concert—are a jumble, with spirituals as encores at the end… I was sitting close, staring up in awe)

And I’m highly skeptical about what I really heard with Gedda, as it was long ago. Memory sometimes plays tricks on us.  It was 1970, and my older brother did something very generous, taking me along on a trip to NY to hear the Metropolitan Opera, when I was 14 and he was perhaps 20. We went to operas Tuesday (Die Walküre including Rita Hunter in her Met debut as Brunnhilde, Jess Thomas, and Hans Sotin), Wednesday (Faust with Enrico di Giuseppe, Adriana Maliponte and Cesare Siepi as Mephisopheles, plus Edward Villela and the ABT in extensive ballet in the Walpurgisnacht scene), Thursday (Otello, the prize of the trip: Vickers, Quilico, Zylis-Gara and a young James Levine, including handshakes backstage with Vickers & Levine.) and Friday (Siegfried with an amazing sounding Helge Brilioth, Ursula Shrãder and Thomas Stewart).

My brother was studying with Quilico at the time, so we had lunch with them on one of the days. And there was another bonus, namely the chance to go see the dress rehearsal, yes that famous one, where Nicolai Gedda tried to sing Hermann in Pique Dame (Queen of Spades). Tried? I can still hear that voice in my inner ear, ringing with the words “tre carti, tre carti!!” (that’s how I remember it… as it was in Russian and a long time ago, perhaps I’m not recalling it right). The theatre was pretty empty, so the acoustic wasn’t the way it would be for a regular performance. But wow, the voice rang effortlessly over the orchestra, the sound was powerful, a beautiful stunning sound. But for some reason he chose not to sing the role –and this I only know from reading about it years later. At the time? I assumed he’d sing it opening night, that he’d be brilliant, because he sounded wonderful.

Although in fact I understand why he might have been hesitant. This voice, like the one of my other great favourite, Jussi Björling, is poised on the precipice between lighter repertoire and more dramatic rep. As young singers you heard a greater freedom at the top, a sound more purely in the upper register and not as dark as it would become once the lower register blended in. When you hear their later recordings, they’re both getting darker in their sound, which is intoxicatingly beautiful, precisely because that darker macho sound usually goes with the loss of some of the effortless freedom at the top.

This is a man whose voice could do so much:

  • range, meaning the ability to hit high notes
  • longevity,  in the sense that his career was so long: suggesting that his vocal production was natural and healthy. My touchstone in this category is Robert Merrill, who was still singing the national anthem at Yankee games in his 80s, the voice stll beautiful.
  • beauty of tone, arguably a subjective quality
  • sensitivity to text: and few were as agile in multiple languages as Gedda

I suggest you go to youtube to enjoy what you can while you can. And if you like what you find there buy the recordings.

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