Sunday, January 22, 2012
Heldentenor Lauritz Melchior
Lauritz Melchior (1890-1973) was born in Denmark, where he studied voice at the Copenhagen Royal Opera School. His professional singing career began as a baritone in 1913, but by 1918 he had become a Heldentenor (heroic tenor) – a penetrating, powerful type of tenor voice ideally suited to the operas of Richard Wagner, which require stamina and the ability to soar above a large orchestra for hours and hours (and hours). His “second” debut was in 1918 in the title tenor role of Tannhäuser, also at the Royal Opera in Copenhagen. However, Melchior’s career was cemented by his hundreds of Wagner performances at the Metropolitan Opera (NYC) between 1926 and 1950.
On a trip to England in 1920 he met wealthy author Hugh Walpole, who became his patron. Walpole, whose pet name for Lauritz was “David,” was a popular novelist and enthusiastic Wagnerite. He provided Melchior with financial aid, enabling him to audition successfully in 1923 for Siegfried Wagner (Richard Wagner’s son and Franz Liszt’s grandson) and his mother Cosima, Richard Wagner’s widow. They were planning the reopening of the Wagner Festival in Bayreuth, which had been silenced for ten years by World War I. Cosima herself coached Melchior in staging and acting, providing Lauritz with a direct link to the composer’s intentions. He made his Bayreuth début in 1924 as Parsifal and continued to take leading roles at Bayreuth. The legendary 1930 Tristan und Isolde performances at Bayreuth under Arturo Toscanini led to Toscanini’s high praise, dubbing him “Tristanissimo.”
Melchior and Walpole became involved in a six year relationship that lasted until Walpole met Harold Cheevers, a married former policeman, in 1926 (Cheevers and Walpole remained partners until Walpole’s death in 1941). Walpole’s diary entries spell out jealousy over those who vied for Melchior’s attentions. When the relationship with Walpole waned, Melchior took up with a merchant seaman, Emil Opffer, a man he shared with his friend, the American poet Hart Crane. Melchoir married twice, but his homosexual liaisons were well documented.
Although Melchior began singing Wagnerian roles at the Metropolitan opera in 1926, his breakthrough came when he performed there in Tristan und Isolde in 1929. Over a 24-year period Melchior sang 519 performances of Wagnerian roles at the Met, and most critics still regard him as the quintessence of the Heldentenor voice. At six-feet four-inches and 225 pounds (on a lean day), he earned the sobriquet, “Mammoth Melchior, the Great Dane of the Met.”
Melchior performed frequently at other venues, including Covent Garden (London), the Teatro Colón (Buenos Aires), and with the Chicago and San Francisco opera companies. His voice was enduring, showing little evidence of deterioration when he sang the first act of Die Walküre on Danish radio on the occasion of his 70th birthday. One critic, Washington DC based Paul Hume, wrote of Melchior, “not the world’s greatest Wagner tenor – the only one!”
While on a world tour in the late 1940s, Melchior visited his native Denmark as a guest of King Frederic, who was an amateur conductor with his own personal concert hall in his palace.
Shortly before World War II, he immigrated to the United States with his German-born wife, settling in California, where he appeared in five movie musicals between 1944 and 1952, mostly in somewhat cheesy roles. He was a frequent performer on radio and television, even singing the national anthem at the opening of ball games. In 1947 his hand and footprints were immortalized in cement in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood.
Although not well remembered by young audiences today, he was the most famous Wagnerian tenor of his era. Historic recordings testify to his greatness as a Heldentenor.
Melchior died in Santa Monica, California, in 1973. Although he had been an American citizen since 1947, his body was returned to Copenhagen to be buried in the city of his birth.
Those who are fans of Wagner’s operas need no introduction to Melchior’s voice, but this film clip is from the film Luxury Liner (1948), in which he sings “Come Back to Sorrento” to Jane Powell. Xavier Cugat (!) is conducting.
Dispute of operatic proportions:
Melchior’s son, Ib Jørgen Melchior (b. 1917), a decorated WW II hero, author and film producer, screenwriter and director, wrote Lauritz Melchior: The Golden Years of Bayreuth, a biography of his father. Ib Melchior, living today in Los Angeles at age 94, has also worked tirelessly to broker the return of his father’s hunting estate in Chossewitz, Germany (five miles from the border with Poland), which was confiscated in 1943 by East Germany and as yet never returned.
Lauritz, who willed Seeschloss Chossewitz solely to his son Ib, had spent idyllic summers there beginning in 1932. The family had rented the property from 1932, eventually purchasing the house and 300 acres in 1938. The lakefront estate was recently offered for sale for €800,000, with no mention of its previous owner. The East German government had used the estate as a convalescent home (Erholungsheim) for national railroad workers, and it later served as an inn run by Norbert Krause, who leased the dilapidated property from the German government. He displayed Lauritz Melchior memorabilia and hung photos and paintings of the tenor in theatrical costumes, promoting the inn as a place where guests could spend a night in the great performer’s old bedroom. The manor house was subsequently renovated in 2007 (shown below), prior to being offered for sale. Unfortunately, I have been unable to learn of its recent fate. I can’t get the notion out of my mind that it would make a wonderful museum to Melchior, if the right organization/people would step forward. No law against wishful thinking.