Hailed as one of the most out­stand­ing lyric tenors of the 20th cen­tury

The Washington Post Sunday - - OBITUARIES - NI­CO­LAI GEDDA, 91 BY MATT SCHUDEL matt.schudel@wash­post.com

Ni­co­lai Gedda, a Swedish-born singer who was one of the most renowned lyric tenors of the 20th cen­tury, per­form­ing dozens of roles on the world’s lead­ing opera stages, died Jan. 8 in Tolochenaz, Switzer­land, where he lived. He was 91.

His death, which was not an­nounced un­til the past week, was con­firmed to Opera News by Swiss of­fi­cials and the singer’s daugh­ter. The cause was a heart at­tack.

From the 1950s to the 1980s, Mr. Gedda was a reg­u­lar pres­ence at La Scala in Mi­lan, Covent Gar­den in Lon­don and New York’s Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera. He sang in a va­ri­ety of lan­guages and was widely her­alded for his ver­sa­til­ity, mu­si­cal re­fine­ment and vo­cal clar­ity.

Dur­ing a ca­reer of nearly 50 years, Mr. Gedda made more than 200 record­ings, sang 367 times at the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera and gave hun­dreds of recitals be­fore re­tir­ing in his 70s. In 2008, BBC Mu­sic mag­a­zine ranked him the ninth-great­est tenor in his­tory.

“Ni­co­lai Gedda is one of the ab­so­lute mas­ters of singing of our time,” Wash­ing­ton Post mu­sic critic Paul Hume wrote in 1971. “He is in many ways a phe­nom­e­non.”

Early in his life, Mr. Gedda took lessons from a strict Rus­sian singer he thought was his fa­ther and sang in Rus­sian Ortho­dox Church ser­vices. (Years later, Mr. Gedda learned that there were many fam­ily se­crets sur­round­ing his parent­age.)

He spent part of his child­hood in Ger­many, then moved back to his na­tive Swe­den, where he stud­ied singing while work­ing as a bank teller. Mr. Gedda orig­i­nally as­pired to be a “helden­tenor,” or a heroic tenor in the full-throated Wag­ne­r­ian tra­di­tion, but he didn’t have the voice for it.

“God gave me a very high, rather small­ish tenor voice which, with study, I de­vel­oped,” Mr. Gedda told the Week­end Aus­tralian news­pa­per in 1996. “I con­structed the voice so it gained in vol­ume and so on and I was able to pre­serve that with tech­nique.”

He turned more to­ward the mu­sic of Wolf­gang Amadeus Mozart, the French and Ital­ian op­er­atic canon and var­i­ous Rus­sian com­posers. He sang in at least eight lan­guages and flu­ently spoke six: Swedish, Rus­sian, Ger­man, Eng­lish, French and Ital­ian.

Mr. Gedda was singing in an opera pro­duc­tion in Stock­holm in the early 1950s when he was heard by Wal­ter Legge, a British record­ing ex­ec­u­tive with EMI Records who was mar­ried to the so­prano Elisabeth Sch­warzkopf. Legge signed Mr. Gedda to a record­ing con­tract and re­port­edly sent a cable to con­duc­tor Her­bert von Kara­jan: “Just heard the great­est Mozart singer in my life: his name is Ni­co­lai Gedda.”

In 1953, Mr. Gedda made his de­but at La Scala, un­der von Kara­jan’s ba­ton, as Don Ot­tavio in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.” The next year, he ap­peared at the Paris Opera and a year later was at Covent Gar­den, singing the role of the Duke of Man­tua in Giuseppe Verdi’s “Rigo­letto.”

He first per­formed in the United States in 1957, ap­pear­ing in Pittsburgh, Chicago and San Fran­cisco be­fore his Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera de­but on Nov. 1, 1957, in the lead role in Charles Gounod’s “Faust.”

