NICOLAI GEDDA - 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
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
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
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 "
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.