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- My Life and Art
By Nicolai Gedda as told to Aino Sellermark Gedda
(Translated from the Swedish by Tom Geddes)
Amadeus Press 1999. 244 pages. Hardback. ISBN 1-57467-048-4 $24:95
 Amazon UK  £17.99   Amazon USA $19.96

It is suggested that this review is read in conjunction with my review of the new EMI 3 CD set of operatic arias by Nicolai Gedda released this month.

When Nicolai Gedda first appeared in Germany, Die Welt called him "the best lyric tenor singing today" and compared him with Caruso. A New York-based critic referred to him as "the poet among lyric tenors. And Pavarotti has said of him, "there is no tenor alive with a greater ease in the upper register than Gedda." As a glimpse at the large and impressive discography at the end of this book proves, Nicolai Gedda was the most recorded tenor of the 20th century -- he was probably also the most versatile.

Ghost written by his present and third wife Aino Sellermark Gedda (Gedda's first two marriages had been disastrous both emotionally and financially), the book traces the tenor's life from his strict upbringing (the shock of discovering that he had been adopted, deeply scarred him) through to his present peaceful retirement in Switzerland. Gedda's parents were Swedish/Russian and Nicolai's first teacher was his father. His early childhood was disrupted by his parents' move to Germany (Leipzig), where it was felt there would be more opportunity, only to find that they had to flee, back to Stockholm, from the encroaching tide of Nazism. Nicolai seems to have been a shy child lacking in confidence especially in his relationships with girls. On the other hand he enjoyed handball and running. At school he 'had trouble with mathematics', but shone in singing, history and languages. [In fact Gedda became fluent in nine languages and when he created the role of Anataol in Samuel Barber's Vanesa at the Met, several New York critics claimed that Gedda's English diction was much clearer than that of his American colleagues.]

Nicolai Gedda's early idols were Gigli, Jussi Björling, Richard Tauber and Helge Roswaenge. Gedda studied at Royal Academy of Music and the Opera School in Stockholm (he sang with Elisabeth Söderström and Kerstin Meyer at this time). His talent was soon recognised and he was chosen, while still a student, to sing the title role of Adam's Le Postillon de Longjumeau, at the Swedish Royal Opera House, when no other singer could be found that could cope with its demands. A month after this debut, Walter Legge, head of what at that time was known as EMI -Columbia was in Stockholm and after auditioning Gedda, put him under contract saying, "In a few years time the whole music world will be talking about you."

Some of the most interesting chapters in the book are those dealing with Gedda's impressions of his fellow artists. He did not get on at all well with Herbert Von Karajan. Because of his shyness, acting did not come naturally to Gedda and he had to work hard at the craft, on one occasion early in his career, he remembers, "Karajan made sure to point out my weaknesses in full public view. When he saw my miserable acting on the stage he was there quick as a flash with his bullying tactics. He did it in as hurtful a way as possible" Later, still talking about Karajan, Gedda remarks, "…our personal chemistry was utterly incompatible. If I did not go along with everything he suggested he became intensely angry. Karajan was never an easy person to deal with. He was extraordinarily egocentric. He always saw himself as the great star, beside whom there were no others. With Karajan you were there because you contributed to making his concerts and operas better. Karajan never saw the singers as living individuals but only as cogs in the machinery of his own music-making. He never passed an opportunity to humiliate a singer or a member of the orchestra. Later in life I came to the conclusion that Karajan was not a good conductor. What I learned from him was musical flow and style, but it was so tiresome to live with the stringency that he demanded at all times…He was cold, impersonal, power hungry and unpleasant."

Gedda also thought Boris Christoff was "a difficult and pretentious man" while Victoria de los Angeles was "a gentle, quiet, angel, happy and kind-hearted." Dimitri Mitropoulos "gave the impression of being a deeply religious man and lived like a monk." Of Tito Schipa, Gedda reflects, "Schipa was an Italian tenor, a contemporary of Gigli, and although Gigli had a much more beautiful voice, the way Schipa handled his voice was astonishing. He also sang with exquisite taste and style, and later in life I came to think even more highly of Schipa than Gigli." Mirella Freni he recalls as "a young and absolutely delightful performer and Gedda remembers that "…when I saw Maria Callas [singing in La Traviata at the Met] I was so deeply affected by the intensity of her performance that I sobbed."

Gedda's experiences singing at New York's Metropolitan Opera are covered in some depth and we gain an insight into the demands and opportunities of many of Gedda's operatic roles. Experiences of a singer on the road - taxing travel schedules and boring hotel rooms of the 1950s with no radio or TV are graphically covered. There is also valuable advice on disciplining one's life as a singer, and the training and maintaining of the voice, as well as a full account of the development of Gedda's own style. Gedda warns about unscrupulous and inefficient and incompetent agents. He also talks about his accompanists praising Gerald Moore particularly; and applauding Geoffrey Parsons Moore's successor. Parsons, himself, described Gedda's voice as "very, very exciting and totally musical…apart from the sheen so characteristic of his sound, there is the subtle refinement of his legato line and his phrasing, plus a range of colours so wide that it seems as if he were using a whole collection of different instruments".

The later chapters are marred by repetition and a tendency to be a tad self-righteous nevertheless this is a good read and a valuable record of the life and experiences of a fondly regarded singer who has made an indelible impact on the world of opera in the 20th century. The book, in addition to the discography, contains Gedda's complete opera, oratorio and operetta repertoire with dates and locations of performances and the names of the conductors (a veritable roll-call!) There are 42 photographs of Gedda, his family and in performance.

Ian Lace

Reviews from previous months

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