Mr. Gedda was a pow­er­ful pres­ence on stage, at 6-foot-2, but some crit­ics noted a cer­tain awk­ward­ness in his act­ing and a cool­ness in his tone. His per­for­mances tended more to­ward pu­rity and didn’t al­ways project the dra­matic in­ten­sity of other tenors, such as Franco Corelli or Lu­ciano Pavarotti. But no one could fault Mr. Gedda’s mu­si­cian­ship, schol­ar­ship or dic­tion. When he ap­peared in the 1958 world pre­miere of Sa­muel Bar­ber’s opera “Vanessa,” New York Times critic Howard Taub­man wrote, “Though he is a Swede, the only non-Amer­i­can in the cast, his Eng­lish is the most com­pre­hen­si­ble.”

Mr. Gedda’s up­per reg­is­ter was so smooth and cul­ti­vated that he could sing roles that called for a high D, one oc­tave above mid­dle C. Af­ter a 1963 per­for­mance at the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera of “I Pu­ri­tani” by Vin­cenzo Bellini, in which Mr. Gedda ef­fort­lessly hit a high D, “The au­di­ence re­coiled in amaze­ment and then came back with a roar­ing ova­tion,” critic Harold C. Schon­berg wrote in the Times. “No trib­ute was more de­served. . . . As a man­i­fes­ta­tion of vo­cal vir­tu­os­ity it was elec­tri­fy­ing.”

Mr. Gedda was born July 11, 1925, in Stock­holm. He grew up as Harry Gustaf Niko­lai Usti­nov, be­liev­ing that his fa­ther was Rus­sian and his mother was half-Rus­sian, half-Swedish.

When he was an adult, he learned that he was born of a li­ai­son be­tween a Swedish teenage girl and a half-Rus­sian man named Niko­lai Gädda. The woman he thought was his mother was his aunt, the sis­ter of his nat­u­ral fa­ther. She mar­ried a Rus­sian who sang Cos­sack folk mu­sic and di­rected Rus­sian Ortho­dox cho­ral groups.

The fam­ily lived in Ger­many from 1928 to 1934. By age 5, young Ni­co­lai (as he later spelled his name), could read mu­sic, play pi­ano and speak three lan­guages.

Af­ter re­turn­ing to Stock­holm, Mr. Gedda com­pleted high school, worked at a bank and stud­ied singing at a Swedish con­ser­va­tory and with Carl Martin Oehman, who also trained the Swedish tenor Jussi Björ­ling.

He adopted the name “Gedda” from the maiden name of his aunt, the woman he be­lieved was his mother.

“A poor and wretched girl gave me life, an­other poor and equally for­saken woman en­sured my sur­vival,” Mr. Gedda wrote in his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, “Ni­co­lai Gedda: My Life and Art.” “By dint of in­cred­i­ble ef­forts I was given a happy child­hood and a proper school­ing.”

He met his birth mother one time, dis­cov­er­ing that she kept a framed pic­ture of him on the wall. He never met his nat­u­ral fa­ther.

“One sum­mer evening in 1977 I got into a taxi that I had or­dered in my name, and the driver looked at me and said, ‘Funny, my last cus­tomer was called Ni­co­lai Gedda too, but he was an old man,” Mr. Gedda wrote in his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy. “‘He was hav­ing heart trou­ble, and I drove him to emer­gency room.’ The name and the ad­dress left me no doubt that it was my nat­u­ral fa­ther. I heard from my mother Olga some time later he had died.”

Mr. Gedda’s first two mar­riages, to Na­dia Sa­pounoff Nova and Anastasia Car­avi­o­tis, ended in di­vorce. Sur­vivors in­clude his long­time com­pan­ion, Swedish jour­nal­ist Aino Seller­mark, whom he mar­ried in 1997; and two chil­dren from his ear­lier mar­riages.

Mr. Gedda was of­ten sought out by younger singers who wanted to learn about his mas­tery of vo­cal tech­nique. No amount of prac­tice, he said, could over­come the but­ter­flies he felt be­fore go­ing on­stage.

“Ev­ery night I am singing to a dif­fer­ent pub­lic,” he said in 1969, “and ev­ery night, though I may not show it, I’m as ner­vous as if I was singing what­ever part it may be for the first time.”


Ni­co­lai Gedda, a Swedish-born opera singer, and his first wife, Na­dia Sa­pounoff Nova.

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